Charleston — In the end, the same South Carolina Republican establishment that killed John McCain’s presidential candidacy in 2000 saved it in 2008. And when you say “establishment,” you’re not talking about some faceless organization – no, the same people who supported George W. Bush and worked hard to sink McCain in 2000 are here tonight, at the Holliday Alumni Center on the campus of The Citadel, celebrating McCain’s victory in the South Carolina primary. Things change.
Bobby Harrell, the powerful speaker of the state House of Representatives, is here, just as he was — as the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee – at the Bush victory party in 2000. Lots of other top officials and influential political figures are in the same position, and I ask Harrell what difference their support made.
”I don’t think that endorsements generate you tons of votes in and of themselves,” Harrell tells me. “I think endorsements bring people to the team who understand the lay of the land to go get the votes. That’s the difference. George W. Bush had those folks who understood the lay of the land to go get the votes. This time, John McCain has those endorsements.”
And that can make all the difference in the world. Also in the crowd is Mark McKinnon, the media whiz who played a key role in the Bush victory in South Carolina and is now working for McCain. “When I came here in 2000 from New Hampshire, it felt like we had the home-field advantage, like we [the Bush campaign] were the home team,” McKinnon tells me. “That’s the way it felt this time with McCain – it felt very similar, like we had a home-field advantage.”
With that advantage, McCain won, topping Mike Huckabee by three percentage points, or about 15,000 votes, with Fred Thompson a distant third and Mitt Romney a bit farther back in fourth place. “It took us a while,” McCain says when he appears onstage to give his victory speech, “but what’s eight years among friends?”
How did McCain do it? By performing pretty well with the groups that have always supported him, and well enough with those that haven’t. For example, according to exit poll numbers published by CNN, McCain did well, but not overwhelmingly well, with the 25 percent of the South Carolina electorate who have served in the U.S. military. McCain got the support of 36 percent of them , while Huckabee got 29 percent. Among older voters, McCain did well, too, winning 42 percent of those over age 60, compared to Huckabee’s 27 percent.
But McCain also performed better than expected among the groups that were thought not to support him. According to those CNN numbers, 60 percent of those who voted Saturday described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, and McCain got the support of 27 percent of them, to Huckabee’s 43 percent. “That’s kind of like what Vice President Bush did in 1988,” David Woodard, a professor of political science at Clemson University who runs the Palmetto Poll, tells me in a phone interview. (Woodard, who is not affiliated with any campaign, is on the other side of the state, not at the McCain victory event.) “You don’t have to get them all, you just have to get a good chunk of them. McCain understood he would never get as many evangelicals as Huckabee, but he just needed to get a good portion.”
Why the evangelicals supported McCain is another question. Cyndi Mosteller, a strong social conservative who headed the Charleston County Republican party from 2003 to 2007, and who now supports McCain, tells me the split is between those who voted ideologically and those who voted strategically. “They ask different questions,” Mosteller says. “People who ask the question, ‘Who’s the most like me?’ are probably going to answer Mike Huckabee. But the ultimate question is ‘Who can win and lead this country?’ And I think a layer of evangelicals who ask that next question ended up being for McCain.”
In any event, McCain did well enough with voters who weren’t in his natural constituency. He even did OK with a group that really wasn’t in his natural constituency: people who named illegal immigration as the most important issue facing the country. Twenty-four percent of them voted for McCain, versus 33 percent for Huckabee.
Looking at those figures, you don’t have to be a mathematician to get the impression that McCain and Huckabee together cover a lot of territory among Republicans. There has been a lot of talk during this campaign, from Iowa forward, that the two men have some sort of de facto non-aggression pact. Whatever the case, it’s safe to say that the campaigns aren’t at each other’s throats. At McCain’s victory rally in New Hampshire, there was loud booing when Mitt Romney appeared on a giant TV screen to give his concession speech. Nobody wanted to listen; McCain’s staff didn’t even turn up the sound. At The Citadel, when Huckabee pops up on the big TV to concede, there is respectful quiet; the sound comes up and everyone listens to Huckabee, who calls McCain a gracious victor and thanks McCain “for running a civil and a good and a decent campaign.” The friendship continues.
As for McCain himself, the graciousness was all directed toward the state that rejected him eight years ago. Losing then, he tells the crowd, “just gave us the opportunity to spend more time in this beautiful state; to talk with you and listen to you; and to come to admire all the more the deep patriotism of South Carolinians, who have sacrificed so much to defend our country from its enemies. It is a great privilege to have come to know so many of you, and I am very grateful for and humbled by the support you have given our campaign.” The message: The past is the past.
Leaving the Citadel, I run into Mark Salter, McCain’s closest adviser who was with him every day of the 2000 battle. Winning this time is “immensely satisfying,” Salter tells me, not for any sort of vindication but because it shows how tough McCain is, coming back not only from the 2000 loss but from his campaign’s near-death experience last summer. I bring up something that people who have watched McCain for a long time, have seen him make self-destructive mistakes in South Carolina and elsewhere, have told me: When the chips are down, when things are going badly, McCain is the best there is. It’s when he’s flying high that he screws up. Salter laughs. “We’re trying to avoid that,” he says.