In this context, the record of the campaign of 2008 provides overwhelming evidence that McCain performed better, not worse, than his fellow Republicans and won far more votes than candidates who positioned themselves clearly to his right.
In voting results for the House of Representatives, Republican candidates (most of them unequivocally conservative) won 42.5% of the overall vote; McCain drew 45.7%. In 49 of the 435 House districts, McCain beat Obama while the Republican candidate lost to the Democrat. McCain regularly ran ahead of his GOP ticket, not behind it.
The same pattern applied in Senate races. Republicans lost Senate seats in six conservative states (Alaska, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia) that McCain carried. In only one state did the GOP Senate nominee prevail while McCain lost—and in Maine, the victorious Susan Collins boasted a voting record more liberal, not more conservative, than McCain’s.
The actual state-by-state results from 2008 show that in a strongly Democratic year, voters actually rewarded rather than punished McCain for his moderate image, since he drew consistently more votes than his more conservative Republican running mates. Averaging all five of the GOP presidential candidates of the last 20 years, McCain’s performance counted as slightly better than the norm. (45.7% compared to 44.6%).
There is, in other words, no evidence that disappointed conservatives deserted McCain and stayed home in disgust. Statistics show that more conservatives voted in 2008 than ever before, with an overall record turnout of 131,257,328 voters, and exactly the same high percentage of self-described conservatives (34%) measured by exit polls as during the Bush victory four years before.
There’s a final, definitive rebuttal to the image of John McCain as an isolated “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) with no appeal to populist voters: in his Senatorial reelection campaign of 2010, he crushed a formidable right-wing challenger nearly two-to-one in the primary and then cruised to an overwhelming victory (59.3%) that made him one of the most conspicuous winners on election night.
No one would suggest that Senator McCain (who turns 75 next August) should take encouragement from his successes to consider another race for the presidency, or that his erstwhile running mate, Sarah Palin, who electrifies much of the GOP base wherever she goes, should give up her prominent political role.
But Republicans who hope to build on recent successes for further triumphs in the future need to reject two utterly false and dangerously misleading conclusions: that “constitutional conservatives” with Tea Party support will win every time (or even most of the time), and that veteran office-holders with more moderate records will lose every important contest. As the nineteenth century humorist Josh Billings sagely observed: “It aint so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.”