Policy Perspective
A New Comeback Kid?
By Tim Hibbitts

Now that Loki, Norse god of mischief, has finished wreaking havoc with the college football season (did Appalachian State really beat Michigan?), he has turned his attention to the presidential election. How else does one explain the remarkable resurgence of Sen. John McCain on the Republican side and the twists and turns of the Democratic race?

Seriously, the McCain renaissance is one of the more amazing comebacks in presidential election history. McCain’s campaign collapsed last summer and he was written off by most of the pundits. Every other major Republican contender had a shot to grab the pole spot in the nomination process, and incredibly, they all failed in their own unique way. Still, as the Duke of Wellington is reported to have said after defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, “It was a damned near run thing, the damndest near run thing you ever saw.”

The crusty McCain could have been derailed a number of times in the primary season, yet repeatedly escaped by narrow margins, beating Romney in New Hampshire, Huckabee in South Carolina, Romney and Giuliani in Florida, and delivering the effective clincher on Super Tuesday by edging out Huckabee by 1 percent in winner-take-all Missouri and downing Romney by seven points in California to win the vast majority of delegates at stake there. In only one of those primaries did McCain collect 40 percent of the vote (California). Normally, after securing a nomination, the winner tacks to the center to try to win over some of the swing voters. But, McCain has been forced to go to the right to placate the base of his own party, truly an unusual situation for the presumptive nominee of a major party. Even in Wisconsin, with the near full backing of the party grandees, McCain received only 55 percent of the primary vote. If the Democrats had already settled on a nominee, this would be a difficult situation, to say the least. Yet, the ongoing Democrat contest has given McCain cover to woo as much of the right as he can to his side, while most of the attention is focused on the Democrat fight. No doubt the senator from Arizona would be happy to hold the coats of Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for as long as necessary for them to settle their scrap, but that race may be coming to an end.

Regarding the Democrats, I assume that you are reading this shortly after the 4th of March. If the Democrat contest is still going on, it means that Clinton won both Ohio and Texas and has at least blunted Obama’s momentum. If the race is over, it means that Clinton lost at least one of those two states and was either forced, or made the decision, to end her campaign. It is hard to believe, given external events and the overall public mood, that the Republicans have a good chance of retaining the White House this year, but the contest between the Democrats has given the GOP some hope to hold on to the presidency. The longer a seriously contested nominating process goes on for a party, the more bitter it becomes, and the more damage it does to that party’s chances of winning the White House (think Democrats in 1968, 1980 and 1984, and Republicans in 1976). So, the McCain camp has every reason to hope for, and encourage in whatever way they can, further Democrat wrangling.

On top of this, the Democrat coalitions of Clinton and Obama have been distinctly different, at least until Wisconsin, where Obama broke into Clinton’s key voting blocs and poached heavily from them. The Clinton coalition is older, less educated, lower income, Hispanic, and mostly women. The Obama coalition is younger, better educated, higher income, African American, and men. Again, Wisconsin broke the pattern, and if that continues in Ohio and Texas, the nomination race will effectively be over on the morning of March 5, whether Clinton acknowledges it or not.

Otherwise the race drags on for six more weeks until Pennsylvania on April 22 — and that would be a very contentious period, followed by the last round of primaries in May and early June. If it is still close, team Clinton will fight for every super delegate and to get the disputed Florida and Michigan delegations seated at the convention. If that occurs, there will be a floor fight in Denver, and the convention ends on August 28, barely nine weeks before the general election. That leaves little time for any bad feelings engendered by the process to heal up, no matter who wins.

The demographic splits in the Democratic Party are important because McCain has a chance to pick up voters whose candidate loses the Democratic nomination. Polling data suggests that many of Clinton’s downscale white voters are going to have trouble supporting Obama; many of Obama’s upscale white voters, and some black voters, might well move to McCain if Clinton is the nominee. Some of the analysts have completely overlooked this; they have focused on exit polls showing that 80 percent of Democrats would be happy with either candidate winning the nomination. Maybe so, but that still leaves 20 percent who wouldn’t be, and within that 20 percent are a lot of voters McCain might have an opportunity to woo, regardless of which candidate wins the Democratic nomination.

Right now, the balance of polls suggests that Obama is the stronger general election candidate against McCain. That may be so, but it would be wise to recall that someone who looks strong in February may not look so good in October, or even July. After all, in May 1992, Ross Perot was leading the polls, with George H. W. Bush second, and Bill Clinton a distant third with barely 20 percent of the vote. Obama has tremendous political skills and up to now has run the best campaign by far of any of the surviving candidates. But, he also has benefitted from incredibly favorable press coverage, something that is changing now that he is seen as a frontrunner by the media. We don’t know how the candidate and the campaign will handle that status. The vetting process may lead to a few dents and scratches on the Obama-mobile but still leave him standing strong as a potential president. But, it is also possible that there will be serious damage to Obama that will raise doubts about his ability to win in November. Obama looks like the better bet for Democrats desperate to win in November, but that might not be the case by the summertime.

When one looks at the broader political climate extant in the country, it makes no sense that a Republican has much chance of winning this year. The outgoing president of the party has been mired in the low 30s approval-wise for two years with no indications that is going to change. The economy is going soft and we remain in Iraq with 60 percent of the voters saying that the war was a mistake, even as they acknowledge that the surge has had some success in improving conditions there. Indeed, it would be unprecedented in modern times for the incumbent party to keep the White House in this situation.

McCain knows the odds against winning in November, but they probably don’t scare him too much. After all, four months ago he was in fifth place in national polls for the Republican nomination. He’ll need more good fortune in the next eight months to win in November.

BrainstormNW - March 2008

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