, Research Paper
John McCain, the Senator from Arizona, declared his candidacy for President on April 14, 1999 , another name for the GOP ticket that was not made too much fuss about. Not given much consideration was allotted to him by the Republican party establishment that has already selected its white knight who would win them the presidency, Governor George Bush of Texas. But, Sen. McCain catapulted to national attention when he unexpectedly won the New Hampshire primary trouncing the established favorite with a 19 point lead. Ever since then, his campaign has been heading down stream with significant losses suffered in Delaware, South Carolina, Washington, and Virginia. And his poor showing on Super Tuesday including his failure to capture delegates in either the New York or California primaries has all but ended his bid for the presidency. The main rationalization of this downfall is because McCain did not appeal to Republican registered voters but other reasons also include negative campaigning, both his response to them and his lack of using them against his main opponent, Bush. In addition to these explanations, others also include the personality factor and the lack of time to campaign in these primaries as he had in New Hampshire. By examining these factors, it is easy to comprehend why the McCain crusade failed to win the majority of primaries and secure the required number of delegates.
Before analyzing the ruin of Senator McCain s campaign, and explanation of the Republican party and the Republican primary system is essential in understanding why it failed. The Republican party had its official beginnings as the opposition to the enactment of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act which stated that each territory the right to decided if slavery is permitted. Early Republican platforms appealed to commercial interests as well and favored homesteading, internal improvements, construction of a transcontinental railroad and protective tariffs. After the North s victory in the civil war, the Republican party reigned over the White House until the Great Depression and it declined even further with the popularity of the democratic President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the past fourty years, the Republican party attracted white southern Democrats, people who are more prosperous and better educated than Democratic supporters and occupy managerial or professional position or run small business, live in or move into well to do suburban areas and are predominantly Protestant. In the 1990s, conservative religious groups were attracted to the Republican party due to its anti-abortion and support for school prayer platforms and made a concentrated effort to expand their influence within a party. The rise of the Christian right amongst the Republican party has led to internal conflicts between them and traditional republicans and thus, any candidate who hopes to win the nomination must find a means to appeal to both.
The primary system was introduced at the beginning of the century by Progressive reformers in an attempt to weaken the power of party leaders by taking candidate nominations out of their hands. Primary elections are used to select each party s candidates for the general election. At the Presidential level, primary elections are indirect, they are used to select state delegates to the national nomination conventions, at which the major party presidential candidates are chosen. In some states, only registered members of the party may vote in a primary election (a closed primary), whereas other states allow all registered voters to decide on the day of the primary in which party s primary they will participate (open primary), thus, allowing for cross over voting. The other mode of selecting a party s candidates is caucuses, which are nominating processes that begin with precinct level meetings throughout the state. Once again, the state decides whether or not the caucus is an open or closed one. In caucuses delegates are elected to statewide conventions at which delegates to the national party are chosen. In some states that delegates are proportioned according to the vote, for example New York, whereas in others there are winner take all contests such as in California. A crucial question for serious presidential candidates is not whether they should go into the primaries, instead, it is which particular ones they should enter. Thus, it is important for the candidates to perform well during the earlier primaries and caucuses such as New Hampshire and Iowa since it secures better media coverage for subsequent races. It is also important for candidates to tailor their messages depending of the state that they are campaigning in since focusing on more liberal issues in states that have open primaries may increase the number of crossover voting. Other considerations include the size of the state since the larger states have more delegates apportioned to them, thus allowing the candidate to achieve far greater gains by campaigning longer in larger states than they would in smaller states. And finally, the geographical region is also significant since most Southern, Western and Southwestern states are have strong conservative values whereas the North East states tend to be more liberal, the Midwest is divided evenly between the two parties . This, too, requires the candidate to tailor his message so to appeal to the broadest base of voters. Thus, for a candidate to be competitive in the primaries or caucuses, he needs to a head start in New Hampshire, requires an extended campaigning interval in larger states and needs to tailor his message based on whether or not the state holds open primaries and on the geographical location of the state.
