Thursday, January 17, 2008

An Emerging Republican Consensus? Can it be?

Four events. Three winners. South Carolina and Nevada up in the air. Can there possibly be any reason to think Republicans are settling on a consensus candidate?

Strange as it seems, there is one clearly emerging candidate---he who was declared dead in July: John McCain. (See my premature obituary for McCain here.)

Given McCain's losses in Michigan and Iowa, his one New Hampshire victory is hardly a reason to believe he is an emerging consensus. But the trends in polling across the nation and nine early states points to McCain as the unique candidate in the Republican field who has been strongly rising across all states. Further, his rise is not a "bump" from an early win: the rise predates the primaries, a crucial point.

While McCain does not lead in all these states (and has now lost two of three) his polls now put him in the competitive range in each of these states.

The most striking and compelling feature of the chart is the simultaneous upturn across all states, especially following the long term decline in McCain's support over most of 2007. Why McCain, and why then?

Part of the answer must be the fall of Rudy Giuliani in the fourth quarter of 2007.

After leading in national polls throughout the first three quarters, Giuliani's support took a sharp turn downward in the late fall, closely associated with the timing of the indictment November 8th of his long time friend, partner and associate, Bernard Kerik. (I also think failing to compete in early primaries, and then doing quite badly, is a contributing recent cause of Giuliani's decline. Late win strategies do not have a good track record... ask John Connally.)

McCain's rise comes after Giuliani's decline begins. Given that both candidates appeal more to moderate and somewhat conservative Republicans (as opposed to the conservative base of the party) it is likely that these voters turned from Giuliani and found McCain the most attractive among the remainder of the field.

McCain also shares with Giuliani the advantage of perceived "electability". As Giuliani's fortunes fell, McCain emerged as the candidate Republicans see as having the best chance of defeating any Democrat in November. In primaries, perceived viability is an important asset.

We can also see support for McCain surge in favorability ratings among Republicans. In the Diageo/Hotline national poll taken January 10-12, McCain scores a remarkably high 78% favorable rating among Republicans (with 31% very favorable). Giuliani is at 67% (with only 15% very favorable), Mitt Romney at 55% and Mike Huckabee at 53%. Granted this poll's timing reflects the New Hampshire win and not the Michigan loss, these are still notably high ratings for a candidate who has often alienated important elements of the Republican party.

McCain led the vote choice among Republican primary voters in the Diageo/Hotline survey by 32% to Huckabee's 17% and Romney's 15%. (McCain also lead in the Pew poll 1/9-13 by 29%-20% over Huckabee, and in Gallup/USAToday by 33%-19%. Again, none of these reflect Michigan's impact.)

On electability, McCain was rated most likely to defeat the Democrat by 42% to 17% for Giuliani in the Pew poll. That reversed the result from Pew's November survey that had Giuliani most likely to win by 45% to 16% for McCain.

Among Republican primary voters, more also see McCain as most likely to win the Republican nomination, regardless of their own preference. Diageo/Hotline has McCain with 82% saying likely to win, 25% very likely and 57% somewhat likely. Compare Huckabee at 56% (6%/50%), Romney 53% (6%/47%) and Giuliani 45% (7%/38%).

Also surprising, given McCain's testy relations with so many Republican groups, is the relatively small number who would refuse to vote for him. McCain suffers only 9% of Republicans who would never vote for him in the Pew poll. Huckabee is at 8%, Giuliani at 15% and Romney at a devastating 20%.

Since his nadir in November, McCain has achieved a remarkable recovery among Republican voters. Perceptions of him have changed substantially in the last three months, both in favorability and in electability as well as in support. And those changes are reflected across all of these states and the national polling as well. That is hard to argue with.

But perhaps we still should argue a bit. There are two things that may yet halt the McCain victory. One is the opposition of important organized groups within the Republican party. While the rank and file may have come over to McCain, those groups bitterly opposed to campaign finance reform remain adamant in their opposition, and they wield great influence among party elites as well as some grass roots organizations. The second barrier is the calendar which looks to pit McCain against Huckabee in South Carolina on Saturday. (Romney has apparently conceded South Carolina in favor of a Nevada effort. Fred Thompson has yet to rise in South Carolina polling despite a surprisingly animated debate performance.) South Carolina was McCain's Waterloo in 2000, and its large religious base should be Huckabee's best shot at a win since Iowa. A McCain win can spur his campaign on, but a loss can shake the progress he's made with voter perceptions of his support within the party. (I should add a third threat: McCain's mouth. The "straight talk" he prizes has gotten him in trouble before, and can again.)

A McCain nomination will certainly shake many powerful elements of the party. Whether they can prevent that depends in part on the development of a common choice among the alternatives to McCain. Romney remains anathema to 20% of Republicans. Huckabee is opposed by economic conservatives. Thompson has failed to emerge, and Giuliani has other problems. So while many Republican groups despise John McCain, it is not clear they can unite in embracing one of the alternatives who has also proven attractive to voters.

The candidate profile most like McCain's is Huckabee's. His sharp rise in November and December was similar in appearance, covering a number of states and national polls. But Huckabee's rise stalled in most states and has taken a fall generally since mid-December. His poor third place finishes in New Hampshire and Michigan dampened any Iowa momentum, and he must now win South Carolina based on overwhelming support among conservative Christians to remain in competition. He probably couldn't have a better state to try to pick up that win, but it is a make or break opportunity.

Romney's win in Michigan was a life preserver, but not necessarily a life saver. The Romney decision to concede South Carolina must be bitter given the substantial spending he committed to the state. It is also proof that he has failed to overcome opposition from Christian evangelicals who remain very reluctant to embrace a candidate of the Mormon faith.

Still, Romney's poll profile is at least generally upward sloping. It lacks the amazing coherence of McCain's (or even Huckabee's.) One can still imagine Romney picking up wins in the trench warfare of February 5th, and making the delegate count a serious battle after. But he does not appear to have unified his support across a variety of states.

And Fred Thompson remains the disappointment of the year. In paper qualifications, both in office holding and in ideology, Thompson's campaign came from central casting. But the actor failed to grow into the role. Here the uniformity of polling is a uniform decline across all states since the peak, just before the official announcement in September.

So when we survey the Republican field, only one trend stands out unambiguously and uniformly across states: McCain's rise and emergence as the only candidate doing better and better almost everywhere.

In July I said a McCain recovery would be a miracle of Biblical proportions. Now I've seen, yet I still find it hard to believe.