The GOP's Titanic?

That great sucking sound Tuesday may have been the sinking of Republican chances to win in November, observers say.

Published February 23, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Reactions from political experts about Sen. John McCain's victory in the Michigan Republican primary election Tuesday.

David Rodhe, Michigan State University

At the very least, it appears that the mix of Republicans vs. non-Republicans is different [in Michigan from South Carolina]. Nearly half the participants are not Republicans, so that's higher than in South Carolina. Also, the mix of people and preferences is different in the state of Michigan from the state of South Carolina. Republicans are somewhat more moderate than the Republicans in South Carolina; independents are somewhat more moderate; Democrats are somewhat more liberal.

The implications for Bush in the primaries and the general election are in opposite directions. I thought that even if McCain had won the South Carolina primary, his chances of winning the Republican nomination are very slim, and even slimmer having lost it. He needed to win tonight here to justify going on. Regardless of the outcome here, the next set of events, the big clump of states on March 7, 13 events on one day choosing 30 percent of the delegates to the Republican convention, is a strategic context that's very biased against McCain. And then a week later is what used to be called Super Tuesday, the Southern primaries. There are six of them, and that's also biased against McCain.

The implications for the general election are quite the reverse for George Bush. The longer the McCain insurgency goes on, the more difficult it's going for Bush in the general election. The party will be divided. The larger the number of people who rally around McCain, the more likely that they will be alienated by his loss. Unlike previous insurgencies in the Republican and Democratic party, these people have a place to go. They are not from the extreme of the party. They're coming from the center. They'll find it much easier to move to the other side in the general election.

I don't think it's among Republicans that George Bush has a problem. Put it this way. George Bush could win every Republican in the United States, and if he doesn't win anybody else, he loses 2 to 1. [Bush is vulnerable among independents] because of McCain's support, and because of the kind of campaign Bush has run. He ran to the right. He ran to appease conservative elements in the Republican Party. That's very appealing to the Republican Party. It's not nearly so appealing to independents and moderates, and Bush has to win a good portion of those if he's going to have a chance in the general election.

I don't know that it's true that a bounce effect does come. It depends on the situation. We saw a big bounce for McCain as a result of New Hampshire. That's because the victory was so big and so unexpected. I don't think either of those things were true of Bush in South Carolina, so the bounce was not a factor.

[The Democrat mischief vote] was pitched as a vote against [Gov.] John Engler, not George Bush. I think that it probably had relatively little effect. The black vote made up as much as 5 percent of the electorate, and it was a couple of black legislators pushed for an anti-Engler vote. But it was a very small percentage.

I doubt it very much that there was a big Democratic anti-Engler vote. You'll see it in the exit polls that Democrats who turned out probably would indicate that they are against Engler, but that's probably true of all Democrats. As for Geoffrey Fieger, there might be eight Democrats in the state who respond to what he wants. He was pretty close to the most dismal Democratic candidate in history.

Larry Sabato, University of Virginia

I think that this is a staying-alive win [for McCain]. It keeps him alive, but he's still very unlikely to win the Republican nomination. He simply does not appeal to Republicans.

The fact that you had 51 percent of independents and Democrats voting in this primary is stunning, and it tells you that -- once you finally get to the closed primaries -- Bush will win those easily.

Bush has a big bang coming on March 14. If you look at the lineup on that day, McCain is going to do very poorly. The question is what happens on the 7th. Even if McCain does well on March 7, I don't believe he can win the Republican nomination. But the only two conclusions I reach are that John Engler ain't gonna be on the ticket or in the Cabinet. And it's not because he couldn't carry the primary, but if you can't carry a Republican primary for the heavy front-runner, then you're no good at all in the general. So he's gone -- not that I think he had a chance to be on there anyway.

The other conclusion is that -- while it's impossible to predict the future -- if Gore does wins in the fall, I think that John McCain will be high up on the reasons why, right below the economy. This is a disaster for the Republican Party. They had a chance to thread the eye of the needle with George Bush. They had a chance to save millions of dollars to use between early March and the August convention to bloody Gore up.

