by John Hawkins | February 4, 2008 7:30 am
One of the biggest questions people have today is how in the heck a man as unpopular as John McCain is with conservatives ended up as the heavy favorite to win the GOP nomination right before Super Tuesday. People have all sorts of wide-ranging theories, but in truth, McCain’s rise is just proof of the old adage that it’s better to be lucky than good.
Let me explain.
After the implosion of the McCain/Kennedy amnesty bill, McCain was left for dead by a lot of people because his poll numbers plunged, his fundraising dried up, and he had to shake up his campaign. Although McCain was definitely a longshot at that point, the people who counted him out were making a mistake.
That’s because even after McCain’s collapse, he retained a level of national support that was still in the low teens. That may not seem like much, but it’s not a bad place to start from in what turned out to be a 5-man race. Also, happily for McCain, because he didn’t seem likely to win, the conservative media left him alone.
Then came December and two things that turned out to be crucial in McCain’s ascent occurred: Rudy Giuliani’s campaign started to collapse and Mike Huckabee’s campaign started to take off.
Giuliani’s bomb out was important because he was a very similar candidate to McCain: a moderate, well to the base’s left, who based a large part of his campaign around foreign policy. When his numbers plunged in the early states, Giuliani retreated to Florida and hunkered down which meant that he wasn’t strongly competing with McCain for voters in the early states.
Perhaps more importantly, much of the conservative media absolutely hated Mike Huckabee and spent almost all of their time attacking him for a solid month in the run-up to Iowa even though McCain started to take off during the end of that same time period.
Still, in early December, McCain had a real uphill climb. He had terrible numbers everywhere except New Hampshire and Mitt Romney had a double digit lead there. However, McCain went “all in” up in New Hampshire and as newspapers all across Iowa and New Hampshire started endorsing him, his pals in the mainstream media began pushing him hard. McCain managed to scoot ahead of Romney in New Hampshire in late December and then after Huckabee beat Romney in Iowa, Mitt didn’t have the momentum to catch McCain.
Once McCain won that first contest, as Fred Thompson would say, people realized that he had his “ticket to the dance,” and his numbers started to really go up across the board. That being said, a lot of people didn’t quite take McCain seriously. After all, there was no way he was going to win states like South Carolina or Florida, right?
Well, McCain came in 2nd in Michigan to Romney, who didn’t get all that much credit for his win because his father used to be the governor. Next up was Nevada and South Carolina. Nobody paid much attention to Nevada because the fact that it had a large Mormon population that was going to go in a block for Mitt kept all the top tier candidates except Romney from competing there.
South Carolina, on the other hand, was essentially a must-win state for two candidates: Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee. Thompson needed at least a strong finish to keep going and Huckabee needed a win to have a chance to be competitive on Super Tuesday.
So what ended up happening was that Fred, because…
A) he thought he could get the most votes by knocking Huckabee down,
B) McCain is his friend,
C) he was hoping McCain will offer him the Veep position,
D) or some combination of the above,
…relentlessly attacked Huckabee in the run-up to the vote in South Carolina. The end result of that was that Fred had a weak third place showing that knocked him out of the race and yet, he knocked just enough steam off Huckabee to allow McCain to take first place. Notably, for a guy who’s being touted as the “conservative” choice in the race, Mitt finished in 4th place in South Carolina, a state that’s well known for being particularly friendly to conservatives.
Then, it was on to Florida where Rudy, once the other candidates got in the game there, saw his numbers collapse. The contest quickly turned into a two man race between Mitt and McCain, but McCain had a little more momentum, benefited a little more from Rudy ‘s campaign flying apart and the demographics (lots of old voters and lots of veterans). That helped him win another state that people didn’t seem to think he could win despite the fact that Mitt outspent him 8 to 1 on ads.
At that point, things once again broke McCain’s way. Rudy, a candidate who was very similar to McCain, dropped out — but Mike Huckabee stayed in and kept people from coalescing around one “anti-McCain” candidate.
After the Florida win and the realization that Huckabee was going to stick around sunk in, McCain’s national numbers started to balloon. At this point, it looks like he’s going to swamp Romney and Huckabee on Feb 5 and come out with a very large delegate lead and even more momentum.
Now, with all that said, you may still have a few questions including…
Does McCain’s rise prove that the conservative media is ineffective or that conservatives are no longer a majority in the Republican Party?
Simply put: No. What you have to remember is that there were 5 relatively closely-matched contenders competing for the nomination and conservatives were all over the map with their support. So, even though McCain has yet to pull 40% in any primary, he’s poised to sweep to victory on Super Tuesday.
Can Romney or Huckabee still win?
It would be almost impossible for either of them to win a three way race with McCain given how sticky their support seems to be, so unless one of them drops out, this race is already over barring a miracle. Additionally, even if Romney or Huckabee drops out after Super Tuesday, it’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to come back against McCain because they would be so far behind, because McCain would have so much momentum, and because so many people would already think the race was over. In other words, it’s not game over yet, but the odds of someone other than McCain being the nominee are looking long indeed at this point.
Okay, so the odds are heavily against McCain being beaten at this point. Which candidate would have the best chance of beating him?
Mitt Romney. Huckabee has already been so beaten up in the conservative media that even if Romney dropped out, the Right probably wouldn’t rally around him.
What would Mitt’s dream scenario be?
His dream scenario would be for Huck to drop out before Super Tuesday, but assuming that doesn’t happen, it would be for Mitt to do better than expected on Super Tuesday and keep McCain’s lead over him to say 150 delegates or so. Then, Huck drops out Wed morning. Next up, the polling data that comes out by the end of the week shows Mitt looking surprisingly strong against McCain so that people don’t write the race off. At that point, Mitt dumps another big chunk of change into the race, commits to staying in all the way until the convention if necessary, and starts an arduous 1 on 1 campaign against McCain that he would hope to win over the long haul with the help of the conservative media.
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