John McCain might still salvage his campaign. But to paraphrase Yogi Berra, it’s getting late early this year. How did things go so badly for him?
People back presidential candidates out of calculation or passion. At first, the numbers made McCain look like a good bet. In years past, polls had shown that he was the Democrats’ favorite Republican. The calculators figured that he could sail to victory in a general election by holding the GOP base and capturing an unusually large share of the Democratic vote. They also figured that other Republicans would reach the same conclusion, thereby letting him seal the nomination very early.
Hmm, they thought, better book a ticket on the Inevitability Express before it leaves for the White House.
In 2007, poll data turned against McCain. He started losing to Obama and Clinton in trial-heat surveys, which also showed that Giuliani would do better. And despite Giuliani’s stands on social issues, a plurality of Republicans continued to back him for the nomination.
The calculators learned that McCain’s Inevitability Express couldn’t take them past the Lincoln Tunnel.
In other election years, candidates have sometimes overcome steep odds by appealing to passions and ideals. Early in 1976, it seemed that President Ford was about to squash Ronald Reagan’s challenge for the GOP nomination. Cost-benefit analysis might have prompted Reagan to quit the race and curry Ford’s favor. But Reagan’s supporters deeply cared about his stands on the Panama Canal and the Cold War. They were willing to go down fighting. Starting with the North Carolina primary, he made a comeback that brought him within one Brylcreemed hair of the nomination. His showing made him the GOP favorite for 1980.
What is McCain’s great cause? Eight years ago, it was campaign-finance reform. Ironically, he lost that specific issue on the day that the McCain-Feingold bill became law. In 2006, voters showed a broad concern about corruption. McCain has tried to appeal to such sentiment by stressing his strong record of opposition to congressional earmarks.
It hasn’t worked. Except for members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, nearly every politician has denounced earmarks. The only thing that sets McCain apart from other candidates is his tired old joke about drunken sailors.
McCain has shown real courage in standing by the war in Iraq. Unfortunately for him, support for the war is waning even among GOP voters. Some might admire his willingness to stick with President Bush, but many others may worry that it could cost the next election and open the way to a Hillary Clinton presidency.
And then there is immigration. McCain took false assurance from polls showing that Republicans backed something like the Senate bill. Such polls failed to account for the ambivalence of the bill’s supporters and the intensity of its opponents. He stayed on the wrong side of a big issue, and it will be tough for him to recover.
McCain’s last, best hope is that the leading GOP candidates will mess up. And in light of how badly Republican luck has been running, that scenario remains distressingly plausible.
— John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.