The Corner

Politics & Policy

What Trump and McCain Have in Common: Democrats

Rush Limbaugh this afternoon shared an odd and flawed bit of electoral analysis with his audience, which ought to be reconsidered.

Rush, in the process of criticizing conservatives who have made it known that they will never under any circumstance support the campaign of Donald Trump (a group that includes, I suppose it goes without saying, me), pointed to what he imagines to be a double standard on the part of the so-called (cue scary Theremin music) establishment.  Consider the 2008 primary, he said, in which establishment favorite John McCain emerged as the early favorite (National Review, as you may recall, opposed him in the primary, a fact that seems to have been lost on Andrea Tantaros, among others) at which point, in Rush’s telling, the establishment laid down the law: Our guy won, and now you have to support our guy.

I hold the patriot John McCain in high esteem; Senator McCain’s stock trades down right around there with hemorrhoids on my personal exchange. But I wonder whether any of those who argued that there wasn’t much difference between John McCain and Barack Obama look back on that sentiment and feel vindicated.

In any case, what Rush ignores is that John McCain didn’t become the Republican frontrunner through backroom maneuvering by the so-called establishment. In fact, he became the frontrunner in much the same way Donald Trump has: through a primary process frontloaded with so-called open primaries in which he enjoyed outsized support from non-Republican voters. If the 2008 Republican primary had been restricted to Republicans, John McCain never would have emerged as the frontrunner — Mitt Romney and others outperformed him among Republican voters in those early contests. For example, Romney won among New Hampshire Republicans, but McCain won New Hampshire overall on the support of non-Republican voters. Mike Huckabee won Republicans in South Carolina, but McCain won South Carolina.

That is one reason why conservatives should oppose open primaries.

There is an important difference here: Non-Republican support was dispositive for McCain in the early contests, but it isn’t for Trump. He is disproportionately supported by non-Republican voters, but he also has won among Republicans. The argument isn’t that Ted Cruz or someone else would be winning if not for non-Republicans voting in open primaries, but that Trump’s profile and support are swelled by the same process that made John McCain the Republican nominee in 2008, and by many of the same voters. It isn’t the establishment: It’s the Democrats. 

If you think that the crossover Democrats and independents helped inflict a poor choice in the GOP in 2008, what makes you think that they are doing Republicans a favor this time around?

Inspired by a caller who wondered how it might be possible to work with Democrats, Rush spent several days last week arguing with some vehemence that such a thing is not even desirable — that what is needed is not to find common ground with Democrats, but to defeat them. Fair enough. What’s emerging is a very strange argument: that Trump is the only guy who can work with Democrats to defeat the hated Republican establishment, which is too eager to work with Democrats. 

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