About this Blog
About The Author
Email Me

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« On Yesterday's Results | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | Fred '08, RIP »

Is McCain Inevitable?

James Madison had nothing to do with the Republican nomination system. Nevertheless, it bears his imprint. Madisonianism is deeply ingrained in the American political consciousness. When we invent new political institutions, as both parties did in the 1970s when they redesigned their nominating schemes, our inventions often bear the mark of the Father of the Constitution.

Madison saw the government as a mediator of factions, none of which can be expected to have the national interest at heart. Therefore, a true republican government must prevent one faction from imposing its narrow interests upon the whole. This is why our system has so many "checks and balances." They enable one faction to stop another when its interests are threatened. Madison's thinking was that this kind of system would ensure that the national interest was never sacrificed for factional gains.

The rules governing how the Republican Party selects a presidential nominee reflect this Madisonian objective. Consider:

(1) A broad base of people may factor into the nominating system. In some places, anybody can vote. In other places, only Republicans can.

(2) Voters have an important, but limited, role in selecting the next nominee. They do not directly choose the nominee. Instead, they choose delegates who choose the nominee (in some states, they choose delegates who choose delegates who choose the nominee!). In most cases, delegates only have limited obligations to the votes of their states. Many delegates have no obligation at all.

(3) The manner of choosing delegates is diverse. Some are chosen based upon the primary/caucus results in congressional districts, and some based upon statewide results. Some are selected by winner-take-all rules, some by proportional rules, some by state conventions, and some by virtue of their role in the RNC.

(4) A candidate must win an outright majority of delegates to become the nominee. Nobody can win by appealing to a narrow slice of the party - be it ideological, demographic, or geographical.

(5) This is largely a bottom-up system. State parties and governments have the biggest say in how delegates are chosen - the RNC simply establishes basic guidelines.

So when we look closely, the seemingly quirky nature of the nomination process reveals its Madisonian roots. Candidates need to build broad coalitions to win. When they fail to do that, disenchanted minorities can slow or even stop the nomination of a candidate who lacks universal appeal.

Now that he is the frontrunner, this is the problem that confronts John McCain. In every previous cycle in the modern era - the Republican who wins South Carolina wins the nomination. A big reason is that the victory in the South, the heart of the Republican's general election strength, signals who the favored candidate is. The rest of the candidates eventually recognize this, and they bow out. McCain won South Carolina, and he is better positioned now than he was a week ago - but the race is not over.

McCain is staunchly opposed by a vocal group of conservatives who view him as an unreliable maverick. You can hear their most prominent advocate on the radio every weekday from noon to three eastern. You can see them in the exit polls, which show that McCain has not yet won a (statistically significant) plurality of Republican voters, nor those who consider themselves "very conservative." In years past, opposition to the Republican frontrunner tends to fade away after South Carolina, with the supporters of the loser accepting that their guy can't prevail and reconciling themselves with the victor. But that does not seem to be happening this year. There is a faction of the party that seems unwilling to accept McCain. It might be able to stop him.

It should be clear from the nomination rules that somebody could find enough delegates to oppose McCain on the convention floor - even if he did not offer a serious challenge early in the process. From the unpledged delegates, to the delegates allocated by conventions, proportional allocation, and the congressional district delegates - there are a lot of ways to win convention support even as somebody else "wins" states. Eventually, an opposition candidate would have to break through with outright victories. He cannot win the Republican nomination underground - but the way delegates are allocated could keep the race close until he breaks through. Importantly, about 65% of South Carolina voters preferred somebody other than John McCain. This tracks with his standing in the national polls. So, the anti-McCain faction might have an audience - if it can find a candidate to rally behind. Also of importance: 95% of all delegates have yet to be allocated. And even after Super Tuesday, 45% will remain to be allocated. The faction has time to make its case.

I am not saying it will be successful. McCain has a very strong chance to win the nomination. One feather in his cap is that opposition to him does not cut cleanly along any ideological line. Rick Santorum is vehemently opposed to him, but Tom Coburn just endorsed him. Another asset is that the Republican delegate allocation system is much less charitable to losers than the Democratic scheme - this gives the opposition less time to get its act together.

My point is simply that the opposition to McCain could prove to be important. For better or worse, the old maverick from Arizona has inspired intense opposition in some quarters. In a nomination system such as this - that opposition might ultimately be able to stop him.

With McCain as the frontrunner - the way to look at this nomination battle should shift. Most of us had written McCain off last summer - so we were not expecting him to precipitate an ideological battle. If anything, we were expecting some kind of bottom-up opposition to Giuliani - with party elites accepting his candidacy, and rank-and-file pro-lifers rejecting it. The rise of McCain scrambles all of this. There is an ideological conflict brewing in the GOP - but not the one we thought we would see. This means that the way we have looked at nominations over the last few cycles does not hold. I think this contest could be longer than many have intuited - and the results in Florida could determine exactly who emerges as the "anti-McCain" candidate.

Do not expect the press to catch this dynamic. It understands the here-and-now of contemporary politics much better than the forces and institutions that have guided it for decades. One effect of its misunderstanding will come on Super Tuesday, which it will treat just like the general election. That evening, it is going to focus relentlessly and exclusively on who wins which states - as if delegates are allocated like Electoral College electors. Do not get caught up with this, regardless of how splashily it is staged. With the prospect of a McCain candidacy, and the ideological divergence it implies - this is not the best way to analyze Super Tuesday, even though it is an important aspect. We also need to wait until the next day to see how the delegates are meted out - that will indicate just where this race is going to go.

If McCain were a consensus candidate - like Bob Dole in 1996 or George W. Bush in 2000 - I would say that his victory in South Carolina, combined with his lead in the national polls, would be sufficient for the nomination. Florida would offer a final validation - and that would be it. But McCain is not this candidate. He has serious, entrenched opposition - and in a system such as ours, entrenched oppositions are given opportunities to stop something from happening. I do not know if it can stop McCain, but I expect it to try.

-Jay Cost