A version of this column appeared in THE DAILY BEAST.
If Republicans hope to break their wretched streak of disappointing presidential campaigns – losing the popular vote in five of the last six White House contests – they should learn crucial lessons from the only candidate in that dismal span who proved notably more popular than his party’s national brand: John McCain.
Indignant conservatives may instantly object, citing the conventional wisdom that viewed McCain’s campaign as singularly hapless and inept, and noting the undeniable fact that the Arizona Senator’s opponent, Barack Obama, won a higher percentage of the popular vote – 52.9 percent- than any Democratic candidate since Lyndon Johnson.
Nevertheless, by one important measure McCain outperformed all of his party’s recent candidates and demonstrated personal appeal that far surpassed the GOP’s institutional standing with the electorate. In 2008, Republican candidates for the House of Representatives won a paltry 42.4 percent of the popular vote across the country, while on the same ballot John McCain drew 45.7 percent in his race for the White House: an advantage for the presidential nominee of 3.3 percent.
By comparison, in both races by George W. Bush the nominee led House candidates on his ticket by far less meaningful margins: just 0.6 percent in 2000, and 1.4 percent in 2004. Meanwhile, Bob Dole in 1996 and George H. W. Bush in 1992 did much worse than Republican House candidates in those years, both running more than 7 points behind their Congressional ticket-mates. Mitt Romney also did worse than Republican House nominees in 2012, with 47.3 percent as opposed to 48.1 percent.
These numbers matter because the overall vote for the House of Representatives gives the best indication of the national standing of a political party. Most voters know very little about Congressional candidates in their district; in fact, polls show that the great majority of Americans can’t even name the individual who represents them in the House. When people pull the lever for one candidate or another in these fiercely fought district elections it usually reflects attitudes toward the “R” or “D” after the names on the ballot more than any response to the personal qualities that play far more important roles in presidential, or even Senatorial or gubernatorial, campaigns.