IS JOHN McCAIN REALLY IN TROUBLE,
OR IS IT JUST POLITICS AS USUAL
I listen with interest as the national political pundits ruminate about John McCain’s “problems” – problems with the base, problems with the war, problems with the conservatives, problems with his “numbers.” What I perceive to be at work here is the back side of the traditional cycle with the political media. They discover a new “star” (John McCain in 1999, Barack Obama in 2006); then when these new stars reach sufficiently high political heights, the media relish in their haste to bring them down.
I believe this to be the substance of the “McCain-is-in-trouble” talk; because when we look past the numbers being reported, he is actually doing quite well, especially when you correct for the voters who will actually vote in a Republican primary and when you look at the numbers on a state-by-state basis.
He is doing very well in Iowa, for example, where he didn’t even campaign four years ago. With his history of opposition to ethanol subsidies, I asked McCain a couple of months ago why he even intended to go to Iowa. His response was that it’s an important state, which can’t be ignored. Typical of McCain, he has not only been to Iowa, but has been drawing huge crowds, has built a good political organization and has a very good chance of carrying it.
Because it is a strong anti-war state, New Hampshire has admittedly become a bit of a problem of late, which the national pundits will quickly share with you. McCain’s numbers have fallen, due mostly to his support of the President’s policies in Iraq. As the senator recently remarked, though, “I’d rather lose an election than lose a war.” He believes strongly that while we can argue about whether we should ever have gone into Iraq in the first place, we are where we are and failure is not an option. He has a very strong political organization in New Hampshire (his national political director hails from there), is immensely popular personally, and he has recently drawn huge positive crowds to his appearances. More to the point, there are encouraging signs that the numbers are getting better again.
In fact, if one were to track the shifts in national polling over time, the well-reported Rudy Giuliani lead over McCain has been cut in half in recent weeks. Mayor Giuliani is still on the up side of the media star-making curve and still has to deal with them when they decide to turn on him, as they inevitably will. In the meantime, the McCain political organization continues to expand at a rate that Giuliani will never be able to duplicate.
This last point is important, because third only to money and name ID, political organization will be a determining factor this cycle. As you read recently in this blog, some twenty states (including California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Florida and Texas) will likely have their primaries or caucuses by the end of the first week of February 2008 (most of them on February 5th). It will be virtually impossible for anyone to mount a full-scale state-by-state primary campaign in every state. If money and name ID are approximately equal, organization will carry the day.
The first three contests leading into the February 5th national primary (a bit of hyperbole there) are Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. We have already discussed Iowa and New Hampshire. In South Carolina, which is very supportive of President Bush’s policies in Iraq, McCain is extremely strong. He is likely to carry South Carolina, which immediately precedes the February 5th primaries. What all of this means is that there is a very real chance that John McCain will win at least two and perhaps all three of the first contests leading into February 5th, including the one immediately preceding. With that kind of momentum, he will be very difficult to stop.
When I speak with people about John McCain and the McCain campaign, a long list of annoyances develops. There is Iraq. There is his co-sponsorship of a bill with Ted (gag) Kennedy. There’s his age. Some people are angry that he hasn’t supported the President enough. Others complain that he is catering too much to the far right. Whatever the particular issue, I always respond with one question – “If not McCain, then who.”
This Presidential cycle is not a referendum on John McCain, Yes or No. Every candidate has one flaw or another. Without exception, though, when I engage people (at least Republican people) in the discussion of if not McCain then who, he immediately looks better. There is a recognition in our Party that whatever else you feel about John McCain, we need someone who can win -- Hillary Clinton is no option. As much as anything else, this convinces me that John McCain will emerge as the Republican nominee. And if he gets the nomination, I firmly believe he will be the next President of the United States.
I have every confidence he will be an outstanding one.