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Hard Support vs. Soft Support

On Friday, Nate highlighted a significant element in the crosstabs of the Newsweek poll: the difference in hard support versus soft support for each candidate, and what that implies about the task at hand for each campaign in the general election. I want to follow on and amplify that point with more data from Pew from its large late-June survey of 2,004 voters.

The Newsweek poll showed that 61% to 39% of Obama’s support was hard vs. soft and that the mirror image was true for McCain. Applied to the whole electorate, the Newsweek poll showed:

27% hard support Obama
17% soft support Obama
15% totally undecided
25% soft support McCain
16% hard support McCain

Pew’s numbers are strikingly similar. From its June 2008 poll (June 18-29, 2,004 participants):

28% hard support Obama
20% soft support Obama
12% totally undecided
26% soft support McCain
14% hard support McCain

According to Pew’s findings, 58% of the electorate is undecided or soft support (potentially peel-able). To get to a 50%-50% tie with Obama, McCain would need to win 36/58ths of this group, or roughly 62%. I agree with Nate both that this is probably a Republican-shaded group on the whole, and also with his speculation that McCain’s and Obama’s respective ceilings are probably 60% and 50%. 60% for McCain in no small part because 35% of that middle group consists of decided (but soft) Obama supporters and certainly Obama will win some of the truly undecided even if McCain winds up taking the lion’s share. Obama’s ceiling at 50% seems reasonable because splitting that middle group 50-50 means Obama wins by 14 in the Pew poll.

With Pew showing McCain needing 62% of that group to get tied, poll findings like these (non-state specific as they are) indicate McCain either needs to introduce a game-changer that fundamentally undermines the Obama voter commitment level or he needs to almost perfectly maximize his messaging to grab nearly everyone gettable within this group.

Keep in mind, this is before the ground organization edge and additional voter registration boost is factored in.

The distressing news for McCain in these numbers is that Obama and McCain pull an identical 82% of their respective bases and that the poll shows independents evenly split. There isn’t an obvious untapped well of voters McCain’s camp simply needs to target with its message. Any argument of “McCain just needs to reach out to X” is balanced by a corresponding “Obama just needs to shore up support with X.” Nothing is glaringly unaligned in these numbers. There are just more Democratic voters in 2008.

Historically, Pew compares the 2008 hard/soft support data to its past summer polling in presidential years:

The two most noticeable elements in Pew’s recent historical data are (1) pre-convention support for Obama in 2008 essentially equal to post-convention support for Kerry in 2004; and (2) the hard Bush support in 2000 and especially 2004 looks like the Republican outlier, as McCain’s numbers appear to revert to match the hard support inspired by previous Republican nominees.

In 2004, the Democratic convention took place July 26-29; Pew conducted its 2004 poll in August and before the Republican convention August 30-Sept 2. With a convention still in front of him that Obama hopes will inure to his benefit in terms of party unity, there’s reason for optimism that Obama will edge past Kerry’s hard/overall support numbers after the convention has passed. There is also risk – as soon as Obama picks Not Hillary Clinton as his VP, that unity gets its stiffest test since the primaries ended.

As for the second point, George W. Bush’s hard/soft support numbers remind us that McCain’s support is not the outlier at this stage of the game (he just has a proportionally much smaller base). Bush seems to be the outlier. Republicans loved him exponentially more than they have loved their other recent nominees. Inspired Republicans felt thrilled to have found a nearly perfect ideological match. Republicans worshipped that guy. Mired as we are in the great conservative walkback revisionist mythology that insists George W. Bush was “not a true conservative” and certainly “not the apotheosis of conservative evolutionary ideological perfection,” it’s inconvenient to notice that Republican base values only four short years ago tracked closely with hard support for Bush. Just look at the numbers. These days, little old ladies are banished from McCain town halls for daring to associate the nominee with the president in his own party.

In terms of base enthusiasm, what separates George W. Bush from his father, from Dole, and from McCain is that only the younger Bush was a hero to evangelicals. Evangelical Christians remain the organizing engine of the Republican Party, and they typically don’t get the credit they deserve for winning the race for Bush in 2004 (usually pundits like to frame the outcome as “John Kerry lost,” despite unprecedented Democratic turnout). McCain’s current level of milquetoast support from that group is a major obstacle to him winning in an environment where Democrats are both more numerous and significantly harder in their support for Obama.

It’s awareness that these evangelicals are still the pumping heart of the Republican organizing infrastructure that motivates my belief McCain ought to seriously consider Mike Huckabee as his VP. (Nate has offered Republican VP speculation here.) Huckabee may have a few gaffes here and there, and he may be wildly out of the American mainstream for some of his views once those views reach sunlight, but I simply don’t think those views are going to capture enough voter attention nor be meaningfully damaging enough (as merely the VP) to outweigh the benefits Huckabee would bring the ticket. If McCain isn’t able to get any oxygen in the narrative (good or bad), how much scrutiny will his VP choice really get? Would a perceived base pander pick truly hurt McCain with the undecideds in a way that has any staying power?

Importantly, Huckabee has the virtue of coming across as empathetic. No matter how ungenerous his policies might actually be if and when implemented, he has a way of leaving the impression on viewers of a man who cares. He passes the likability test.

As for political skill, Huckabee seems to understand deference to the top of the ticket. He was far and away the most telegenic communicator among the Republican hopefuls during the primary (and certainly hands down the best on Nate’s list), and it’s certainly the simplest and most direct way for McCain to lock down the support and enthusiasm of that desperately-needed evangelical organizing engine. McCain’s age would probably inspire the evangelicals to view Huckabee’s heir apparent spot in line as an object in the mirror closer than it may appear. As base Republican enthusiasm for McCain would rise, the deliberate Obama effort to encroach on evangelical voter territory that has long been Republican by acclaim may find frustration.

Huckabee has plenty of drawbacks as the choice and it’s easy to pick him apart as a bad choice for the ticket. The problem is, it’s easy to do that with any Republican VP choice since nobody brings everything, and McCain has to pick someone.