But instead, John McCain came in, soaked up all the independents, thereby ending Bradley's challenge for all practical purposes, leaving Gore untouched, and tore Bush up one side and down the other. He's already lost 4 or 5 pints of blood. I think the Republican Party is not self-destructing, but it's so badly beaten up and bruised that Bush will have to play catch-up for most of the election.

I think the conditions are too favorable for the incumbent administration, even with the Clinton scandals. Prosperity, plus peace, plus semi-incumbency, plus a disorganized and split opposition party, equals victory for the incumbent party.

Bush has been losing [crossover appeal] throughout because McCain was soaking up the Democrats and independents, and it really changed the entire complexion of the election. If Gore wins [the nomination], I just don't see how Bush does it. These are not bad times. These are good times.

A fair number [of Michigan Democrats] were mischief makers. They got Engler good. They accomplished a serious embarrassment of John Engler, probably the most serious of his career as governor. He promised a firewall, and even this morning, he was telling reporters that Bush had a minimum of a 5-point margin. If this guy can't turn red tonight, he can't turn red.

The other side of this is that McCain is going to make a great deal of this, and he should. But he's not going to be the nominee of the Republican Party. He just simply does not have the support necessary among Republicans. But just say he becomes the Republican nominee. He's a sure loser, despite what the polls say now, because millions and millions of conservatives will not vote for him. They'll either vote for Buchanan, or they will find and sponsor another independent candidate. In the television age, your record doesn't matter as much as your positioning in the campaign. He's positioned himself as the Rockefeller Republican of the 2000 election.

Since it's still likely that Bush will win enough delegates to win, [the conservative establishment] would probably be better off to step back. The best thing that Pat Robertson could do for George Bush is to not be seen until late November. You know, Bermuda is lovely.

I don't predict, because I always tell people that he who lives by the crystal ball ends up eating ground glass. But it seems to me that the Republicans are in a downward spiral, and that -- while not self-destructing -- it will be very difficult for them to be competitive in conditions so favorable to the incumbent party.

My Democratic friends are deathly afraid that McCain will be the Republican nominee. But they forget that conservative Republicans are not going to vote for John McCain, or enough of them to make a difference. At the same time, they understand that every day he stands in this race he rips Bush's persona another yard or two.

Based on what's happened this year I'd be willing to bet that at least a third and maybe half of what I've said and what everybody else has told you is wrong. It's well worth noting.

Amy Silverman, staff writer at the Phoenix New Times who has written extensively about John McCain for Salon, Playboy and George

Nowhere has the New Hampshire bounce tossed John McCain as high as it has here in Arizona. Consider this: Last summer, McCain's Arizona polling numbers were in the toilet. At Christmastime, McCain and Bush were neck and neck. Now McCain has won Arizona, and he's done it -- so far as I've been able to tell -- with nary a sign nor a mailing. And without any Democrats or independents. Arizona is a closed primary, and McCain won the GOP primary here fair and square.

So why were Arizona GOPers switching to McCain even as Gov. Jane Dee Hull hoofed it door to door for Bush (something I don't recall her doing even in her own campaign)? I don't think it's because Arizonans suddenly changed their minds about McCain's temper or his hypocrisy on campaign finance reform or his ties to Charlie Keating or the fact that he's basically ignored his "home" state for the past 18 years.

Nah, it's that favorite son thing. Post-New Hampshire, when it began to look like Bush was beatable, no one was looking harder than John McCain's constituents. People around here are tickled at the notion that Arizona could produce a president: The lobbyists and big business types because they imagine themselves in a real-life version of the "West Wing"; the little guys just cause it'd be cool. And finally, I'm certain that more than a few Arizona Republicans supported John McCain just so they can say they did when the dust settles and the senator comes home with time on his hands and an enemies list. Watch out, Gov. Hull.

Bill Ballenger, editor of "Inside Michigan Politics"

This is unprecedented, it broke the mold. There were more independents and Democrats voting than Republicans in a Republican primary. However ... when you start driving independents and Democrats out to vote in a Republican primary and encourage them and mail and phone them, which McCain was doing here, you send off alarm bells in the Republican Party. Then they start energizing people who wouldn't have voted at all, who then decide, "Oh my god, I better vote because the Democrats are trying to hijack my primary."

