Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Contest Gets Somewhat Clearer

Super Duper Tuesday has produced a bona fide GOP front runner and a serious contest on the Democratic side. It appears that for only the second time in history, a sitting U.S. Senator that has no high level military or executive experience will be elected the next President of the United States outside of a three- or four-way split race. (JFK was the first.) This CNN site shows the current estimated delegate counts for both parties. You can also look at results by state and by calendar date.

The Democrats
As recently as last month, most observers thought that each party’s nominee would be clear by the morning of Feb. 6, but it has not worked out that way. Senator Clinton still holds an advantage over Senator Obama. It appears that she can count on most Democratic super delegates, but some of those votes could change depending on future performance. It also appears that Clinton has a strong base among Democratic women.

Obama’s supporters are noisier and more enthusiastic than Clinton’s supporters, but that doesn’t mean she lacks support. The upcoming primary schedule seems to favor Clinton, but conventional wisdom on points like this has often proved to be inaccurate this year. In other words, the Democratic race is just too close to call at this point.

One thing that has been observed for months, however, is now clearer than ever. The Democrats are vigorously enthused about their two candidates. The heavy battle being waged is about which of the two is the best. The Republican contest, on the other hand, seems to be about which candidate is least bad. Across the nation, Democratic voters have turned out in larger numbers than GOP voters.

The Republicans
Senator McCain now has more than half of the delegates he needs to win the nomination. He has achieved GOP front runner status with the lowest percentage of available Republican votes in history. McCain does well with independents and Democrats that can vote in open GOP primaries, but the large majority of actual registered Republicans that have voted so far have voted against him.

One of last night’s surprises was the performance of Governor Huckabee. He has proved to be a strong regional candidate, performing very well in areas of the South with high populations of evangelical Christians. With a budget that is only a tiny fraction the size of Governor Romney’s budget, Huckabee to date has racked up 16.2% of the available delegates to Romney’s 25%. Of course, Huckabee can’t count on winning more than a handful of delegates outside of the Bible Belt, but he has little to lose by staying in the race until the convention.

Several factors about Governor Romney’s campaign are now clearer than ever as well. He cannot win in areas with heavy concentrations of evangelicals. Apparently, they simply can’t bring themselves to vote for a Mormon. Conventional wisdom has been that if Huckabee dropped out, much of his support would fall to Romney. But data suggests two-thirds of Huckabee supporters would favor McCain instead.

Outside of the Bible Belt, Romney appears to perform well in states that hold caucuses, but not so well in states that hold primaries (except for states where he has a strong personal connection). GOP caucuses are dominated by grass roots conservatives that watch issues and candidates closely. Primaries allow more moderate and independent voters, and people that don’t follow politics closely to have a voice. Except for evangelicals, Romney has consistently won conservative votes. But it’s clear that this is just not enough to capture the nomination.

McCain has performed poorly with conservatives, but has won handily among independents, moderates, and crossover Democrats. His campaign is looking forward to open primaries in several large states. McCain can expect to win these delegates, given Romney’s apparent inability to appeal to voters in the middle, even after far outspending other candidates. Romney vows to stay in the battle until the convention, but it is difficult to see how he can win by only appealing to non-evangelical conservative voters. Even if he were to somehow pull it off, how could he then appeal to the large number of independent, moderate, and non-ideological voters that will vote in November?

Front runner McCain is expecting that the majority of conservatives will align with him once he seals the nomination. He’s probably right. But many of them will only do so grudgingly. A fair number will simply choose to not vote in November. And some are vowing to sabotage McCain’s candidacy, preferring ideological purity to a win. While this may seem vindictive, who will argue that conservatives giving their hearts and souls to eek out a win in 2004 has turned out well for them or for the country?

Looking Ahead to November
While the fight between Clinton and Obama currently seems infused with acrimony, it’s hard to say what this will mean for the party after the convention. Would wounds be healed if one ended up being the other’s running mate? Will supporters of the one angrily sit out the November vote? It’s just too early to tell.

McCain would probably perform better against Clinton than against Obama. Despite the fact that Obama is far from moderate (he was ranked the most liberal senator of 2007), he is a great speaker, and his soaring but vacuous talk about bipartisan unity appeals to voters. Senator Clinton can count on her husband’s political machine, but it’s clear that many voters have tired of that bag of tricks.

As of right now, however, it would appear that McCain’s best chance for victory in November would be the disintegration of the Democratic Party or a serious national security incident. In other words, his chances of prevailing against either Clinton or Obama in November don’t seem very good.

Wandering in the Wilderness
Many Republicans are wondering how they got to this point. Some of the factors around which the party coalesced a generation ago have changed. For example, the Cold War ended and the economy has overall been the best in the history of the world. Even the occasional downturns have been very mild by historical standards. Perhaps Republicans are the victims of their own successes. But without focusing factors, it seems as if the GOP is no longer sure of its own identity — of what it stands for.

What does it mean to be a Republican? At one time the answer to this was clear, but today it seems like an enigma. The party has become Democrat-lite. How do you select a candidate when the only reason for doing so is trying to get a win in the R column? How do you appeal to voters when you can’t even tell them what you’re about or when you offer no clear alternative? Voters can’t get enthused about voting for ambivalence.

Democrats can express schadenfreude at the Republicans’ plight, but if they’re honest, they’ll acknowledge their own problems. When the Republican Party figures out what it is about, it will again be able to nominate strong contenders. For now, it appears to be on track to nominate one of its weakest candidates ever for the presidency.

It’s too early to concede November, but Republicans shouldn’t get their hopes up. If they want a brighter future, they’ve got some serious work to do.


Jason The said...

It's more than ambivalence challenging the GOP, it's failed policy, and a breech of American faith with this President's false pretense for war, over-reaching and invasive government (FISA, warrantless wire-taps,e etc.) that affect most American's voting habits.

To say the biggest problem facing the Republican Party is they are "ambivalent" is akin to calling a train wreck a "traffic mishap."

The GOP needs to get back to it's roots. They have never been further from the "fiscally responsible, small government defender of the middle class" of our father's party than they are right now.

Ironically, embracing McCain would help to get them back on track, but they won't. They are now victim to their own hysteria and fear-mongering, and backing down on immigration would be too much crow for them to swallow.

Not that you'll hear me complain in November.

That One Guy said...

From my (admittedly limited) perspective, the GOP came off the tracks maybe a decade ago, or a little more, when they decided to court the Christian Fundies. Problem is, they had problems within the party, problems that would turn out to fly directly in the face of their new mainline support group. I think the courtship of this group alienated some old-line supporters, and now they have eroded the trust of the new group, with their folly.

They now seem willing to court the devil to get support, but that courtship seems unfounded by any real true principle adherence.

Now it FEELS like it's the Dems who are taking the time to establish a new and better foundation of principles and values.

I think we're looking at a good old fashioned arse-kickin in November. Except in Utah. (!?)

But like I said, that's just me perspective.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Conservative columnist George Will also thinks the GOP is in for a full-fledged rout in November.

James Smith said...

Now that Romney is out, see what other mormons are saying about the 2008 presidential race.

Anonymous said...

Why do you say Obama's talk of bipartisan unity is vacuous?