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Jewish World Review June 6, 2001 / 16 Sivan, 5761

John H. Fund

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Memo to conservatives: Ignore McCain and maybe he'll go away -- SEN. John McCain's office says he has "no intention of running for president" or any "cause to leave" the Republican Party. That denial may sound familiar, but it came over the weekend after a flurry of media speculation that the Arizona senator was contemplating an independent run for president in 2004. That speculation, fueled by Sen. McCain's long weekend visit with Democratic leader Tom Daschle, even prompted President Bush to call his erstwhile opponent about his intentions.

The difference in this purported McCain Mutiny was that the senator's fans in the media openly admitted the hype. Jay Carney of Time magazine acknowledged the story was "way overplayed" and came about because "McCain likes attention, and he likes to needle the White House." Mickey Kaus calls him "a hopeless publicity junkie." The New York Times' Rick Berke recalled that Mr. McCain had "built his presidential campaign on favorable publicity from the news media."

Despite the contrived nature of this latest McCain boomlet, it had news value because of the senator's penchant for pulling surprises. Back in December 1998, when cyber-columnist Matt Drudge reported that Mr. McCain would announce a presidential bid the next month, the senator scoffed and said Mr. Drudge was "smoking something." The next month, Mr. McCain formed his exploratory committee and hired a campaign manager.

If Sen. McCain ultimately does run as an independent after, say, an anemic GOP showing in the 2002 congressional elections, what would the result be? In an economic downturn Mr. McCain could cost President Bush his re-election, but he'd have almost no chance of being elected president in his own right.

He's really trying
to be heard

The history of independent presidential candidacies is that they fade as their supporters decide it's better to vote for the "greater of two lessers" in the two major parties. Such was the fate of Henry Wallace in 1948, George Wallace in 1968, John Anderson in 1980 and Ralph Nader in 2000.

Ross Perot in 1992 was an exception. His strength in the polls peaked in the low 30s in May of that year, before quirky behavior dropped his support to 20%, and he withdrew temporarily in July. He returned to the campaign in October, performed well in the debates, spent $60 million of his own money and finished with 18.9% on Election Day. It was the best showing for a minor candidate since Sen. McCain's hero Teddy Roosevelt finished second, with 27% of the vote and six states, in 1912.

But the strength of Mr. Perot's showing in a poor economy and against a dispirited President Bush père and a scandal-tarred Bill Clinton also showed the obstacles facing such a candidacy. Leaving aside the 1974 campaign-finance reform that favors major party candidates and ballot access restrictions, independent presidential candidates can't automatically win with a plurality the way Minnesota's Jesse Ventura won the governorship in 1998. Presidential candidates must also win a majority of the Electoral College, as Al Gore knows well. That is the Mt. Everest of political challenges.

Mr. Perot failed to carry a single state in 1992; he finished second only in Maine and Utah. Indeed, given that exit polls showed he drew about two votes from President Bush for every vote he took from Bill Clinton, his level of national support would have had to hit 25% before he would have carried a single state--Maine.

Looking at Mr. Perot's 1992 showing is a good proxy for a possible McCain candidacy. Last year, backing for a McCain independent candidacy topped out at 23% in a May Wall Street Journal poll. That poll found both Messrs. McCain and Perot were most popular among socially moderate voters and those concerned about government debt and a decline in patriotism. Electorally, both men have done best in the West and New England.

So what would happen if Mr. McCain did better as an independent in 2004, increasing the Perot national vote by 75% in a race against, say, Al Gore and George W. Bush? Again assuming his votes would come 2-to-1 at the expense of the GOP, Mr. Gore would get 38% of the vote, followed by Mr. McCain with 33% and President Bush with only 28%. At the state level, one would have to assume that Mr. McCain would fail to carry Mr. Bush's base in Texas. So the Electoral College results would be: 283 electoral votes for Mr. Gore (13 more than a majority), 182 for Mr. McCain and 73 for Mr. Bush.

"The odds of winning the Electoral College as an independent are way less than hitting double-zero at the roulette table," said the late pollster Everett Carll Ladd. He calculated that Mr. McCain would have to double the 1992 Perot showing and win 38% before having a chance at the required 270 electoral votes.

Such an unprecedented performance would most likely force the race into the House, where every state delegation casts one vote for president. Mr. McCain's supporters argue that in that case there would be enormous popular pressure for Democratic and Republican members to vote for whoever carried their state or district. But a July 1992 survey by Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, found that in a hypothetical Bush-Clinton-Perot race the vast majority of House members would stick with their party's nominee and internal discipline to conform was already building.

So McCain allies who back an independent candidacy, such as Marshall Wittmann of the Hudson Institute, are faced with a stark reality. Such a race would garner scads of media attention, the oxygen on which Mr. McCain thrives. In bad economic times it could throw the election to a Democrat by crippling the GOP incumbent, as TR did to President Taft in 1912. But such a last hurrah for Mr. McCain would have no realistic chance of winning the White House.

That doesn't mean Republicans shouldn't worry about a McCain defection or avoid his unnecessary alienation from the party. Last month when President Bush appeared in Phoenix, many in the audience booed the mention of Mr. McCain's name. A similar reaction occurred during a recent Fox News Channel taping before a Phoenix audience. Human Events reports that investment banker Herb Morgan and former GOP gubernatorial nominee Jack Londen, both prominent former McCain backers, are encouraging a primary opponent for Mr. McCain in his 2004 Senate race.

It's understandable why conservatives are disappointed in Sen. McCain. He voted against the Bush tax cut and has teamed up with Democrats on guns, health care and campaign finance. But providing Mr. McCain and his national media allies with more examples of conservative anger toward him will only feed the senator's image as a brave maverick bucking an intolerant right wing. The truth is more complicated, but everyone knows that perceptions can create unpleasant realities in politics. Now that a McCain defection can no longer cost the GOP control of the Senate, perhaps the best policy conservatives can follow with the Arizona senator is one of benign neglect.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


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03/09/01: Terminated
03/06/01: Leave well enough alone
02/22/01: Forgetting our heroes
02/15/01: In 1978 Clinton got a close look at the dangers of selling forgiveness
02/12/01: Clinton owes the country an explanation --- and an appology
02/06/01: How Ronald Reagan changed America
01/16/01: Why block Ashcroft? To demoralize the GOP's most loyal voters
01/15/01: Remembering John Schmitz, a cheerful extremist
12/29/00: Why are all Dems libs pickin' on me?
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12/13/00: Gore would have lost any recount that passed constitutional muster
11/13/00: The People Have Spoken: Will Gore listen?
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©2001, John H. Fund