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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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How McCain Won

John McCain won Florida by putting together the same basic voting coalition he forged in New Hampshire and South Carolina. What is impressive is that he did it in a closed primary. Registered Independents and Democrats were not allowed to vote, but McCain still won. Let's take a look at how he did it:

-McCain once again won those who are disenchanted by the Bush presidency. Most Florida Republicans (68%) approve of the Bush administration. Romney won them, 35% to 31%. McCain, however, scored an overwhelming, 22-point victory among the 32% of voters who disapprove. I think this is one of the evolving stories of the Republican contest. If you like Bush, you are inclined to Romney (or one of the other candidates, all of whom but Ron Paul do better among Bush supporters than Bush opponents). If you dislike Bush, you are inclined to McCain.

-From a certain perspective, this is an ironic feature of this campaign. McCain has been campaigning, in part, on the surge - the hallmark of the Bush presidency for the last year. Romney has been campaigning on fixing Washington. But the results do not follow these pitches. Why? I think one reason has to do with the long memories of voters. McCain's reputation as an anti-Bush maverick is still quite ingrained in their minds. So, those who disapprove of Bush are "naturally" inclined to McCain, despite Romney's anti-Washington pitch. Meanwhile, voters supportive of Bush recall how many times McCain has been a thorn in the president's side, and so are inclined to Romney.

-There is a lesson in all of this about the limitations of political campaigns. They only do so much to shape the thinking of the American voter. Those who have held opinions about political figures for a long time are not going to be easily disabused of them, despite how many political ads are run or adjustments in messaging are made. I think this hints at a mistake the Romney campaign made - it pivoted too late to a message about fixing Washington.

-McCain won voters for whom the economy is their top concern, 40% to 32%. Remember that McCain won them by a nose in New Hampshire. Isn't that strange, given Romney's message? Not necessarily. If we step back and look at it from a broader perspective - this can start to make sense. While it is true that Romney's campaign message has been about fixing the economy - Romney won voters who think the economy is healthy. McCain won voters who think the economy is sick. So, it should come as no surprise that the voters for whom the economy is tops went for McCain, given these divisions. If you think the economy is healthy, it is probably not your top concern.

-McCain won the ideological coalition he won in the previous states. He won liberals and moderates by a large margin. He split those who consider themselves "somewhat" conservative. And he lost those voters who consider themselves "very" conservative by a wide margin. We saw this in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

-My sense is that there is some causal connection between evaluations of Bush, evaluations of the economy, and ideological orientation. They influence one another - though we cannot say which opinons are primary and which are secondary (or if there is something else entirely that is driving all three). And, of course, we have to acknowledge that there are exceptions (e.g. the good number of Bush supporters who went for McCain). But I think that these three characteristics are somehow related to one another - and so many voters fall on one side or the other. McCain, as the candidate with a long history of being the anti-Bush "maverick," has an advantage with voters on one side of the divide, despite Romney's electoral pitch. Unfortunately, I can do little more than theorize about this relationship, though I think it is inherently reasonable. If I had more comprehensive exit poll data, it would be pretty easy to test whether these opinions are indeed related.

- Of course, elections can never be reduced to single causal narratives. There are several factors that do not fit into this story, but were nevertheless important.

First, like any winning candidate, McCain did well among many of the factions he lost, including Bush supporters. He lost them by just 4% last night. It was his 22-point victory among those who dislike Bush that is the noteworthy result.

Second, McCain was perceived by more Floridians as the most electable, edging Romney out by 13 points on that quality. As I have said time and again on this blog, there is a strong connection between perceptions of electability and vote choice.

Third, Romney won voters who said that cutting taxes was the higher priority, 35% to 29%. McCain won those who said reducing the deficit was more important, 42% to 27%. This, I think, shows the potential of a campaign - Romney has definitely developed some tax cutting bona fides with the Republican electorate.

Fourth, McCain won a decisive victory on the question of who is most qualified to be commander-in-chief, beating Romney by 18 points. He beat Giuliani by 30 points, which is unbelievable considering Rudy's "Test. Ready. Now." slogan. Relatedly, he beat Romney among military vets by 7 points.

Like I said, these cannot be brought under the narrative I developed above - though I think that each of them was important.

-What about the geographical distribution of the vote? Florida has four large metropolitan areas: Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, and Miami-Ft. Lauderdale. Romney won decisively in Jacksonville, 42% to 29%; he won a slight victory in Orlando, 33% to 32%. McCain won Tampa, 37% to 30%; he won big in Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, 45% to 22%. Unfortunately for Romney, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale/Tampa out-voted Orlando/Jacksonville by better than 2:1.

-A final point on the exit polls - bad news for Mike Huckabee. He won Iowa on the back of self-identified evangelicals. However, he only split them with Romney and McCain this time around. What is more, he garnered a measly 4% among those who do not identify themselves that way. He goes on to Super Tuesday, and I think he could be a factor in the South. But clearly his voting coalition is shrinking, not expanding.

-Jay Cost