The party established George Bush announced his bid for the GOP nomination for presidential candidate on June 12, 1999 and had raised by June 30th an unprecedented $36.2 million so far for his campaign, a record sum that dwarfs the money raised by his Republican opponents. Not only did he attain the warchest to conduct his campaign but he also had the overwhelming support of the Republican party. So great was the endorsement of the party that the republican Governor of Arizona, Jane Hull, campaigned against the home town Senator. McCain s campaign, at the beginning, mainly focused on the issue of campaign reform which led to even further rejection by the GOP party who claimed that rejecting soft money would hurt the party’s traditional edge in fund-raising by allowing unions to keep giving money to Democrats. Bush, on the other hand racked up further points with the establishment by stating that rejecting soft money would hurt Republicans and would give control of the government back to the Democrats and went on to support the elevation of the $1,000 donation limit on soft money. The party s unwavering support for a candidate is important since party regulars tend to listen mostly to their own side of political arguments and to agree with the policies espoused by their party. The candidate supported by the Republican party is the one who receives most of the votes since Studies in voting behavior have found that the stronger a voter s identification with a particular party, the more likely is he to choose the candidate endorsed by that party. Thus, by not gaining the majority of the support of the Republican party, John McCain lost the Conservative voter base required to win many of the primaries and would not have been able to capture any of the delegates in the upcoming closed primary elections..
McCain s message on campaign finance reform, using the surplus to shore up social security rather than providing a bigger tax cut and being a reformer in general appealed to democrats and independents more than it did to the conservative republican voter which hurt him in closed primaries and also in primaries in which the democrats voted on the same day. The declaration by the McCain campaign of being the Republican reformers who can make this party bigger and change politics for future generations was more attractive to democrats and independents than it was to conservatives who see changes in one of the fundamental principles of the party as a negative determinant. This is seen in the polls of the Michigan primary, McCain had won, where he had won the Democratic vote [18% of total vote] by a 4 to 1 ratio but Bush had got about two thirds of the Republican vote. As Ari Fleischer, spokesman for the Bush campaign commented, ”The fundamental flaw of the McCain candidacy is that it needs Democrats to win. You can’t win the Republican nomination on the backs of Democrats. Even after making speeches where he states that he is a Reagan conservative and that he loves the Republican Party , McCain still failed to capture the republican vote in the next round of primaries in Washington, Virginia and North Dakota. The question to be asked is had McCain promoted his voting record in congress more zealously and revealed that the Americans for Democratic Action had given him a lifetime liberal voting average of 9 percent out of 100 and that the American Conservative Union declared him to have a solidly conservative voting record , would he have fared better in the primaries than he had touting his campaign finance reform agenda? The consequences of his decision to promote issues such as campaign finance reform cost him crucial votes in closed primaries and also on Super Tuesday where states that held open primaries also held democratic primaries on the same day, thus causing a decrease in cross over voting. Hence, by not tailoring his message to the republican voter, John McCain s campaign was condemned to failure.
