McCain’s Challenge: Democrats Hugely Outvoting GOP

Posted February 6, 2008 at 6:27pm

After Super Tuesday, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) has every right to declare himself the Republican presidential frontrunner, but he has miles to go in getting himself and his party in shape to face his Democratic opponent.

[IMGCAP(1)]One measure of his task is that more than 14.6 million Democrats went to the polls on Tuesday and only 9 million Republicans — indicating a vast enthusiasm gap between the parties.

McCain polls reasonably well against both Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), but they have a sagging economy and a massive national desire for change going for them in addition to the energetic desire among Democrats to get the White House back.

Which Democrat will win is anybody’s guess. Clinton held a 79-delegate lead over Obama, 1,012-933, according to’s tally on Wednesday, but both are a long way from the 2,025 needed to wrap up the Democratic nomination.

By my count, Clinton outpolled Obama in the popular vote on Super Tuesday by fewer than 100,000 votes nationwide — 7,348,102 for her and 7,277,687 for him. In all the primaries up to now, excluding Michigan, where he was not on the ballot, she leads with 8,463,780 votes to his 8,263,662.

It’s next to a dead heat, and upcoming events in Louisiana, Washington state, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia definitely favor him. It will be almost a month before she’s back on safer territory in Texas and Ohio on March 4.

Clinton can claim it as a success that she stopped what was perceived to be a surge to Obama by winning in California, New Jersey and Sen. Edward Kennedy’s Massachusetts on Tuesday, but he won more states, 13 to her 8.

Clinton aides say that the Massachusetts victory was especially sweet, following on Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama. “We wanted to sock him in the nose,” one aide said.

Going forward, I’d say that demographics still favor her. There simply are more voters in her base — women, non-college graduates, whites and lower-income Americans and self-declared Democrats — than there are in his base among African-Americans, the well-off and well-educated, and independents.

In California, for instance, women made up 55 percent of the electorate and she carried them, 59 percent to 34 percent, according to exit polls. The two tied among males. Obama carried white males, 52-34, but her lead among white women gave her a narrow overall lead among whites. And she carried Hispanics by 69 percent to 29 percent.

On the other hand, demographics isn’t everything. Obama has poetry going for him — freshness, the themes of hope, change and renewal — against her more prosaic assets, including policy expertise and the loyalty of organization politicians.

Meantime, McCain is in a much more advantageous position among Republicans — and some GOP pros are urging that he take advantage of his position to put the wobbly party back in shape to compete in the general election.

McCain has 697 of the 1,191 delegates needed to clinch the GOP nomination to just 244 for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and 187 for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

On Super Tuesday, McCain racked up 3,594,380 popular votes to Romney’s 2,950,047 and Huckabee’s 1,782,840 and won nine states, including the biggest, to Romney’s six, mainly in the Mountain West and Huckabee’s five, all in the South.

It’s been an amazing comeback for the maverick Senator. On the basis of his second-place finish in 2000, he was the early-on primogeniture, or next-in-line, favorite for the 2008 nomination, then fell to the bottom over his courageous sponsorship of immigration reform and mismanagement of his campaign.

He has fought back — aided by U.S. successes in Iraq and the fact that the conservative movement that’s dominated the GOP since 1980 could not rally behind a single alternative candidate. McCain slipped by them all.

Romney and Huckabee are vowing not to quit, but the handwriting for them seems to be on the wall. McCain has got to figure out how to get them to admit the fact gracefully and rally behind him.

McCain scores well in head-to-head matchups against both Clinton and Obama — leading her 46.3 to 44.5 and trailing him by 45.1 to 44.4 in RealClearPolitics polling averages — but those numbers belie huge Democratic advantages heading into the general election.

In all the primaries held so far, just the three top Democratic contestants — Clinton, Obama and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) — amassed 25 million votes, compared with 12.5 million for six Republican candidates.

Moreover, McCain has yet to convince conservatives, especially the most vocal conservatives, that he is one of them. He has fallen short of a plurality of self-identified conservatives in virtually every primary, relying on moderates to carry him to victory. Often, he has lost among Republicans, winning only independents.

How to recoup? One GOP activist, Bradley Blakeman, a former aide in both Bush White Houses and now CEO of the conservative group Freedom’s Watch, says that McCain’s speech today at the Conservative Political Action Conference will be crucial.

But Blakeman also advises to win over Huckabee and Romney with honored positions at the GOP convention. He also thinks McCain should name a vice presidential running mate early.

His recommendation is former Rep. Rob Portman (Ohio), who’s “young and dynamic” and has held two Cabinet jobs, or Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. Either could help win a large swing state.

McCain should “act like a nominee” even before wrapping up the nomination — “but do so diplomatically, not arrogantly.” It might help if a senior Republican like former party Chairman Haley Barbour, now governor of Mississippi, convened a “come to Jesus” meeting of party leaders to make peace and reconcile recalcitrants to McCain.

Blakeman also told me that McCain should “get back to work” on Capitol Hill and take a visible role in solving problems and convene his top economic advisers to make recommendations for dealing with the current downturn.

“He ought to take advantage of the fact that Clinton and Obama will be absent and battling it out,” Blakeman said. But this assumes that McCain can get Republicans to stop battling among themselves.