It's a zero-sum game. As McCain lures independents and Democrats into the primary to vote for him, it automatically produces a counter-vote among Republicans who might not otherwise have voted or were wavering between candidates. Both sides ratcheted up turnout and the gap between McCain and Bush among Republicans is now far larger. I'm sure when all the polls come in here, it will be like it was in South Carolina, where McCain got creamed among Republicans.

This is a huge embarrassment for Gov. John Engler and the Republican Party, and they richly deserve it. They were the ones who orchestrated this primary. They have shamelessly demagogued it for 10 years and touted themselves as being the big-tent party. They've accused the Democrats of being exclusionary and picking their nominees in smoke-filled back rooms with union bosses basically dictating their nominees. Guess what? Their tent just collapsed. Their pet primary turned around and bit them in the ass.

The Democrats had a legitimate reason for being worried that their nominees might be picked by people other than Democrats. They had a bad experience back in 1972 -- George Wallace won the primary here. It was a huge embarrassment to organized labor and the Democratic Party leadership to have a Southern segregationist come in here and beat people who were champions of labor like Muskie and McGovern. Since then, they've always been suspicious and their national party rules won't allow them to seat delegates picked in open primaries. The Republicans have exploited this and claimed they are the open party. Now look what's happened.

The people of Michigan are a very feisty, independent group of people. They've done this before. In 1988, Mike Dukakis was on his way to the Democratic nomination, he had the endorsement of the Democratic establishment, and guess who wins the primary? Jesse Jackson. Huge upset -- it was Jackson's biggest win. In 1996, Pat Buchanan got more delegates and a better showing in Michigan than in any other state. These are results. The Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 1998 was the flamboyant trial attorney, Jeffrey Fieger, who was also Dr. Jack Kevorkian's attorney. This year, Fieger fed into an overall effort by a lot of Democrats to get out there and participate and make mischief in the Republican primary. One exit poll estimated that among the Democrats that turned out, they went for McCain 80 to 10.

Ironically, the Democrats and the independents seem to be trying to give the Republicans the best nominee they could possibly have for November, but [the Republicans] don't seem to want him. George W. Bush has been revealed as an empty suit -- he's the emperor's new clothes. This guy doesn't have crossover appeal to anybody, he comes across as vapid, unserious, a lightweight. He is not Mr. Invincible as his champions and supporters have spent the last year trying to convince the news media and the American public he was. Right now, there's got to be the queasiest of feelings in Republican stomachs that they are stuck with a nominee -- because I still think he's destined to get the nomination unless things implode -- who's a turkey and incapable of winning in November. They've gotten themselves into this situation and they richly deserve it.

To build on his success, McCain needs to retool his image. He needs to go to the Republican Party and say, look, I'm a candidate with tremendous crossover appeal. I'm as conservative as George W. Bush and I'm tired of not getting any support from conservative Republicans.

Joe Conason, Salon columnist

Michigan's rejection of George W. Bush is an ominous sign for the Republican Party. For the party's anointed candidate to lose in an open-primary state where the GOP is usually competitive suggests serious trouble next fall. There were signs late in the day Tuesday that unions were engaged in tactical voting against Bush and his local patron, Gov. John Engler -- and to the extent that those tactics succeed, they were a dress rehearsal for November.

Bush's troubles are far from over, of course. Stripped of his "compassionate conservative" costume, this rather conventional conservative now confronts potentially hostile electorates in New York and California. His minions tried to hijack the New York primary in traditional fashion, only to be rebuffed by the public and the courts; since then, the fissures within the Republican Party have widened to his detriment.

In California, the Republicans have an open primary that doesn't directly apportion the delegates; so there too, he may appear to be "stealing" the election, especially if McCain wins the presidential preference poll.

Watch for desperate tactics and accusations flying out from the vicinity of the Bush camp. He and his allies will try to take McCain down with them rather than let him take the party away from them.

By Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

MORE FROM Daryl Lindsey

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.