07 February 2008

Digesting Fat Tuesday

[06 Feb 2008]

My Mardis Gras was not focused on an orgy of carnal delights or gastronomic excess but it was something even more base: Politics. It was Super-Duper Tuesday, when 24 states simultaneously chose delegates for the Presidential nomination. This was like the Superbowl for a political junkie. I did not overdose, despite watching Cable News, listening to XM-130 POTUS '08, listening to 2 streaming internet radio feeds and checking three web news blogs. It's no wonder why my wife left me at home last night.

Now I am trying to make sense of the results. Much as the mainstream media might like, no one locked things up last night, but the Grand Old Party is well on its way to choosing its poison. Now it is a horserace with a lead change for the Donkeys.

First off, let me admit that Huckabee did much better than I expected last night, particularly in Tennessee, Missouri (albeit barely not winning) and Georgia. He did win five primary contests (even though the West Virginia Convention was thrown by McCain in second round to deny Romney a victory there). But the only contests that Huckabee won North of the Mason-Dixon line have been Iowa (which still hasn't formally chosen its delegates) and West Virginia (with the help of his “rival” McCain). Huckabee barely breaks double digits in more secular Northern states.

Giving Huckabee's limited Southern appeal, one can only conclude that he he is a regional candidate mainly appealing to evangelicals. Especially after witnessing the West Virginia switcharoo, Huckabee is acting as a spoiling stalking horse to help John McCain. Right now, Huckabee holds 190 delegates (about 16% what is needed to win). There is no way that Huckabee can win the nomination by himself on this cycle. Thus, he is either trying the clench the VP slot under a McCain candidacy, or he is trying to play king-maker in a brokered convention. He had better not be positioning himself for a future national run, as Huckabee is earning the contempt from conservative Republicans as being the killer of the Reagan coalition.

McCain did well where in areas with moderate to liberal Republican, like the Northeast (NY, NJ, CN) and Illinois. Those blue states certainly have lots of delegates but there is no way McCain could win them in the general election. “Mac” did win in Oklahoma, which was surprising to me. Missouri was an important win because it was a winner take all and that the state has many constituencies. McCain did pull off California, but his victory is tempered because most delegates are awarded by Congressional Districts and I suspect McCain's support was localized in urban (bluish) districts. In the end, McCain won nine primaries last night from coast to coast, which gives him 613 delegates for himself (about 51% of what is needed to win). It is not quite over yet, but it looks pretty close to being a done deal.

It should be noted that McCain has not been able to garner a real majority in his primary wins. A win is still a win, particularly in winner-take-all states. The primaries thus far have had several serious candidates, so many pluralities are understandable. But McCain only won 47% as a “favorite son” in his home state of Arizona. That last fact really is quite telling. In the 2000 Presidential Election, Al Gore did not carry his home state, which would have put him over the top in the electoral college. It indicates that to really know him does not mean that you love him. To be fair, McCain did win 55% of the New Jersey primary vote, so he can cobble together a majority in a primary (and it was a closed primary to boot!).

Lest we forget, consider McCain's tactical blunder of campaigning in Massachusetts on the weekend before Super Tuesday rather than going to shore up really close states like Georgia (which he lost by 2% to Huckabee), Tennessee (which he lost by 3% to Huckabee) and Missouri (which he lost by 1% to Huckabee). Georgia and Missouri are particularly notable since they were winner take all states, while Massachusetts had proportional delegates. Karl Rove pointed out that McCain was likely to get 12 delegates without the extra push in the Bay State but his extra campaigning may have earned him five more delegates. Yet he sacrificed opportunities to get the Gold and 58 delegates in Missouri or 39 delegates in Georgia. McCain was probably relying on a news peg of “Going into hostile territory”, in the hopes of keeping Romney under 50% in his home state. I'm certain that McCain also had the visceral urge to stick it to enemy. Not to put too fine of a point on it, this is quite revealing about McCain's judgment and character. I just wonder if McCain will pull into CPAC tomorrow on the straight talk express giving the conservative crowd a raspberry or if he offers real outreach with the base.

The conservative base has made their disdain for McCain and the feeling is mutual. McCain has a tremulous relationship with evangelicals, but he has benefited from their support of Huckabee. Dr. Dobson's declaration that he could not morally support McCain will influence many evangelicals to sit on their hands in the fall, already enbattled likely nominee. Many conservatives and evangelicals might hold their nose and vote for McCain in the fall considering the alternatives, but it is dubious if they will volunteer their time or their pocketbooks. I have the sinking feeling that McCain might mean a 50 state loss, especially if it is a contest between an ornery and hobbled old grey mare pitted against a well-groomed, cantering young black stallion like Obama.

Mitt Romney won six contests, but only two were primaries (Massachusetts and Utah and they both have the stigma of being “favorite son” type states). Missouri was a tight contest, but Mitt took the bronze. Romney lost by 8 points in California, but he may have done well enough in delegate totals due to the apportionment of delegates While Romney won the Minnesota and Alaska caucuses, most of Romney's wins have been in Mountain states or where he has ties (Massachusetts and Michigan). Romney has 269 delegates (which is 22.5% of what is needed to win).

I would not minimize Mitt as being a regional candidate, since he takes from 25% to 39% in most primaries. This solid block probably represents his core of non-evangelical conservatives, who tend to be upper middle class. But Romney seems to have trouble closing the deal in multi-candidate primary, especially with the Reagan coalition (defense voters, value voters and economic voters) being fragmented. The Mormon drag seems to really hurt him in the South as long as Huckabee hangs in the race. I think that many more values voters would gravitate to Mitt if he was head to head against McCain, but the second boy from Hope AR won't leave the race, especially now.

I just don't see this having a happy ending for Republicans. Granted, I am not a McCain-iac. But it is a change election, and he represents 24 years in Washington. He is 71years old and due to injuries that were inflicted when he was a POW, he looks old and tired. Pit this against a 44 year old fresh face. Then there is fundraising. John McCain raised $7 million in January 2008. Obama raised $32 million. When it looked like the McCain candidacy was fizzling, he agreed to take federal financing. This will limit how much he can spend overall in each state during the primaries. But it means that he will be out of funds from April to September when Federal Matching Funds kick in for the General Election. This means that McCain will have to relied on earned media. There was talk radio, but McCain is not estranged with Michael Medved and Dennis Miller, neither of which could have great sway over the electorate. McCain has become accustomed to favorable press from the mainstream media because of his mantel as a maverick. That gauzy focus disappears once he gets the GOP nomination, and he has lots of skeleton in his closet (e.g. Keating 5 and Shamnesty). Because of McCain-Feingold, 527 groups will pour tons of money to support the Democrats. I doubt that conservatives will be motivated to spend a dime on McCain.

It is fitting that today is Ash Wednesday, since I think that conservatives will be paying a penance for waiting for a political messiah, another Ronald Reagan, rather than coalescing for a consensus candidate before the eleventh hour. Now we may have to wonder in the wilderness for 40 years until we reach the land of milk and honey.

No comments: