Primary Season Lessons

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:30

    1. You can't be the Republican nominee if Republicans don't want you to be. This is the overriding lesson of Sen. John McCain's campaign. What made him attractive in New Hampshire and to the unusual primary electorate in Michigan is precisely what made him so unattractive in normal GOP primary environments (by normal, I mean an electorate roughly comprised of 66 percent Republican voters, 33 percent Independents and others).

    The core constituencies of the GOP hammered McCain from coast to coast. In Georgia, for example, 77 percent of Republicans voted for Bush, 19 percent for McCain. Among religious conservatives there, the numbers (80 to 12 percent) were even worse. Although this distribution of vote was less extreme in other states, Bush averaged 2-to-1 majorities among self-identified Republicans overall. McCain was only remotely competitive among Republicans in New England and even amongst that subset, Bush defeated him decisively.

    2. The Virginia Beach speech was a disaster. My colleague on the Fox News Channel Election Night Decision Desk, Arnon Mishkin, likes to say that the best strategy in politics is to have your opponent deliver an incredibly stupid speech. McCain's Virginia Beach assault on Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell (and by extension, religious conservatives generally) was one of the stupidest political speeches ever.

    Not only did it alienate religious conservatives, it caused McCain's "unfavorable" ratings to shoot upward among Republican primary voters in general. And it raised the "McCain temperament" issue in a way Bush never could. What kind of person, after all, goes out of his way to attack the most important constituency within the Republican Party? Pandering to a busload of liberal political reporters is all well and good, but it isn't going to cut any mustard with the people who actually vote in GOP primaries. Following the Virginia Beach speech, McCain's "negative campaigning" numbers skyrocketed. Gov. Bush was the beneficiary.

    3. Electability is not an argument. Bush was actually the first candidate to make this mistake. He argued incessantly in New Hampshire (and indeed, throughout most of 1999) that he was the Republican candidate who was best equipped to defeat Vice President Gore in the fall. Because virtually every national poll supported this view, Bush was able to raise $70 million before any votes were cast.

    What resonates with fundraisers, however, is of little interest to voters. McCain trounced Bush in New Hampshire, even though GOP primary voters there thought Bush more likely to defeat Gore in the fall. Amazingly, the McCain campaign then proceeded to make the same argument/mistake. It worked as well for him as it had for Bush earlier.

    4. Republicans need McCain inside the tent. This may seem obvious but it bears restatement. Despite his shortcomings as a candidate and strategist, Sen. McCain energized nontraditional Republican constituencies and enticed them into the party's primaries. Republican turnout doubled in the South Carolina, Michigan, Virginia and Washington primaries and increased across all of the Super Tuesday states. Although his departure from the race has been petulant and self-involved, McCain waged an exciting campaign that has earned him a spot on Bush's short list of runningmates. It is entirely in the interests of the GOP to keep McCain on the team. Which is why no less than former Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole has been assigned that very task.

    5. Experience will be a big issue in the fall. The glaring weakness of the Bush campaign continues to be the "Bush Knowledge" question, which was phrased as follows on the Voter News Service exit polls: "Regardless of how you voted today, do you think Governor George W. Bush has the knowledge to serve effectively as president?" Roughly half of all (Democratic and Republican) primary voters in California thought Bush had "the knowledge to serve effectively" as president. But roughly half thought he did not. Bush will likely spend the next four months attacking this latter view, as well he should. He can't win if voters think he doesn't have the basic tools for the job.

    6. I'd rather be right than president means you'll never be president. What is there to say about Bill Bradley's presidential campaign? Was there ever a sadder sack? Yes, it's true that after New Hampshire, there was a virtual blackout on Bradley coverage. Yes, it's true that the Gore campaign unfairly attacked him. Yes, it's true, he was in many ways an appealing candidate (any candidate who hates the press as much as Bradley can't be all bad). But Bradley's posture as the lonely figure in search of a "higher" politics was beyond tedious. By Super Tuesday, every important Democratic constituency had written Bradley off as a crashing bore and hopeless loser. Who could blame them?

    7. Clinton nominated Gore. There was no Clinton fatigue in the Democratic primary states of Super Tuesday. There was?clearly?Clinton fatigue in NH. But in virtually every other state across the country (and particularly in core Democratic states like MA, RI and MD), Clinton fatigue was not an issue, at all. To the contrary, Clinton's job-approval rating paved the way for Gore's candidacy, in the same way that Reagan's job approval rating paved the way for then-Vice President Bush in 1988.

    This is not to suggest that Clinton fatigue won't be an issue in the fall campaign. In California, fully two-thirds of all primary voters held an unfavorable view of Clinton as a person. But within the closed environment of Democratic primary voters, Clinton was a huge plus for Vice President Gore.

    8. The electoral map indicates a close race in the fall. The press is now insisting that Gore enjoys a huge advantage over Bush in the general election campaign. This is simply not true. A review of the Electoral College map tells us why. Bush is virtually certain to win 23 states with 202 Electoral College votes. It is unlikely that the Gore campaign will even compete in 18 of these states. Assuming he does win those 23 states, Bush only needs to win Colorado, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania to win the election (regardless of the overall popular vote).

    The map is much more forbidding for Gore. He begins with an electoral base of 136 votes (including California and New York). Getting his number to 270 Electoral College votes requires victories in Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey and Connecticut. With the exception of Connecticut, those are all tough states for a Democratic presidential candidate.

    Finally, while the press grieves the loss of its favored son, and begins the process of learning to love Al Gore, the primaries remind us that the oldest rule in politics (you've got to have friends) still applies.

    After it was over on Super Tuesday, I stood inside the GMC Garage on W. 48th St. with Rep. Peter King (R-NY) and listened as two aides try to cheer him up. They were telling him he hadn't made a mistake in retracting his endorsement of George Bush; he'd done the right thing signing on with Sen. John McCain. As evidence, one of the aides remarked that he had seen Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) on television holding a sign at a Bush rally in California, just a face in the crowd. "That could have been us," the aide said with disdain. Rep. King, by contrast, had been all over the newspapers in the run-up to Super Tuesday, all over the local news. He'd even appeared on Meet the Press with Tim Russert. In the aide's calculation, media exposure was a far, far better thing than sign-holding obscurity.

    And that, more than anything else, was what was wrong with John McCain's doomed campaign. At the end of the day, he didn't have any friends of the kind who would hold a sign at the airport. He had publicity hounds like Peter King instead.

    John Ellis heads up the Decision Desk team for Fox News Channel on election nights. He is a first cousin to Texas Gov. George W. Bush. He can be reached at