The conventional wisdom is that Republicans start at a serious disadvantage in trying to hold the White House. A still-unpopular war and a softening economy certainly represent challenges. So far, most of the enthusiasm in the primaries has been on the Democratic side, with some 13 million voters casting Democratic ballots and fewer than 9 million picking a GOP one.
But despite these obstacles, John McCain will now begin to assemble his fall election team with surprisingly good poll results. The average of all the recent national polls summarized by Real Clear Politics show the Arizona senator leading Hillary Clinton by 47% to 45% and trailing Barack Obama by only 44% to 47%. Both results are within the statistical margin of error for national polls, so it's fair to say Mr. McCain starts out with an even chance of winning.
How could that be? The answer is that the same maverick streak and occasional departures from conservative orthodoxy that make conservatives queasy have the opposite effect on independents and even some Democrats. Mr. McCain's favorable numbers with independents exceed those of Barack Obama, who has emphasized his desire to work across party lines.
All of this plays out in the Electoral College map that is the key to victory in November. One candidate or the other must win at least 270 electoral votes. The assumption has been that Democrats have an advantage because they can supposedly win every state John Kerry took in 2004 plus Ohio, which has fallen on hard economic times and seen its state Republican Party discredited. That would give the Democratic nominee at least 272 electoral votes.
But Mr. McCain's rise to the GOP nomination throws that calculation out the window. He is the only potential GOP candidate who is clearly positioned to keep the basic red-blue template of how each state voted in 2004 intact and then be able to move into blue territory.
Let's assume that Ohio goes to either Mr. Obama or Ms. Clinton. It's at least as likely that Mr. McCain could carry New Hampshire. The Granite State went only narrowly to Mr. Kerry, a senator from a neighboring state, and Mr. McCain has unique advantages there. New Hampshire elections are determined by how that state's fiercely independent voters go, and Mr. McCain has won over many of them in both the 2000 and 2008 GOP primaries. He spent 47 days in New Hampshire before this year's primary and is well-known in the state. If Mr. McCain lost Ohio but carried New Hampshire and all the other states Mr. Bush took in 2004, he would win, 270-268.
It's true that Democrats will make a play for states other than Ohio that Mr. Bush won. Iowa is a perennially competitive state that could go either way this fall. Arkansas polls show that Hillary Clinton might well be able to carry the state where she served as First Lady for over a decade.
But Mr. McCain's roots in the Rocky Mountain West complicate Democratic efforts to take states in that region. His fierce individualism and support for property rights play well in Nevada and Colorado, which were close in 2004. New Mexico, next door to Mr. McCain's Arizona, gave Mr. Bush a very narrow 49.6% to 49% victory in 2004. But Mr. McCain's nuanced position on immigration marks him as the GOP candidate who is most likely to hold the Hispanic voters who are the key to carrying New Mexico.
Mr. McCain also puts several Midwest battleground states in play. Should he pick Minnesota's Gov. Tim Pawlenty as his vice presidential choice, he might have a leg up on carrying both Minnesota and Wisconsin, which went narrowly for Mr. Kerry in 2004.
"The media markets in western Wisconsin get Minneapolis television and are oriented to their news Pawlenty would be a plus there," says Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican. "McCain's independent stands would play well in that region which is exactly where GOP presidential candidates have done poorly enough so that they lost statewide by 12,000 votes or so in both 2004 and 2000."
Mr. McCain can be competitive in other blue states. Michigan went Democratic in 2004 by only 3.4% of the total vote, and Oregon by just over 4%. The latest Field Poll in California puts Mr. McCain and Hillary Clinton in a statistical tie. If Democrats have to spend valuable time and resources holding down California, it will make it more difficult for them to take states they lost in 2000 and 2004.
Mr. McCain could even make a foray into the Northeast, where his support from Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democratic Party's 2000 vice presidential candidate, could put Connecticut in contention. Ditto New Jersey, which Mr. Bush lost by only 53% to 46% in 2004.
Then there is Pennsylvania, which John Kerry carried by only 2.5% points in 2004. Michael Smerconish, the most popular talk-show host in Philadelphia, believes Mr. McCain has a real chance to carry the state. While Mr. Smerconish is a conservative who didn't support Mr. McCain, he thinks "the conservative blasting of McCain is good publicity around here." His independence and maverick status are exactly the qualities that could help him carry the tightly contested Philadelphia suburbs that voted to re-elect GOP senator Arlen Specter, a moderate, in 2004 but rejected conservative Rick Santorum in 2006.
In some ways Mr. McCain resembles Nicolas Sarkozy, the French conservative who won last year's presidential election even though the retiring president, Jacques Chirac, was unpopular and a member of his own party. "Like Sarko, who was of Chirac's party but not of Chirac, America's swing voters have intuited over the years that there is little love lost between McCain and George Bush," says the blog Race42008.
Mr. Sarkozy was able to convince a majority of French voters that he represented real change that would improve conditions, while his socialist rival, Segolene Royal, represented risky change that could make matters worse. That is precisely the challenge Mr. McCain faces this year against Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.
When you hear that the demise of the Republicans is a foregone conclusion, remember that when the campaign is joined this fall and voters will have to make real choices about the direction of the country, the result is likely to be close. Recall that pundits were ready to crown Michael Dukakis the winner of the 1988 election after he opened up a 17-point edge over George H.W. Bush. In 2000, they declared the race over around Labor Day after Al Gore opened up a clear lead over George W. Bush.
Given that polls show Mr. McCain is currently in a dead heat against either Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton, it would be wise for the pundits to show a little humility this year. The Democratic strategists I talk to believe the race will be hard-fought and close, regardless of the direction the economy or the war in Iraq takes.