McCain also lost claim to the republican vote due to his criticism of religious leaders: Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Due to Bush s visit to Bob Jones in South Carolina and his lack of renunciation of the school s policies of anti-Catholic bigotry and ban on interracial dating, it was deemed an unmistakable signal of solidarity with Christian Right . This claim was further potentiated when Bush accepted the endorsement and aid of Pat Robertson in South Carolina. McCain seized on Bush’s speech at fundamentalist Bob Jones University to suggest that Bush stood silent in the face of anti-Catholicism. And then, for good measure, he accuses Robertson of being an agent of intolerance and Bush of being an agent of Robertson. By making these comments McCain alienated the Christian right which claims to have 1.7 million members and 1,600 local affiliates and chapters in all 50 states and has a $25 million annual budget. Though the number of members may seem insignificant but nearly 30% of the members of the Republican party claims to be a strong Christian and thus, by alienating their leaders, McCain alienated a third of the conservative voter, especially in Southern states. In the exit polls in Michigan, Bush carried two thirds of the Christian conservative voters and on Super Tuesday, Bush carried 83% of their vote in Georgia and 74% [of 25% of total votes] in Ohio. These numbers evidently display a backlash against McCain for making such statements as calling Pat Robertson forces of evil . The protestant voter is significant in republican primaries since the most Republican of religious groups are white fundamentalist/evangelical Christians, followed by mainline white Christian, then Catholic and finally Jewish votes. Even when McCain played the catholic card by use of the Catholic voter alert phone calls in New York since Catholics made up a substantial portion of the primary voters but consequently, their votes did not differ much from other votes on Super Tuesday. By rejecting Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, McCain forfeited many Republican voters to Bush. The last time the race card was a major issue was during John F. Kennedy s campaign but unlike McCain s brazen attempt to weaken Bush by claiming that he would bow down to fundamentalists, Kennedy took steps to make clear his independence of the church [put forward in] an article published in Look in March 1959 in a firm but non-threatening manner. As Jeff Greenfield of CNN claims If only he had laid down his challenge to Christian conservatives as an appeal for them to strengthen their case, instead of casting it in personal terms, persuading those faith-based conservatives that he was their enemy, rather than an ally offering a fresh approach to their concerns” might he have fared better in the Republican primaries.
Another major issue in this Republican contest was negative campaigning. The main negative ad placed by McCain was The ad, which features McCain speaking straight into the camera, makes a direct comparison between Bush’s criticism of McCain in his ads and President Clinton. McCain later pulls the advertisement but Bush refuses to pull his negative ads claiming that his advertisements are not really negative but are rather rebutting the allegations made by the Senator. This was a major mistake on the part of the Senator since Across widely varying events, settings and persons, positive experiences or positive aspects of stimuli have been found to be less influential in the formation of judgments than are negative experiences or negatives aspects of stimuli. McCain, who later, switched to more positive ads, where he portrays himself as a Reagan conservative with a solid conservative record and while consultants recognize the effectiveness of positive polispots they often remind candidates that positive spots are simply not persuasive. By 1974, self styled independents outnumbered Republicans 5 to 3 , thus In a world where the majority of voters are independent, the central focus for most consultants and their clients must be on creating ads that can persuade. Although a boomerang effect may occur when a negative ad is perceived as being unfair or dishonest almost none is seen with Bush s utilization of negative advertisements who claimed victories in South Carolina and New York, two states bombarded with an abundance of negative ads aimed towards McCain.
The negative ad campaigns launched by Bush also served to harm McCain in another manner. McCain s response to the negative ads led to bitter in-fighting amongst the two leading GOP contenders which led voters to believe that McCain is not a party uniter. This is a key factor in the minds of Republican voters since almost 6 out of 10 Republicans [in South Carolina] said they wanted a candidate loyal to the party. McCain appears on television shows such as NBC s Today show condemning Bush for running negative ads against him instead of focusing on the issues of the campaign. Rather than concentration on the issue of gun control, which once again rose due to the six year old shooting in Flint, Michigan, or recent cases of racial profiling by the police, he appears contemptible and petty by just dealing with the negative ads run against him. As Gene Johnson of the Boston Globe puts it:
By making the presidential campaign too much about himself and about George W. Bush’s crude efforts to crush him, especially in the month since his dramatic launch out of New Hampshire, McCain has lost a golden opportunity to plug into something that, as he says in his stump speech, is greater than his own self-interest.
This, too, causes him to relinquish votes to Bush since the negative campaigns not only persuaded voters to support Bush on election day but also, by his own fault, lowered McCain s personality to a squabbling child rather than a man who had been tough enough to withstand the conditions at Hanoi Hilton for nearly five and half years.
