Thursday, February 07, 2008

Newsbreak: Romney drops out

Those rumors that began circulating late yesterday turn out to be true. According to the Associated Press report, which (appropriately) focuses on the implications for McCain's candidacy now that Romney has thrown in the towel:
John McCain effectively sealed the Republican presidential nomination on Thursday as chief rival Mitt Romney suspended his faltering presidential campaign. "I must now stand aside, for our party and our country," Romney told conservatives.

"If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win. And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign, be a part of aiding a surrender to terror," Romney told the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

Romney's decision leaves McCain as the top man standing in the GOP race, with Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul far behind in the delegate hunt. It was a remarkable turnaround for McCain, who some seven months ago was barely viable, out of cash and losing staff. The four-term Arizona senator, denied his party's nomination in 2000, was poised to succeed George W. Bush as the GOP standard-bearer.

Romney launched his campaign almost a year ago in his native Michigan. The former Massachusetts governor and venture capitalist invested more than $40 million of his own money into the race, counted on early wins in Iowa and New Hampshire that never materialized and won just seven states on Super Tuesday, mostly small caucus states.

McCain took the big prizes of New York and California. [....]

McCain prevailed in most of the Super Tuesday states, moving closer to the numbers needed to officially win the nomination. Overall, McCain led with 707 delegates, to 294 for Romney and 195 for Huckabee. It takes 1,191 to win the nomination at this summer's convention in St. Paul, Minn. [Etc.]
So it appears that, in the end, the Republicans will coalesce behind a single candidate well before the Democrats--the opposite of what seemed likely at the beginning of January.

But in important respects that outcome is a bit of an optical illusion. If the Republican Party allocated each state's delegates on a proportional basis as the Democrats do, rather than awarding them on a winner-take-all basis, none of the leading Republican candidates would be anywhere close to commanding a majority of delegates. McCain's victory depended on the fact that Romney and Huckabee (representing different "conservative" constituencies within the Republican coalition) have been splitting the anti-McCain vote--and the point is that much of it is an anti-McCain vote. A significant proportion of Republican voters and activists genuinely hate and fear McCain, in a way that has no real parallel in the Democratic contest. (When polled, the great majority of Democratic voters indicate that they like and would support either Obama or Clinton.)

So McCain will get the Republican nomination, which gives him and his party time to rest and recuperate while the Democrats are still slugging it out. And through the mysterious operation of what Hegel would have called the cunning of reason, the Republicans have found themselves compelled to nominate their only candidate with anything approaching serious presidential stature.

But the internal Republican civil war hasn't really gone away--and this fact presents McCain with difficult dilemmas. If important elements of the Republican coalition remain intransigently opposed to McCain, that will hurt him in November. But if winning them over requires McCain to pander to them too conspicuously, and to compromise some of his core positions in visibly unprincipled ways, then that will also hurt his appeal--especially among independent voters and so-called "moderate" Republicans, who account for a lot of his strength.

(Yesterday the pollster John Zogby, in an intelligent analysis of the political situation "After Super Tuesday", noted that McCain might also be the only Republican candidate who could slow the hemorrhage of the party's Hispanic support. But many Republican voters are upset with McCain precisely because of his "moderate" position on immigration reform, and if McCain were to adopt strident immigrant-bashing rhetoric to overcome that distrust, then he would have to abandon any hope of neutralizing the anti-Republican backlash among Hispanic voters.)

Frankly, I suspect that in practice McCain will find these dilemmas impossible to resolve successfully. Furthermore, it's clear that a very large proportion of the electorate are simply fed up with having the Republicans in power, and it's hard to believe that even the strongest of the potential Republican candidates--that is, McCain--will be able to overcome that broad and deep mood of rejection. So my guess is that (barring some dramatic unpredictable developments, a caveat one always has to add) this combination of factors means that either Clinton or Obama will defeat McCain in the general election, whatever current polls might or might now say. In fact, I will be very surprised if McCain can actually win against either of them. Then again, life is full of surprises....

--Jeff Weintraub