Matt Welch of Reason notices a strange phenomenon in primary voting this year, one that seems highly counterintuitive. I had noticed this in New Hampshire as well, and the trend has continued. John McCain, despite his championing of the Iraq war, continues to draw pluralities in self-professed anti-war voters:
It’s no mystery why independents gravitate toward McCain. He’s a country-first, party-second kind of guy who speaks bluntly and delights in poking fellow Republicans in the eye on issues such as campaign finance reform and global warming.
But there’s a bizarre disconnect in the warm embrace between McCain and the electorate’s mavericks. They hate the Iraq war, while he’s willing to fight it for another century. The most pro-war presidential candidate in a decade is winning the 2008 GOP nomination thanks to the antiwar vote.
A full 66% of independents think that the U.S. should completely withdraw from Iraq no later than 12 months from now, according to a Jan. 18-22 L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll. McCain, meanwhile, said last month that the U.S. might stay in Baghdad for another 100 years. He continually expresses bafflement at the idea that that might not be such a good thing. “It’s not the point! It’s not the point!” he snarled at reporters recently. “How long are we going to be in Korea?”
And yet he dominated the antiwar vote in New Hampshire, with 44% to Romney’s 19%, according to CNN exit polls. Ron Paul, the only actual antiwar Republican running, drew just 16% of voters who said they were against the war. The three finished in the same order among antiwar voters in Michigan, even though Romney won the state overall.
Welch, who backed anti-war candidate Ron Paul until recently (see update II below), laments the fact that anti-war voters ignored Paul. Plenty of reasons exist for voters to ignore Paul outside of the war, but it still calls into question the choice of McCain among these voters. Do they not understand his singular focus on fighting the war, or are they voting for McCain simply because he has told off Republicans more than he has Democrats?
In that vein, Mark Tapscott looks at a story from last March, regarding Tom Daschle’s claim that McCain wanted to negotiate a switch to the Democrats:
To put McCain in proper perspective, imagine if the mainstream media had been touting former Sen. Zell Miller as the Maverick to lead the Democratic party in 2004 because he demonstrated his independence by helping Bush and the GOP enact tax cuts, pass school vouchers and pack the Supreme Court with clones of Justice Clarence Thomas.
McCain has denied the story in The Hill, while John Edwards — who Daschle claims was part of the effort — confirms it. Both Daschle and Edwards have other motives in play, and it remains questionable whether the Democratic Party of 2001 would have welcomed a pro-life hawk when they could barely tolerate a liberal hawk like Joe Lieberman just a few years later. One has to wonder how McCain would have gotten re-elected in Arizona as a Democrat as well. (see update below)
However, McCain likes to antagonize his fellow Republicans a lot more than the Democrats, and Republicans have noticed it over the years. So have independents, and this appears to account for the strange anti-war attraction to McCain, the GOP’s biggest hawk in the race. For them, the war looks like a secondary issue to general opposition to the GOP and the Bush administration. McCain improbably has become the outsider candidate, and Romney the establishment candidate as a result.
After New Hampshire, Romney decided to go after the “Washington is Broken” theme hard. He seems to have realized the importance of being the outsider, while McCain has oddly doubled down on the war, as Welch notes. During the last debate, McCain kept arguing that Romney didn’t sufficiently support the war by not jumping immediately to the defense of the surge, but his singular focus on the war may wind up hurting him with the same people who have vaulted him into the position of being able to run it himself.
That will only work if the disconnects stay disconnected, which seems to be a very risky gamble for the general election. Will the anti-war factions who back McCain in the primary stick with him against Hillary Clinton or especially Barack Obama, or will the Democratic nominee give that faction an even better opportunity to stick their own finger in the eye of the GOP?
UPDATE: I forgot that I addressed this when it came out. I leaned towards it being nonsense then, and I still do.
UPDATE II: Matt Welch corrects me, in the comments; he never pledged his support to the Paul campaign. I hope he accepts my apology.