Sabatos Crystal Ball


McCain rises, Democrats deadlocked

Larry J. Sabato and David Wasserman, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics February 8th, 2008


Now be honest. Wasn’t Tuesday evening one of the most exciting nights ever in American politics? It had more drama and twists than many presidential general elections. The onrush of results and exit polls in twenty-four states–and let’s not forget about American Samoa–was dizzying and exhilarating.

Our readers, mainly political junkies, already know the basics. To refresh your memory, in case you are in the same kind of sleepless fog and hoarse stupor that we are, please see the two accompanying maps, one for the Democrats and one for the Republicans, showing which candidates won which states. The number appearing within the boundaries of each Super Tuesday state is the percentage of the vote for the winning candidate. In a future essay, once a little time has passed, we will return to the events of this remarkable day to evaluate further the nation’s first truly national primary. True, in 1988 the first Super Tuesday included twenty states, but fourteen of them were in the South and Border-South region. By comparison, 2008’s Super Duper Tuesday had a selection of states from every region.

We now know that, both parties taken together, the big winner of Super Tuesday was John McCain. It wasn’t just that he captured most of the big ones and reaped the rewards of the GOP’s winner-take-all delegate system. It was also that Mike Huckabee became the second biggest winner, grabbing five Southern states, and thereby knocking Mitt Romney into third place. Huckabee is a great story, but only Romney had the money and conservative backing to continue a serious challenge to McCain. So Super Tuesday became Titanic Tuesday for Romney, because like the famous ship, Romney’s candidacy sunk on February 5th.

Acknowledging reality, Romney “suspended” his campaign on Feb. 7th. Huckabee may still win the occasional contest in the South or elsewhere, but John McCain will be the 2008 Republican nominee for President. Somehow we doubt this bothers Huckabee terribly. Huckabee and McCain shared a passionate dislike for the wealthy, near-perfect Romney. “Huck” and “Mac” have also flirted throughout the Republican debates as their interests coincided and the Arkansan auditioned for the post of McCain’s running-mate. That may or may not happen, of course.

On the Democratic side, the massive primary day that was supposed to end the misery and give the party its nominee instead delivered a near-absolute tie. With votes and delegates still being counted and shifted, it appears that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama split the Democrats’ approximately 15 million votes right down the middle, and each one secured almost exactly half of the 1,681 delegates decided on Feb. 5th. The exit poll patterns have become predictably standard for most all the Democratic contests. Clinton does well with women, seniors, and Latinos, while Obama attracts men, young people, and African-Americans.

The remaining calendar (Figure 1) gives no compelling hints as to which candidate can or will break the deadlock. Overall, the rest of February appears to be shaping up as a good month for Obama, with Clinton taking up the slack in March and April in Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and goodness knows which one will be doing well in May. As Crystal Ball friend Chuck Thies points out, Obama does best in caucuses, and only 411 delegates remain to be selected in caucuses, compared to 1,357 delegates to be picked in primaries. Yet Obama could fare very well in the remaining Southern and Red-State Midwestern and Western contests.

Figure 1. Remaining Democratic Nominating Events and Delegates

State Date Delegates Contest Format
Washington February 9 97 Caucus
Louisiana February 9 66 Primary
Nebraska February 9 31 Caucus
Virgin Islands February 9 9 Other
Maine February 10 34 Caucus
Virginia February 12 101 Primary
Maryland February 12 99 Primary
District of Columbia February 12 37 Primary
Wisconsin February 19 92 Caucus
Hawaii February 19 29 Primary
Texas March 4 228 Primary/Caucus*
Ohio March 4 161 Primary
Rhode Island March 4 32 Primary
Vermont March 4 23 Primary
Wyoming March 8 18 Caucus
Mississippi March 11 40 Primary
Pennsylvania April 22 188 Primary
Guam May 3 9 Other
North Carolina May 6 134 Primary
Indiana May 6 84 Primary
West Virginia May 13 39 Primary
Oregon May 20 65 Primary
Kentucky May 20 60 Primary
Montana June 3 24 Primary
South Dakota June 3 23 Primary
Puerto Rico June 7 63 Caucus

Note: *Texas delegates are awarded 67 percent by primary (152) and 33 percent by caucus (76).

Do the 796 Super-Delegates, especially the majority that has not yet taken sides, ever try to organize and swing behind one of the candidates? If so, when? How do they keep the supporters of the candidate not selected from crying foul about back-room deals by cigar-smoking pols? What about the disputed, delegate-stripped Michigan and Florida delegations? How can those quarrels ever be solved peaceably if the nomination hinges on their outcome? Will Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid have to become involved as semi-neutral arbiters at some point? Will former President Jimmy Carter and former Vice President Al Gore be asked to prove their worth again as Nobel Prize winners by negotiating peace in their party between two equally entitled warring factions? The head hurts. Enough of this for now. If the Democratic battle is as long as it looks likely to be, we will have plenty of time to spin speculative possibilities in the months ahead.

