Sen. John McCain wrapped up Republicans’ presidential nomination long ago, but a substantial percentage of voters — about one-fourth — still showed up to vote against him in the three most-recent Republican presidential primaries.
Based on the contests in Pennsylvania, Indiana and North Carolina, Mr. McCain is doing better at winning supporters in his own party at this stage of the race than Bob Dole in 1996, but he trails the performance of then-Gov. George W. Bush in 2000 — the last two contested Republican presidential races.
In Tuesday’s North Carolina and Indiana primaries, Mr. McCain won 74 percent and 78 percent, respectively. That compares with Mr. Bush’s 79 percent in North Carolina in 2000 and 81 percent in Indiana. Pennsylvania was the exception, where he got 73 percent versus 72 percent for Mr. Bush.
With just a handful of small-state contests left, Mr. McCain has won less than 45 percent of the 19 million votes cast in the Republican primaries so far. In 2000, Mr. Bush won 62 percent of Republican votes.
Democrats, engaged in their own bitter primary, have taken heart from Mr. McCain’s performance. Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, told reporters on a conference call yesterday that “John McCain, despite being the nominee, [is] losing about a quarter of the Republican vote.”
But the McCain camp sees a positive lesson from the recent primaries — arguing the exit polls actually show an opportunity to split Democrats from their party’s nominee.
“If and when Senator Obama becomes the official nominee, Democratic primary voters may not form a tight coalition immediately,” McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said in a memo evaluation of the North Carolina and Indiana results. “Data to date suggest Democratic primary voters will not blindly support Senator Obama.”
While using primary data to calculate Mr. McCain’s support among Democrats, Mr. Davis switched to opinion polling to gauge his own candidate’s support among Republicans, pointing to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that showed Mr. McCain wins more than 80 percent of Republicans in either matchup.
Mr. McCain can take heart from the fact that turnout was up dramatically in North Carolina and Pennsylvania — by about 100,000 votes in each compared with 2000.
And McCain campaign officials say they don’t see a comparison between 2000 and 2008, arguing that the ongoing Democratic primary has changed turnout for both Republicans and Democrats in unpredictable ways.
But one factor is common to both elections — Mr. McCain himself.
In 2000 he was the man who lasted longest against Mr. Bush in the primaries and was the lightning rod for protest votes. This year the protest votes are going to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has dropped out and endorsed Mr. McCain, and to Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who is still running, though he has put his campaign into a lower gear.
“More than 1 million Republicans have come out to vote or caucus for Ron Paul now,” said Jesse Benton, a spokesman for the congressman. “There are a lot of Americans out there and a lot of Republicans that really are very hungry and very eager to hear a traditional Republican message of limited government. I think that really has been lacking.”