Politics & Policy

Is McCain Back?

The senator's other surge.

Sen. John McCain is surging in the polls and could win two early primary states.

Two recent presidential polls from the American Research Group produced some astonishing results. McCain is leading in New Hampshire and in second place in Iowa — ahead of Mitt Romney — even though McCain has essentially written off the Iowa caucuses, while Romney has sunk millions into the state.

Now polls don’t tell the story very accurately. (In fact, there might be some good reasons why those ARG polls can’t be trusted.) But a Rasmussen poll the day before ARG’s poll on December 19 had McCain only four points behind Romney in New Hampshire and in third place in Iowa, up another six points.

McCain is still competitive everywhere else, too. The latest Fox poll has McCain in a statistical three-way tie with Huckabee and Giuliani for the lead nationally.

While the numbers may be debatable, what these polls tell us more generally is most likely true: McCain is surging despite little campaign cash and almost no media fanfare.

Elsewhere, other tumblers are falling into place such that McCain could come out of nowhere and win the nomination. After some legal issues made it uncertain whether Michigan’s nominee would be selected in a primary election or a state G.O.P. convention, Michigan’s primary election is finally going forward. But quite significantly, it’s going forward without the participation of the major Democratic candidates.

Both parties punished Michigan for attempting to move its primary ahead of New Hampshire. According to the RNC bylaws, the Republican party could only punish the state by withholding half the state’s convention delegates. The DNC can withhold all of Michigan’s delegates, however.

As a result, only Clinton and Gravel are on the ballot in Michigan’s Democratic primary. This makes things very interesting for another reason: There’s no party affiliation in Michigan. When a voter walks into a polling place on the date of a primary election they can ask for either a Democratic or Republican ballot.

If a sizable chunk of Democrats and independents decide not to vote in a mostly symbolic Democratic primary — voting in the Republican primary instead — McCain, who’s currently running third in the state behind Romney and Huckabee, might benefit.

Huckabee and Romney are currently in a dead heat at the top of the polls in Michigan. But, according to a recent state poll in the influential Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, “When Democrats and independents who say they might vote in the Republican race were included, McCain was at 21 percent, with Romney at 18 percent and Huckabee at 16 percent.” Tom Shields, president of Marketing Resource Group, which conducted the poll, noted that it showed “a rebound for McCain.” Further, he said, “If Independents show up in large numbers to vote in the Michigan GOP Presidential Primary on January 15, we could see a replay of the 2000 Presidential primary with a McCain victory.”

Again, a word of caution — that poll has a small sample size. However, Michigan is one of the few states where McCain has a great ground organization and, as Shields noted, there is precedent for this result. In 2000, McCain won Michigan in a tight race against George W. Bush, largely because the Democratic and Republican primaries were held on different days, which facilitated Democrats’ showing up to vote in the Republican primary. Republicans have long suspected that it was the votes of independents and Democrats that put McCain over the top in that race.

The McCain campaign issued a press release regarding this poll late last week, arguing that McCain’s surge is evidence that Romney’s “collapse in Iowa is being felt in Michigan.” That may be overstating things, as Romney could still easily take Michigan. But Romney did buy radio and TV ads in Michigan last week, suggesting that his campaign is definitely not taking Michigan for granted.

In the end, what all this means is that a credible scenario is emerging where McCain could capture the nomination. Expectations for him are almost nonexistent, so even third place in Iowa would be quite a show. If it’s a very close third place or a seemingly miraculous second-place showing, McCain will likely get the media to look at him anew and could ride that momentum into New Hampshire, where he’s only a few points down. If he wins New Hampshire, he’ll be a bona fide media darling heading into Michigan, where he’ll poach some Romney support and still likely capture the support of Democrats and independents.

With Huckabee’s high negatives, Republican support on Super Tuesday could solidify around McCain as the acceptable and viable alternative, and from there McCain captures the nomination.

Now of course this is all conjecture, and McCain’s capturing the nomination is still very much an outside chance. The lynchpin is his winning New Hampshire, where Romney, unlike McCain, is still in a position to spend heavily on advertising. Romney also has money to burn in Michigan and could conceivably stave off McCain in both states if the race is tight. But even being able to see a visible path to the nomination, considering where McCain has been languishing, is a significant development.

But the bottom line is this: If you’d stopped paying attention to McCain, it might be time to start watching him closely again.

— Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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