Already people are avidly discussing the upcoming general election fight between McCain and either Clinton or Obama. Early polls suggest an evenly matched contest. Since the Republicans have all but chosen their nominee, let’s look at the fall campaign mainly from his perspective. Almost by accident, the Republicans have ended up with their most electable November candidate. McCain benefited from an unimpressive GOP field, most of whom were either fundamentally flawed or who flopped despite a big build-up. McCain also gained from the split in the conservative vote (Romney and Huckabee, and earlier Thompson), which enabled him to generate unstoppable momentum after minimal, low-to-mid-thirties victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida. This was despite McCain’s having lost Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, and Wyoming in the early going. His long-time attraction to Independents enabled McCain to secure his first three primary wins, and this same Independent appeal gives McCain a legitimate shot to win the general election.

Yet many of the early press accounts are too gauzily positive about McCain’s general election chances. He has many mountains to climb before he can take up residence in the White House. First, other than Barry Goldwater in 1964, it is difficult to think of a modern Republican nominee who faced as much opposition as McCain does in some quarters of the party base. (Maybe Gerald Ford should be on this list, but few GOP activists ever truly disliked the agreeable man from Michigan.) McCain’s obstreperous nature has widened the chasm with many conservative Republicans, and he is openly despised by many lions on the right. Will McCain be able to employ the kind of sensitive diplomacy he will need to mend fences? It’s not in his nature, but he has no choice if he wants to avoid a listless party base or even a conservative independent candidacy that could deprive him of crucial votes in November. At the same time, he cannot kowtow to the right-wing base, as he often seemed to do at yesterday’s CPAC confab, without losing the backing of many swing voters. It’s a high-wire act that McCain may or may not perform successfully. At least now he has many months to maneuver while Democrats are still fighting among themselves.

Moreover, look what McCain faces politically. Judging by the voter turnouts in most states and the overall fund-raising totals, Democrats have a dramatic edge this year in the enthusiasm of their party activists. McCain is hobbled in trying to reverse this trend by George W. Bush. The Arizona senator is going to represent a party whose current President has had ratings in the low to middle 30s for two years. Given that three-quarters of Republicans still back Bush, McCain dares not criticize Bush too much since the nominee-apparent is already shaky with the party base. At the same time, McCain must put considerable distance between himself and Bush–his opposition to Bush in 2000 will help–but in the end, voters tend to hold the nominee of the President’s party responsible for the President’s administration.

If timing is everything in politics, McCain’s schedule for seeking the White House couldn’t be worse. We may or may not be in a recession, but economic conditions are undeniably disturbing. Aren’t the tanking economy and an unpopular war a heck of a double burden for any Republican standard-bearer? The surge may have worked, but disengaging from the Iraq war is still a priority for a large majority of Americans. If voters want out, how do they vote for a man who has pledged to stay in Iraq for decades if necessary? The candidates all seem to agree that it is a “change” year. Is McCain just the right combination of change and continuity, or by November will he be painted so brightly with the colors of the Bush Administration that voters no longer see his own independent stripes?

Finally, the question of McCain’s age will play a role, though exactly what role is difficult to say. The Republican would be 72 by the time of his potential Inauguration, the oldest President ever elected to a first term. Perhaps senior citizens–usually the age cohort with the highest turnout–will like that, just as they have so far in the GOP primaries. But younger voters may consider 72, combined with McCain’s prior bout with cancer, to be too risky. Clinton is a decade younger, and Obama, at 46, is more than a full generation removed from McCain. Age didn’t hurt Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, though it was a factor bubbling in the electoral stew, but 2008 is a very different election. On this score, concerning McCain’s three score and twelve, put us down as “undecided.” Perhaps the selection of a younger, widely respected vice presidential candidate can assist McCain in efforts to erase doubts about his age. Or maybe his vigorous, lively 95-year old mother does that all by herself.

Both of the Democrats have plenty of flaws and weaknesses, too, and once we have a Democratic nominee, you can be sure we’ll dissect them as well. Whichever Democrat emerges can expect a frontal assault on traditional Republican themes (soft on national security, liberalism, big-taxing, and the like). McCain will also likely accept the reality of a Democratic Congress, and present himself as the only potential check on the legislative branch, especially in the area of spending.

One thing is now certain. For only the third time in American history, a United States Senator will be elevated directly to the Presidency. Warren G. Harding and John F. Kennedy will have company. (Maybe we should also include James A. Garfield, who was House Speaker and Senator-elect at the time of his election as President in 1880.) The Governors who ran in 2008–Bill Richardson, Mike Huckabee, and Mitt Romney, as well as the city executive, Rudy Giuliani–were all beaten. Perhaps a new trend has begun, or maybe it was simply an exceptional year for Senators and a bad year for Governors.

For now, it’s on to the weekend Democratic contests in Louisiana, Washington state, Nebraska, Maine, and the Virgin Islands, followed by the geographically compact Mid-Atlantic or Potomac Primary (Maryland, D.C. and Virginia) on February 12th. We all await the next twist in the Democrats’ long twilight struggle.