February 06, 2008

The Republican Race

Waking up this morning, the immediate big story is the American Primary. There is an interesting discussion to be had about the Democratic race which pitches different kinds of characters against each other- but ideologically the Republican race is much more fascinating. In 2000 the Republicans decided that John McCain the Arizona senator was too moderate for them: many Republicans still think that that is the case. In that sense many may interperate the result as a massive defeat for conservatism in the Republican party: I think they are right but probably not in the way that those pundits confidently predicting think that they are right.

Apart from in the North East, this hasn't been a crushing McCain victory. A typical result is that in Oklahoma where with 100% of the precincts reporting, McCain got 37%, Huckabee 33% and Romney 25%. Admittedly these are early results- but even so it looks as though McCain has only got above 50% in three primaries, all in the North East. In most other places the results look slightly higher than what he got in Oklahoma but not that much higher. Percentage wise, John McCain has not captured over half the Republican party primary voters: and that's with the fact that he is much more popular with independents than either Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee. And yet despite that there can be no question that McCain seems to have gained the nomination- he has at the moment 487 delegates whilst his nearest challengers Romney and Huckabee both have under 200.

So what went wrong for conservatives tonight? Looking at the numbers, I would argue that it wasn't that they lacked voting strength. Put it this way in the majority of states, the not-McCain candidate won the majority of the votes. The reason why that doesn't come out in the delegate numbers is that the Republican party has a first past the post Primary system- you get past the winning post and you get rewarded. Now the point is that if this was the Democratic primary, which is PR, Romney and Huckabee combined might have equal numbers of delegates to McCain and be plausible challengers. They don't and aren't. The key thing about the conservative primary vote here is not that it didn't exist: but that it split. The Conservatives in the Republican party haven't gone away, they have divided neatly down the middle.

Look at the places where Romney and Huckabee won. Romney took states like Utah- the midwestern states. Huckabee won in the south- Alabama, West Virginia, etc. Most people would suggest that Huckabee won the evangelical vote- as he did earlier in Iowa, whereas Romney won the traditional conservative vote, coming second in California for example. This isn't because the two eliminated each other though: it is because both were deeply unsatisfactory candidates on their own. Look for instance at this Gallup poll, which demonstrates that if Huckabee had dropped out by a vast number his supporters would have gone to John McCain and not to Mitt Romney. Huckabee has been accused of socialism by Romney's supporters and Romney's Mormonism was a real problem for many of Huckabee's guys. The ultimate thing about the conservatives in this primary is that without George Allen or Bill Frist, they simply didn't have a good candidate (or perhaps their only good candidate, Fred Thompson, was fast asleep when the possibility came calling). The weakness for the conservative movement lay not so much in its base and motivating voters as in its leadership.

Part of that is just accident- had Allen not had his Maccaca moment or not faced Jim Webb in Virginia he might be the presumptive Republican nominee now. Whether there is something deeper I'm not sure- it might be that the conservative movement, naturally an oppositionalist movement has found government over the last eight years a fissaporous experience and will find renewed unity in 2012 against say a McCain Presidency or a Democratic Presidency. Or we could be seeing the effect of a quick primary season- given another two or three months the conservatives might have found their guy. The quick Primary season did not leave enough time for Conservatives to unite behind an anti McCain guy having decided which of their men they liked the most. All could be true. But what I think is definitely true is that the conservatives in the US in this election didn't lack for the troops and footsoldiers, they lacked for a plausible general to follow. In the South they marched for Huckabee, everywhere else for Romney and thanks to the East and West General McCain stormed to victory!


Ashok said...

The weakness for the conservative movement lay not so much in its base and motivating voters as in its leadership.


I hope the pundits write conservatism off - it's going to be fun watching them eat their own words once I've accomplished what is only in its opening stages. It takes a long time to educate, but to create the yearning for knowledge, not so long...

Colin Campbell said...

The key issue for both parties is which states are going to change hands in the real election. Given that George Bush won by winning the same states on two occasions, the issues really boil down to whether the Democrats can win in places like Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina and the like. I would have thought that Obama is pretty strong in the north and has a good chance to pick off some of the southern states.

So in a sense the fact that John McCain lost in states that will almost certainly vote Republican in the election is no big deal. The fact that he is likely to be competitive in places like New Jersey is a good thing.

Pursuing a conservative agenda is a guarantee of election failure in December in my mind.