Thursday, December 27, 2007

Why McCain Should Be Favored to Win the Nomination

While it's still too early to say for certain, and things have a tendency to switch on a dime in politics, I'm going to go out on a limb here: John McCain is the favorite to win the Republican nomination. For the record, this is different from endorsing McCain (though I certainly find him more tolerable than most other candidates besides perhaps Paul from a libertarian perspective).

With McCain's current momentum (in which he's even mending fences with evangelicals), combined with some simple delegate math (below), I think McCain is going to win the nomination as long as he can keep his campaign afloat financially going into Super Tuesday and have a run of solid but not necessarily spectacular finishes in the early primaries (neither of which is certain).

The reason for this is quite simple. There are currently six candidates polling above a couple of percentage points in the polls: McCain, Giuliani, Huckabee, Romney, Thompson, and Paul. Of those six candidates, only Paul is a guarantee to stick in the race until the end- he's running as much to prove a point as he is to win the nomination, so he'll stay in the race no matter how good or bad his primary results. The rest of the group is running for one reason only: to win. Once it becomes apparent to any of them that victory is unachievable, they will immediately fall back on Plan B: help their favorite remaining guy get the nomination in the hopes of obtaining some future reward. In the case of Giuliani and Huckabee, it's pretty clear that McCain is their Plan B; I strongly suspect the same is true of Thompson. As for Romney, Plan B would normally be Giuliani, but I think he and the mayor have developed too strong off a personal dislike for each other for that to happen, and Thompson is probably going to be the first to drop out of the group, and there's simply no way Romney would ever endorse Huckabee, leaving McCain as Romney's likely default choice should Romney disappoint in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The point is that as long as McCain can stay in the race long enough to outlast a couple of competitors, he will suddenly find himself with some key endorsements. Those endorsements are key for a couple of reasons: if they occur early on, McCain could expect to get a disproportionate share of the endorser's base of support; if they occur later in the process (like after Super Tuesday), they have the added benefit of virtually guaranteeing that McCain gets all the delegates that candidate had previously earned.

As the race wears on and the field whittles down ever more, McCain will find himself with the endorsements of everyone but the last remaining competitor (my money is on Romney), not including Paul. If by some stroke of fate Paul has earned enough delegates to prevent either McCain or Romney from getting a majority, then you have to ask whether you can really see McCain, with his decades of experience, legendary temper, and survival of torture, giving in to the younger Romney who pretends to know more about military affairs and torture than McCain.

The other possibility is for Huckabee to be the last man standing, making the Republican 2008 primary have eerie similarities to the 2004 Democratic primary: the populist Southerner against the military hero with the privileged background. But if this is the case, Huckabee (who is about as popular with establishment Republicans as Ron Paul) will see the rest of the GOP mobilize wholeheartedly to prevent him from getting the nomination at any costs- even if it means McCain gets the nomination.

Of course the key to all of this is that McCain does well enough in the early primaries to put him in the top three going into Super Tuesday (which is highly likely). Presumably Thompson will be out of the race very early on and will endorse McCain, which should give McCain a nice boost of a couple points going into Super Tuesday. It's also becoming increasingly possible that Giuliani won't be around for Super Tuesday as his support plummets in all the early states; his margin for error in his Florida firewall is even starting to dwindle.

***UPDATE: On second thought, maybe McCain isn't Romney's default Plan B. Is there anyone in the field that Romney can get along with? Everyone except maybe Thompson seems to hate him and he seems to hate everyone.