Can John McCain Win in Spite of the Republican Brand?

by Stuart Rothenberg March 5, 2008 · 11:05 PM EST

It would take two or three columns to adequately list the GOP’s problems going into the 2008 general election, but if there is a fundamental one facing the Republican presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, it is the damage to the party’s brand.

It’s an understatement to observe that Americans have a low opinion of the Republican Party. A recent USA Today/Gallup survey found only 41 percent of adults saying they had a favorable view of the GOP, while 52 percent had an unfavorable view. In contrast, 56 percent of those polled said they had a favorable view of the Democratic Party.

Just as important, a late January/early February Washington Post/ABC News survey found Americans having more faith in the Democratic Party to deal with issues ranging from tax policy and the federal budget deficit to the war against terrorism and, not unexpectedly, health care.

Four years ago, when President Bush came from behind to win re-election, the GOP had a far more favorable image and was still regarded as better able to deal with a number of important issues, most notably the war on terror.

If the Republican Party were a brand of cereal, it would be discontinued by its maker.

But surprisingly, the Republicans actually have a chance to retain the White House in November.

The reason the Republicans have a fighting chance is simple: Even though the Republican Party’s brand is damaged, John McCain’s remains surprisingly good. Because of that, the most important question for strategists in both parties is this: Will McCain’s nomination and campaign re-brand the Republican Party, thereby improving the party’s reputation with voters, or will the damaged GOP brand rub off on McCain and damage his reputation?

An early February USA Today/Gallup poll of adults found McCain’s personal ratings (54 percent favorable/36 percent unfavorable) roughly the same as Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama’s (58 percent favorable/34 percent unfavorable) and far, far better than New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (48 percent favorable/49 percent unfavorable).

A late February CNN/Opinion Research survey of Texas primary voters also found that McCain has considerable appeal as the general election begins. Fully half of likely Democratic primary voters in the Lone Star State had a favorable opinion of McCain.

The Arizonan isn’t likely to get the votes of many Texas Democrats in November, of course, but the poll confirms that McCain has a relatively good reputation even among Democrats.

On the key issues of experience and leadership, McCain also has a clear advantage over Obama. And McCain actually leads Obama in two reputable national polls, the USA Today/Gallup survey (Feb. 21-24) and the Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll (Feb. 21-25).

It’s remarkable that, with all of the bad news for Bush and the GOP, the huge crowds that Obama is generating at events, the undeniable Democratic surge in turnout in this year’s primaries and the horrendous state of the Republican brand just nine months before Election Day, McCain is even competitive with Obama in recent polling, let alone ahead in a couple of surveys.

Indeed, last week I spoke with two smart, extremely levelheaded political consultants — one Republican and one Democrat — who told me separately that he/she (let’s not narrow the possibilities) believed McCain would defeat Obama for the White House in November.

At this point, that seems a bit of a stretch to me, but that’s not the point. Given the national mood and images of the parties, Obama should be leading McCain regularly in national polling by10 to 15 points.

But if Republicans have reason for some unexpected optimism about the presidential race, they should not get too excited. Obama still has an easier road to victory than McCain, in part because Democrats will have the opportunity to tie McCain to the damaged Republican brand, and because the media’s narrative that McCain is a hypocrite and behaves like other Members of Congress plays right into Democrats’ hands.

McCain’s task is a difficult one. He needs to define himself apart from his party at the same time that he is running in the most inherently partisan race that this country has. And he must do so while revving up GOP audiences and voters and at the same time appealing to independents and Democrats who have doubts about Obama’s readiness or his liberalism.

Finally, it seems easier for Democrats to link McCain to his party than for McCain to remake his party’s reputation, especially since George W. Bush won’t be completely invisible.

It certainly is possible that seven months from now political observers may look back and wonder why anyone in his right mind could have even imagined a McCain victory. But now, in early March, a McCain win is not out of the question, even with the GOP brand as weak as it is.