Rudy, McCain and the Tyranny of the Moderates
I'm going to try and be as even-handed as possible with this one, because the numbers on this one are throwing me through a loop as I figure out how McCain vs. Giuliani might play out in the moderate vs. conservative paradigm.
Two significant data points came out on this this week. On Friday, Pew released its poll of the 2008 GOP candidates, and broke it down by all voters, moderate-liberal Republicans, and conservative Republicans. The results are in this chart:
McCain's support slips pretty dramatically from when you exclude Democrats and independents from the equation. Rudy is seen as the classic moderate Republican, and is optimizing his support with moderate/liberal Republicans. McCain's center of gravity is probably a bit to the left of this, (dangerously) outside the boundaries of the Republican Party. And overall, we continue to see that moderates are overserved by the current configuration of the field, while conservatives are underserved.
Sure, conservatives are plenty happy with Condi (who won't run) and with Newt (who probably won't run). But looking at who actually is running, it creates a high dissatisfaction with the current frontrunners and the perfect conditions for a "right-wing" candidate to emerge from the bottom of the field.
Giuliani still beats McCain with conservatives, and by about the same amount as he beats him with moderates. But notice how the numbers for both candidates are lower with conservatives.
The big question becomes: How does this race polarize on moderate vs. conservative lines if neither candidate can claim a decisive advantage in either camp? The answer is that this race probably doesn't -- and a conservative alternative will rise by cobbling together the large number of undecideds or dissatisfied right-wingers, and this will eventually begin to put pressure on one of the two front-runners.
But which one?
For that answer, I think we'll have to consult Rasmussen, which this week polled on public perceptions of the ideology of the two GOP frontrunners. This measure placed McCain somewhat to the left of Giuliani. Overall, more people were willing to classify Giuliani as a conservative than were willing to say that about Senator McCain. From Angus-Reid's writeup of the results:
Do you consider John McCain conservative, moderate or liberal?
Do you consider Rudy Giuliani conservative, liberal or moderate?
As we've noted before, Republicans considered McCain as liberal as he was conservative, while the conservative-liberal gap for Rudy was 13 points.
Predictions of Rudy Giuliani's demise are predicated on the notion that voters aren't sufficiently informed of some of his liberal views. But Rasmussen's polling suggests that voters on both the left and right have correctly pegged Rudy as a moderate or center-right politician. If anything, it's McCain who inspires more confusion, scoring a few points to the left of where he actually is, and his unpredictable views make it really difficult for him to build a political base within the Republican Party.
Back to the original question. Which of the moderate "frontrunners" will get squeezed? To the extent that McCain is perceived as being to the left of Rudy, and to the extent the anecdotes about conservative enthusiasm for Rudy are accurate, this probably makes McCain's 19 percent third place showing with conservatives heavily dependent on name-ID and "it's his turn" sentiment, soft support which can more easily be peeled off by a Mitt Romney or a George Allen.
But McCain can rally moderates and independents can't he? Well, no, not really -- not with Rudy overperforming with those voters already. Rudy overall benefits from having clearer positions and a clearer political constituency, in contrast to McCain who seems to be all over the place. And we begin to see the outlines of how McCain fades. It goes like this.
1. January-June 2007: Media is obsessed with the Rudy vs. McCain dynamic, covering their every hire and fundraising report. The race remains relatively static.
2. Summer 2007: Media notices that a conservative dark horse starts to make a move. Polls begin to look like Rudy 30%, McCain 25%, Conservative "alternative" 15%.
3. Also during Summer 2007: Pundits also notice that McCain, under withering attack from 527s, talk radio and bloggers, hasn't moved at all. A poll or two showing him below 20% gets the media in a tizzy about the bursting of the McCain frontrunner bubble. McCain starts losing what conservative support he had. But the race isn't leaderless -- Rudy is there, deftly taking advantage, and the defection of a major fundraiser or two from McCain is taken as a sign of shifting momentum.
4. Fall-Winter 2007: Polls show Rudy 35%, Conservative "alternative" 20%, McCain 15%.
5. Alternative candidate surges and wins Iowa, with Rudy second. McCain is a distant third.
6. McCain tries to revive in New Hampshire but it's too late. Rudy wins. McCain drops out.
7. Conservative alternative wins South Carolina and possibly Michigan. But Rudy wins a moved-up Florida primary to shift the momentum back his way.
8. But Rudy cleans up on Super Tuesday, winning New York, California, and Ohio.
This Rudy-McCain thing is but a sideshow and a prelude to the real battle. The domination of the field by perceived moderates probably won't stand, but right now, it seems like Rudy (narrowly) has the upper hand.