The McCain paradox

His insurgent campaign drove up Republican turnout -- but that may have helped to defeat him.

Published March 11, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Sen. John McCain's insurgent campaign may have crashed on the deck of the USS GOP like a fireball from hell Tuesday, but his maverick effort did succeed at one thing: McCain turned more Republican voters out to their neighborhood polling stations than had been seen in any primary election of the past 26 years.

But unfortunately for McCain -- who is famous for having survived two crashes and will probably rise like Phoenix from the ashes this time, too -- his success in peeling voters away from "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" long enough to cast their ballots also helped seal his defeat, since Republicans in most states voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush.

Not since Sen. Barry Goldwater, himself a feisty Arizonan, have so many Republicans been compelled to cast a vote in the party's nomination process. In the 18 states where GOP primaries have so far been held, 13.6 of the voting age population cast votes, a 4.3 percent increase from 1996, according to a study released Thursday by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. And even more dramatic: New records for primary turnout were set in 13 states, including New Hampshire, South Carolina and Washington.

Salon spoke to the study's author, Curtis Gans, about the McCain phenomenon, and what it might mean in November.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Your study calls this the highest Republican turnout in primary season in 26 years. To what degree was John McCain responsible for that?

Democratic turnout did not go up and the primaries in which McCain didn't participate weren't higher. It was McCain mobilizing people largely outside of his party for him and mobilizing people inside his party against him. But it wasn't all affirmative for McCain.

I can't recall a time in my lifetime in which a Republican mobilizes significant numbers of Democrats into the Republican primaries. What you had was the second highest turnout in Republican primaries. The only comparable time was Barry Goldwater's race in 1964, which was slightly higher.

Did McCain attract new voters to the party?

I think McCain attracted alienated independents: People who were dissatisfied with both parties, gridlock in Washington, inauthenticity and polls and the mess in Washington and wanted a knight on the white horse to clean it all up. I also don't think it was specifically campaign finance, it was just anti-existing politics. Were they new voters? The turnout of young people was small, but there may have been people who have been on the sidelines for a while.

What kind of role did the media play in energizing voters?

The media's love affair with McCain had a lot to do with making him credible and desirable. They loved him like they loved Bill Clinton. They essentially allowed Clinton, who was defeated in New Hampshire, to call himself the "Comeback Kid" and gave him credibility. This happens with a degree of frequency. In one respect, the media probably held turnout down. Through Super Tuesday, we have had 23 debates. Not one of them was carried on prime-time network television. The average viewing audience for the debates was 1.5 million; the average viewing audience on prime-time television show is 9 million people.

Who's going to capture the McCain vote in November?

A large percentage of the McCain independent voters will be on the sidelines this fall, unless he is a third-party candidate. It's too early to tell how they will split between Gore and Bush.

How did Republican turnout compare to Democratic turnout?

Republican turnout, for the second time in a row and only the second time in 40 years and probably forever, was higher than the Democratic turnout. Democratic turnout was the second lowest in 40 years. In the absence of this deus ex machina called McCain, or a villain, like a conservative Republican, Democrats have been trending downward. The only reason turnout was higher this year was that there was no other competition four years ago. The whole base of the party is mostly demobilized. The more specific reason this year was that the McCain phenomenon coupled with [Bill] Bradley's mistakes sucked the air out of the Democratic contest.

Based on the study's results, do you think we can expect higher voter turnout in November?

There is nothing in this primary season that says we will have a higher turnout in November, except if McCain runs as a third-party candidate. Primary turnout does not presage general election turnout. The highest turnout the U.S. ever had in the primaries was in 1972, when you had George McGovern and Richard Nixon running. In the general election that year, we had the second-sharpest downturn in turnout in the last 80 years -- because McGovern did not appear to be a credible candidate.

Mostly the active and interested vote in primaries. Overall primary turnout is between 40 and 50 percent of the general election turnout on a good year. The average turnout, when you combine both parties, is about 23 percent of eligible voters. Nothing has been done to fix the various problems that have propelled the turnout down -- 25 percent nationally and 30 percent outside the South over the last four decades.

Young people did not show up and cannot be expected to turn up in the general election this season. They have been drifting farther and farther away from politics. All the basic systemic factors argue for low or lower turnout. Given that we're now in a general election campaign that will last six or seven months, I think people will be tired of politics. Barring something unforeseen, we will have really low turnout.

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

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

John Mccain