The fascinating, puzzling, and surprising lesson from Super-Duper Tuesday is that America’s two main political parties are divided and uncertain. That’s not what the political pros and state leaders expected to see when they engineered the 2008 electoral calendar. The nomination battles were supposed to be all over on Feb. 5. They aren’t, not quite yet.
Republicans transfixed by their own compelling nomination fight ought to be paying more attention to the fact that the Clinton-Obama race continues, and continues to be bitter. It’s not just the Republicans who have major intra-party tensions. There is something broader and deeper going on in American politics right now. A nervous electorate, frustrated by a lengthy war and fearful of economic recession, is dissatisfied with the status quo but has yet to decide what course to set and whom to hire as navigator. You can see this tentativeness in both parties, not just in the GOP.
John McCain had an impressive night, a strong showing in states across the country. He took the biggest prizes, he won competitive contests in places such as Missouri and Oklahoma, and he owned the northeast. But still, it wasn’t a runaway. Mike Huckabee flexed his regional muscles, and Mitt Romney won several midwestern and western contests, plus picking up some delegates with solid performances in California and elsewhere.
I think the GOP results demonstrate the old maxim that in multi-candidate races, when two candidates smack each other around, the third person often comes along and picks up the pieces. Many core Republican voters in southern and border states who decided against McCain — which was a majority of the GOP vote, it must be noted — ending up going for Huckabee, culturally one of their own, instead of Romney, a Mormon CEO and former governor of Massachusetts. Can Huckabee win many more delegates and truly threaten McCain? I don’t see it. Can Romney somehow overtake McCain? Without Huckabee’s exit, it seems unlikely.
But McCain did not dominate the night. He won the night. There’s a difference. In many states, he still lost among actual Republicans, not to mention conservatives. To lead a victorious party into November, he will have to find some way to connect to the GOP mainstream — yes, I use the term advisedly — and to motivate disgruntled and distrustful Republican activists to fight for a candidate whom they may never love.
Which sounds an awful lot like what Hillary Clinton might have to do eventually. Thus my point.
– John Hood is chairman and president of the John Locke Foundation.