The personality element was also a major role in the primaries since In a country enjoying peace abroad and unprecedented affluence at home, with no compelling national issue, voters are expected to make their choice on character and personality. In New Hampshire, McCain rode high on the waves of his legendary military record and his record as being the straight shooter who was going to tell you some things you want to hear and going to tell you some things you don’t want to hear, but always going to tell you the truth.” John McCain won big not because New Hampshire swooned for his campaign finance reform, but because it loved the idea of voting for someone who seems to be everything Clinton/Gore are not: honorable, principled, incorruptible. But all this changed with the use of the Catholic Voter Alert phone calls made in Michigan. The McCain camp at first denied making such calls but later acknowledged that they did, however they insisted that nothing in the calls accused Bush of being anti-Catholic. This explanation had the remnants of Clinton s rationalization that oral sex isn t sexual intercourse. But the Straight Talk Express has also been thrown a few other curve balls before this particular incident. Others include McCain s stance on abortion, when asked: would you repeal Roe v. Wade? The answer was the usual standard yes until his interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in August he mentioned that he would not support a repeal of Roe v. Wade. These inconsistencies would not have caused such an outcry to denounce McCain had it not been that, as Eddie Mahe (GOP strategist) points out: when you’re running the kind of race he has run, based on character, your operating space is tighter than it is for most politicians. However, this damage could have been rectified had McCain apologized. One of the main attractive features of Senator McCain is ability to realize when he is wrong, as can be seen in his book Faith of my Fathers where he apologize for committing adultery when married to his first wife, etc. But as Greenfield states: If only we’d [McCain Campaign] been straight about that ‘Catholic voter alert’ in Michigan, instead of dancing around the simple fact that we’d paid for those telephone calls, giving the press a reason to cast doubt on our “straight talk” promise. Consequently, more votes are lost to Bush whose main campaign issue was not his character. Contrarily, McCain should have raised the character issue with Bush who has had a shady past with alcohol and drugs and does not have the distinguished military record that McCain has. This need to be above petty politics (but later returning to it when negative ads are run against him) cost Senator McCain costly Republican votes in an election where character and not issues are the forefront of public debate.
And finally, another contributor to the demise of McCain s campaign is the lack of time available to campaign in primaries that occurred after New Hampshire. McCain campaigned for 71 days and held 114 town meetings to boost his image at a time when he was shadowed by Governor Bush and was struggling for national media attention. But this changed in South Carolina, where he only had 18 days to convert the momentum gained from the New Hampshire conquest into another victory in South Carolina. Studies have shown that small, separate primaries maximize the ability of candidates to make their own statement to voters and since, at the point in time, McCain s main message was still his character, especially his courage to bring to the forefront of the Republican primary the issue of campaign reform, did not reach as many voters as he would have liked. He depended on mass media such as television and radio ads but that too, did not have its full effect due to the barrage of negative ad campaigns placed by Bush. After the South Carolina primary, primaries were being held in more than one state on the same day. This meant that:
the larger the number of primaries on any given day, the greater the number of voters, and the larger the geographical spread, the less impression management candidate are able to do and the more the media take over. In this respect, Super Tuesday and any other front loading of the process increases the media s influence.
By the time, Super Tuesday had rolled around, questions arose from the media of McCain s straight talk express and the national media focused on the bitter hostilities that the GOP candidates had for each other. Due to the large number of states voting on Super Tuesday, McCain lacked the time to adequately campaign in these states and the images portrayed by television news reports were not similar to the ones illustrating him as the war veteran with a no nonsense approach in dealing with the issues during the New Hampshire campaign. Thus, McCain, yet again failed to capture the Republican vote as lacked the time to reach out to voters in a more personal manner.
Though there have been many mistakes committed by the McCain camp this is not to say that they didn t do certain things right. They brought an enthusiasm amongst young and first time voters, the like of which hasn t been seen since John F. Kennedy s bid for the White House. And, McCain r4eached out to democrats and independents, an accomplishment that cannot be claimed by the GOP presidential candidates of the past two general elections and is an essential requirement to win the general election in November. His campaign brought a message more tailored to the middle rather than the far right ground captured by Bush, thus, ensuring a broader general voter base. But, nevertheless, the errors committed by the campaign such as not reaching out earlier to the republican voter by focusing on issues that are not central to the core Republican party s values, denouncing the Christian Right (especially in the Southern states) and the questions raised about his character all served to swing the votes towards Governor George Bush and hence, led to the demise of his campaign.