Republicans Unite; Democrats Divide

The situations have reversed in both parties as McCain heads to nomination while Clinton and Obama tussle.

By SHARE

The Republicans, facing a fluid and fractious race 21 days ago, now have a candidate with a clear flight path to the nomination. The Democrats, seemingly headed to an early and decisive decision earlier this month, now have two candidates on a collision course. Yes, John McCain could falter in the 22 contests on February 5, and yes, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama could kiss and make up at tomorrow night's debate. But don't bet on either happening. McCain looks like a heavy favorite for the Republican nomination, and a straight-line extrapolation from the ethnic breakdowns in the Florida vote produces victories for Clinton next week not only in the Northeast but also in California.

How did this come to be? Here are the election returns in the Florida Republican primary, and here is the Washington Post's neat interactive map in which you can click on the percentages for the three leading candidates in each county. And here are some further reflections:

Every Republican candidate's strategy failed. Including John McCain's. Remember his original strategy: run as the party's heir apparent and bank on the benevolent neutrality of the Bush White House (obtained by the emotional reconciliation of John Weaver and Karl Rove) to raise large sums of money. This failed spectacularly at the end of June 2007, and the McCain campaign had to reboot. Its strategy: keep the candidate in the field and hope that other candidates would screw up and that external events would strengthen McCain's appeal. I have always been wary of campaign strategies of which one essential step is, "The other guy screws up." In McCain's case there were many steps, not just one. He was like the safecracker who must tackle an unfamiliar safe and must get one tumbler after another to fall in place. But for McCain it looks like all the tumblers fell into place.

Of the other candidates, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson had great potential and at various times led the Republican field in national polls—Giuliani for most of 2007 in most polls, Thompson in Scott Rasmussen's polling in late spring and early summer. But Giuliani never found an early state in which he was comfortable competing, and his strategy of betting everything on Florida turned out to be a loser.

As for Thompson, why didn't he get into the race earlier? He spent more time (the six months from March to September) as a noncandidate than as an actual candidate (the four months from September to January). My sense is that Thompson was deterred from a circa July 4 announcement by the pendency of the Iowa Republicans' Ames straw poll in the second week of August; Mitt Romney, Sam Brownback, and (although no one was paying much attention) Mike Huckabee had been organizing intensively for this event, and Thompson evidently thought he couldn't catch up. A mistake, I think. A lackluster finish could have been explained away, and the heavy personal campaigning necessary would have served Thompson well in January.

Mitt Romney's strategy was to sweep Iowa and New Hampshire and lock things away in the other races in the run-up to February 5. But he lost Iowa to Huckabee and New Hampshire to McCain. Since then he's been scampering. He won three asterisked victories: in the January 5 caucuses in Wyoming (where his sons campaigned in every county), in the January 15 primary in Michigan (where his Michigan roots were important to about half his voters), and in the January 19 Nevada caucuses (where his fellow Mormons accounted for half his votes). None of these results was duplicable elsewhere (except Utah, which votes February 5 and in which presumably all three special factors are present). Romney has probably outspent all the other candidates combined on television and organization, but that brought him only an out-of-the-money finish in South Carolina and the short end of a 36-to-31-percent count in Florida.

Huckabee's strategy also failed. In Iowa 60 percent of the caucusgoers were self-identified evangelical or born-again Christians, and 44 percent of them voted for Huckabee, giving him a big margin over Mitt Romney. He has been unable to duplicate or build on this showing since. He has gotten respectable percentages from evangelicals/born-agains in New Hampshire (where there aren't many), Michigan, South Carolina, and Florida, but so have Romney and McCain, leaving Huckabee with little or no net popular vote margin from his core constituency. And he has signally failed to extend his appeal to Republican primary voters or caucusgoers who don't classify themselves as evangelicals or born-agains, winning between 4 and 12 percent of their votes in the different contests. Huckabee soldiers on, hoping to carry congressional districts in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri, though he didn't carry any CDs in Florida (he carried only four small counties in a state with, as we so well recall from the 2000 recount, 67 counties).

Every Democratic candidate's strategy has failed or is failing. Hillary Clinton hoped to wrap this up with back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. No such luck: She lost Iowa and came within a few tears of losing New Hampshire. Barack Obama hoped to sweep to victory by bringing young voters into the process and pitched his appeal not just to black voters but to a broader electorate that goes beyond the usual Democratic primary constituencies. He has had some success—he clearly expanded the pool of caucusgoers in Iowa and the primary electorate in South Carolina. But he's also seen himself defined by Bill and Hillary Clinton as a candidate appealing mostly to black voters, and while his percentages among blacks first in South Carolina and then nationally rose sharply in December and January, Clinton carried Latinos and Jews by more than 2-to-1 margins in Nevada and Florida. That's significant for California, which votes February 5 and where Latinos and Jews outnumber blacks by a ratio of 5 to 2.

John Edwards's withdrawal from the race today comes long after it has been apparent that his strategy of running as a populist on economics and echoing the netroots' cries for immediate withdrawal from Iraq has failed. Edwards won an ersatz second place in Iowa (because the state Democrats' state convention delegate equivalent formula overrepresents the rural counties where Edwards ran best) but finished a miserable third in South Carolina, the state where he was born and where he won his only primary in 2004. His percentage fell from 45 to 17 in four years; his fellow Carolinians were trying to tell him something. He's out now, not that it much matters.

The role of events. McCain's success was due not just to the failure of his opponents' strategies (something he could never count on, but which happened) but also to what the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan referred to as "events, dear boy, events." Notably the success of the surge in Iraq. When McCain's strategy imploded in late June, it was not at all clear that the surge would succeed. Democrats assumed that it wouldn't, as if it were beyond the capacity of the U.S. military to beat gangs of terrorists; Republicans hoped it would but were very nervous indeed. McCain, who had urged a surge of troops and change in tactics since the summer of 2003, in effect bet his candidacy on the surge and won. In November and December, he was able to argue that he was the only candidate who had urged a surge long before George W. Bush ordered one in January 2007, and his Republican opponents had to agree. (The Democratic candidates are still pretending that the surge didn't work, which is an article of faith to left-wing Democratic voters. I wonder why they relish American failure so much.) Over the last week he has criticized Mitt Romney for not supporting the surge; for that he has been criticized by some conservatives and defended by others. In any case, the success of the surge has provided McCain with a strong argument for his candidacy in the Republican contest and will do so, I think, in the general election as well.

McCain also benefited from a surge in his support during the Christmastime period during which pollsters weren't operating, as I have argued before in this blog. My explanation: The assassination of Benazir Bhutto pointed to uncertainty and chaos in Pakistan and made vivid the perils we face in the world. Republican voters, for whatever reasons, rallied not to Rudy Giuliani (who stressed his opposition to terrorism) but to John McCain (who stressed his support of the surge and his national security experience). Without this movement of opinion, McCain would not have been the contender that he has been this month. That shift of opinion over Christmastime, whether prompted by the Bhutto assassination or other factors, was one of the tumblers that had to fall into place to put John McCain on his current clear flight path to the Republican presidential nomination.