Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

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Thursday, May 02, 2002
Interesting speculation at about the probable impact of a McCain presidential candidacy on down-ballot races. Of course, what really matters is close races, and many of these (at least in 2002, which isn't directly relevant, but pretend it is) are in Bush states. I suspect that if he ran as a Democrat he would help Democrats, because he would increase Democratic voter turnout among whites in particular, which would ultimately help them in these Bush-state squeakers. If he ran as an Independent, his influence is harder to predict. I suspect, however, that the key question is how well he was doing as an Independent.

Of course, I think it is vanishingly unlikely that McCain would run as a Democrat because that would mean obeisance to the Democratic interest groups - trial lawyers, teachers' unions, "civil rights" hucksters, abortion-rights extremists - that McCain either opposes or, at best, has no use for. If he didn't play ball, he'd never get the nomination; if he did, you'd see a replay of the Lieberman effect: his remaining center-right constituency would drop away in disappointment and the core of party activists still wouldn't trust him. Switching to the Democrats is the most likely road to victory (Independents don't win), but McCain isn't always interested in victory. He's more interested in history. And switching to the Democrats would leave him a footnote, unless he won. I don't think he'd try it; he'd rather flame out spectacularly as an Independent or not run at all and be a powerful influence from the sidelines.

If he ran as an Independent - which is certainly possible - the key question to how he affects the downmarket races is how well he was doing in the presidential race. I don't think, by the way, that McCain's constituency is identical to Perot's. For one thing, McCain was incredibly popular among moderate to right-wing Jews, and Perot had virtually no Jewish vote. I suspect that, relative to Perot, McCain's base is more urban, more affluent, more educated, and less Southern. If McCain ran strong, the race would look like 1912, with the Democrat coming in third. What, after all, would a Democrat say running against McCain and Bush? McCain would run to Bush's right on the war, leaving the Democrat playing me-too or left-most of three candidates. Neither is a winning strategy. McCain would run to Bush's left on many domestic issues, particularly the ones that Democrats want to play up: Social Security, health-care and education. That's bad for Bush, but it only helps the Democratic candidate if McCain ran weak; then Bush would look like an extremist on these issues, and the Democrat would benefit. But if McCain ran strong, centrist Democrats would gravitate to him rather than the Democratic candidate. Moreover, running as an Independent, McCain can, if he wants, pick a handful of issues on which to distinguish himself from Democratic Party orthodoxy. It doesn't really matter which ones - school choice, affirmative action, tort reform, etc. - anything that can play into the theme of opposition to special interets. He'll beat Bush with that club over the tax cut primarily, but he'll need to beat up the Democrats, too, to avoid being tagged as a Democrat. And anything he picks will highlight the Democratic Party position on an unpopular issue.

If McCain does run strong in this fashion, he could get over 30% of the vote. In that case, downmarket candidates in both parties will be scrambling for his endorsement, and he'll help the candidates he wants to help. These will be Democrats in the South and Republicans in the North, and I think he'll do more to help the latter than the former. If he runs weak, appearing to be a "me-too" to the Democrats on domestic issues generally, but with a stronger foreign policy resume, then he'll register as a protest candidate only, and get a very small share of the vote. If McCain doesn't look like he could come in second, natural Democrats will stay with their party's candidate, and McCain won't bring out new natural Democrat voters, only protesters.

So what brings protesters out? Depends on what they are angry about. Nader voters were angry that Democrats were too right-wing. To the extent that they voted in down-ballot elections, they voted Democrat. So I think Nader's right that he helped the Democrats in down-ballot races. Perot voters were angry about the recession, deficits, tax hikes, foreign competition, immigration, and special interests capturing the government. They were classic populists and probably leaned GOP in down ballot races, assuming they voted for anyone but Perot. McCain would attract some of these guys, but not too many, because he's clearly a creature of Washington, happy in and with government, rather than a man of the people. A vote for McCain is a vote for a virtuous leader, not a populist one. So what would bring a protest vote out for McCain?

If Bush sells out Israel (which I certainly don't expect), center-right Jews might vote for him. That's half of a percent of the vote, and they'd be GOP voters down-ballot. If the deficit balloons, he could bring out the Tsongas-Rudman green-eyeshade vote. That's probably another half of a percent, and they'll vote GOP downmarket because these people all live in liberal parts of the country where the GOP is relatively liberal on social issues. If Bush appears to be pandering hard to the Christian right, and McCain taps into anger over that, any incremental voters he brings out will, again, be natural GOP down-ballot, because they'll be more conservative voters from liberal states. McCain is a centrist, his vote would help the Democrats if he brings out new voters in states that are right-of-center. But I don't think McCain is very popular in these states. Finally, if we get a double-dip recession, and people are really pissed-off at Washington where nothing gets done and special interests control both parties, McCain might bring out a pure protest vote. But who knows where these people will vote down-ballot? If the Democrats control the legislature going into the election, the GOP probably would have an edge at winning these votes, as they did in 1992, because these people will just vote against whoever is in power. But if the GOP controls the legislature, and the economy was in the toilet, I don't think the Democrats would need McCain's help to win back everything.

Bottom line: I can see McCain seriously disrupting established electoral patterns if he ran as an Independent and ran strong, strong enough to potentially take 2nd place. But as a minor candidate, he'd marginally help the GOP down-ballot.

By contrast, in his own race he could make a big difference by running a distant third, because he would lock up the entire Democratic base states for the Democrats, as relatively liberal GOP voters defect to him. Bush would be, relatively speaking, on the defensive in the Electoral College facing a McCain vote in the single digits and a reasonably close election. (If it's not reasonably close, McCain is John Anderson, and has no impact at all.) So, my conclusion is the opposite of Kaus's. The Democrats should encourage McCain to run as an Independent if they think they have a chance of taking the White House, because his presence increases their chances, even if it weakens their shot at holding Congress.