Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Protest Votes that Aren't

A popular meme in the wake of elections results in Pennsylvania and North Carolina recently has been how badly McCain is supposed to be doing. Since becoming the nominee presumptive, he hasn't been able to do better than 80%, the line goes, ergo he will have a hard time in November. For typical examples of this argument, see Sam Stein on Huffingtonpost, and this entry on DailyKos.

From Sam Stein:

As the battle over Indiana progressed between Sens Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton late Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning, a set of depressing polls numbers were finalized for John McCain.

In the GOP primaries in North Carolina and Indiana, the basically uncontested Republican nominee did not gain more than 80 percent of the vote.

A sine qua non for electability, apparently.

And from DailyKos:

And don't miss the fact that McCain, running virtually unopposed, can't nail down more than 80% of GOP primary voters in PA, NC and IN. They're voting for anyone but McCain.

Yes, all 20% of them.

And from King of Zembla:

There's good news and better news. The good news: after a huge win in North Carolina and a hairsbreadth loss in Indiana, Barack Obama is the presumptive Democratic nominee, and can finally turn his attention to November's general election. The better news: John McCain, who has had the Republican nomination sewn up for weeks now, failed to manage 80% support in either state primary, which means that almost two hundred thousand Republicans went to the polls simply to cast a protest vote against him.

So what, one wonders, did the other 80% of Republicans who went to the polls go to do? Play with the fun buttons? Experience the joyous cameraderie of waiting in line? Take advantage of the voting booth curtains as a hard-to-find-venue for a rare game of peek-a-boo?

Let's put this in perspective, shall we?

The last time McCain was in the running was 2000. How did that primary play out?

Well, on the Democratic side there was a hard challenge from Bill Bradley that never really got off the ground. Al Gore cinched the nomination on Super Tuesday (March 7 in 2000) by winning New York and California, the latter by a huge margin. Bradley dropped out on March 9. And then what happened? Click on the link and see for yourself. As late as June 6, Gore was still winning primaries with margins of only 70% or so on average, none with a showing greater than 74% after April 4. Between March 7 and April 4, 12 primaries were held, of which Mr. Gore won only 6 with figures greater than 80%, and one of those was his home state of Tennessee (which he won with a whopping, if predictable, 92%). In other words, even after Bradley dropped out, Gore won only 1/3 of the remaining primaries with the kind of margin that DailyKos et al seem to think is essential for party unity. Mysteriously, Gore was able to go on to win the popular vote by a slim margin in the national contest. A minor political miracle, one presumes.

And the Republicans? That contest was actually competitive, with McCain beating Bush in roughly 1/3 of the primaries through Super Tuesday. Like Bradley, he dropped out on March 9, but didn't endorse Bush until 2 months later. Bush did comparatively better than Gore in the remaining party primaries, but if you look at the results between March 7 and May 7 (when McCain finally got around to endorsing him), Bush breaks this apparently-all-too-critical 80% mark only 4 times (out of 13) - with McCain scoring higher than 20% in a couple. After McCain's endorsement, his name vanishes from the top challengers, but votes continue to be cast for Alan Keyes in the 10% range right up to the end.

Two presidential terms later, I somehow doubt Mr. Bush is sweating it too much.

1996, a sweeps year for incumbent Clinton, obviously won't be very informative on either side, but what happened in 1992?

For the Dems - this was Clinton's "comeback kid" year, when his longshot bid somehow succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. Clinton lost a lot of early caucuses and primaries, but he swept Super Tuesday, solidifying himself as the front-runner. And then it was over, right? Well, not exactly. Jerry Brown, who had already won narrow victories in Maine, Colorado, Nevada, Alaska, and Vermont - resorted to a then-innovative 1-800 number funding scheme (no internet then) which allowed him to edge Tsongas (who had won New Hampshire) out and go on to beat even Clinton in Connecticut. He blew his shot in New York and Wisconsin - where he had an early lead - by suggesting that he would allow Jesse Jackson (then reviled as anti-semitic) on as his running mate. But this didn't mean an easy ride for Clinton. A grassroots movement forced Tsongas back into the race, and he scored a respectable second in New York. Tsongas had to quit due to funding problems (again, no easy internet avenue available in 1992), but Jerry Brown wasn't finished yet. Clinton still needed a win in California to cinch the nomination, and Brown gave him a run for his money (41-48) there. He hung on for most of the rest of the primary, and managed to pull a respectable showing on the first ballot even at the convention. Clinton, of course, won the nomination and held the presidency for the next two terms, but it wasn't for lack of a protest vote avenue.

Let's not even talk about Reagan in 1980, because that one's just too easy. Reagan had a bumpy ride to the nomination, to put it mildly, and yet now he's the party's undisputed folk hero. They even held a Republican primary debate in his presidential library this year and more or less invited all the candidates to make the case that they were the next best thing to ol' Ronnie.

So let's please hear no more about how McCain's historically healthy 70-80% showings are meant to be signs of weakness. This is obviously par for the course for these things. It's true that Republicans aren't happy with him, but then, Republicans are never happy with their candidates. It was apparently Bill Clinton himself who noticed that at convention time "Republicans fall in line and Democrats fall in love." I would consider that an accurate characterization. I won't take the time to lay out the case here, but any cursory look at elections politics in the US will confirm that Republicans decide on their nominee early and then don't fuss. And their nominee is usually the next person in succession anyway - which this season, absent a Cheney bid, was clearly McCain. It's the Democratic primaries that are traditionally divided and messy. This year has, somewhat surprisingly given how things started out, proven to be no exception. I myself, in fact, believe that this trend bears a large portion of the explanation for the Republicans' incongruous success at winning the presidency, which is out of proportion to their representation at local and even congressional levels.

People are indeed casting protest votes against McCain. They want to be sure he gets the message that, as the nominee, he is expected to represent their interests if he wants their votes. This is especially true, one suspects, of the people who vote for Ron Paul. But protest votes aren't all of it. The race for VP is gearing up too, let's not forget, and both Huckabee and Romney have made clear they want the slot - Huckabee more openly than Romney. Some of the people who are voting for Huckabee are no doubt sending that signal too.

It's tempting for Democrats, only just now starting to wrap up a bruising primary, to console themselves by thinking that their divisions will be cancelled out by analogous Republican divisions, but it just ain't so. McCain is going to win this election, and in no small part because his base is NOT similarly divided. Lots of people on Dem blogs (especially the heavily pro-Obama DailyKos) have been complaining that the media blew up the Wright controversy to keep Hillary in the game. While they're spinning media conspiracy theories, they might also consider that the media has been blowing up McCain's recent showings to try to keep him out of it.


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