When I traveled with the McCain campaign in early November, a reporter asked the Senator (who was still polling poorly) how he planned to win the nomination. McCain said he would do it the traditional way, by winning two of the following three early contests — Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina (he didn’t mention Michigan, which may help explain at some level why his message to Republicans in that state was so off-key).
McCain acknowledged that his prospects in Iowa weren’t very good, so it became clear he was banking on New Hampshire and South Carolina. Even back then, a McCain victory in New Hampshire seemed quite possible to me, but I wondered how he could reasonably expect to win in South Carolina, an extremely conservative state in which only Republicans can vote. McCain explained that, unlike in 2000, he had secured endorsements from key members of the state’s Republican establishment. But with polls showing him barely reaching double digit support and running well behind Romney, Thompson, and (in some polls) Giuliani, this sounded like wishful thinking.
Yet today, McCain is at the front of the pack in every South Carolina poll I’ve seen, and holds a lead of 8 percentage points over Mike Huckabee (ironically, the only contender not ahead of him in early November) in the RCP average.
I don’t understand South Carolina politics well enough confidently to provide an answer, but here are a few observations. First, let’s examine the question of whether McCain is getting a bounce from New Hampshire or is instead reaping the reward of the same general revival that helped produce New Hampshire. The answer may be “both.” Even before the New Hampshire primary, McCain had roughly doubled his level of support in South Carolina from its early November level, moving from roughly 10 to 20 percent. After New Hampshire, he quickly moved to roughly 30 percent, where he is today.
But, of course, this may not all be “bounce.” After New Hampshire, McCain basically traded places with Huckabee, and this may have more to do with voter exposure to some of Huckabee’s non-conservative positions than with New Hampshire election results. Indeed, it seems odd to suppose that many South Carolina Republicans would take their cue from a mixture of New Hampshire Republicans and Independents. At most, I suspect, the New Hampshire results prompted some to take another look at McCain.
The real question is how McCain is surviving (at least so far) the scrutiny of Republicans in a very conservative state. If McCain couldn’t command plurality support from Republicans in Michigan and New Hampshire, how is he commanding it (so far, it appears) in South Carolina. Are Lindsay Graham and company that influential?
It seems to me that McCain is riding quite a bit of luck. First, until very recently his opponents hadn’t pointed out to voters McCain’s main deviations from conservatism. Second, and this is a related point, Mitt Romney decided that Michigan, not South Carolina, was the place to revive his fortunes. Not only is Romney willing to go after McCain, but he also had the endorsement of South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint. His decision to “go dark” in South Carolina probably helped McCain. Third, Giuliani’s decison not to compete in South Carolina means the “moderate” vote won’t be split to any meaningful degree.
Finally, McCain doesn’t need a big number to win the South Carolina primary. He can lose two out of every three ballots cast and still quite possibly come in first. McCain’s stature coupled with the support of the state’s political establishment might well be enough to get him to 33 percent (only a little above where he was a year ago during his days as the putative front-runner). Subtract out 12 percent support for Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani combined, and you have three South Carolina-friendly candidates — two running as traditional conservatives plus one very strong social conservative — vying for the remaining 55 percent of the vote. That formula would very likely translate into a win for McCain.
UPDATE: As if on cue, I learn, via NRO, that an American Research Group poll has McCain in first place at 33 percent. Huckabee is in second, 10 points behind. Huckabee, Romney, and Thompson are dividing 56 percent of the vote.
The ARG poll shows “undecideds” at 3 percent. I suspect, that a significantly larger percentage of South Carolina Republicans actually are undecided.
MORE: Chris Cillizza offers his explanation of why McCain is so well-positioned in South Carolina. He focuses on demographic changes in the state since 2000, and cites election results since then that show a decline in the influence of social conservatives. But the winning candidates in those races — for example, Jim DeMint who has endorsed Romney– weren’t of McCain’s maverick-style political orientation. Thus, I’m not persuaded that the demographic changes explain why McCain seems poised to win.
STOP THE PRESSES: Rasmussen shows a very different race: McCain (24%); Huckabee (24%); (Romney 18%); Thompson (16%); Paul (5%); Giuliani (3%). Rasmussen also finds that “7% of voters have yet to make up their mind, 10% say there
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