Indignant conservatives may rush to object. They’ll cite the conventional wisdom that McCain’s campaign proved singularly hapless and inept, plus 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. On the same ballot, McCain drew 45.7 percent, an advantage for the presidential nominee of 3.3 percent…

The important point here isn’t that McCain and Eisenhower did better than their party’s congressional candidates because they were more moderate, or that Reagan got more votes because he was more conservative, or that Nixon outperformed the nominees for the House because he seemed more ideologically heterodox. The real lesson is that when picking a president, voters decide more on personality than on philosophical or policy considerations. Obama’s victory over Romney didn’t indicate that the electorate shared his vision of a larger, more activist government. Exit polls showed a majority preferring a smaller government that attempted to do less. At the same time, Obama beat Romney by 60 points on a question about who cared most about “people like me,” and that image as a more compassionate candidate tilted the election in his direction.