Here are a few things I learned Tuesday night.
First, good candidates are never completely out of it. Several months ago I was covering a John McCain event in Keene, New Hampshire. It was at the low point of the McCain candidacy, after his staff explosion and when the campaign bank account was dry. There was no bus and he was staying in the cheapest motels in town.
After the event, he invited the press corps out to dinner. I was the entire press corps. We went to a cheap hamburger place and I was tempted to buy him and his three aides dinner, since his campaign had no money. (Being a cheap journalist, I resisted the temptation.) But do you want to know what his mood was like?
He was fine. Winning the nomination, let alone the presidency, seemed like the longest of long shots back then. But he was fine with that. He wanted to win, but he was content to merely go to small gatherings and have his say. There was no bitterness. Nor was there any desperate casting about for ways to turn things around.
He just plugged along. He stayed true to himself. Eventually good and honest candidates get rewarded no matter how badly outspent they are, no matter how few consultants they have.
Second, voters are human beings, not automatons. As always, there were perplexities in the exit polls. The economy was the top voter concern. McCain did well among economically minded voters even though Romney talks economics far more. As Tom Bevan of the invaluable RealClearPolitics site points out, Romney was the second choice of many Rudy Giuliani voters while McCain was the overwhelming second choice among the very conservative Mike Huckabee voters. These things happen because voters are not ideological robots. They vote in ways that defy ideological categorization, but make sense as character judgments.
Third, the big conservative issues did not bark, once again. Can we please stop pretending that immigration is a good issue for Republicans? The restrictionist side can’t even produce a victory for their man in a Republican primary. Rudy Giuliani promised gigantic tax cuts. Got him nowhere. Romney also promised big tax cuts. Nada. Romney hit McCain for being soft on social issues. Goose egg.
Fourth, elections without campaigns don’t count. Hillary Clinton won big on the Democratic side. I still think she is the Democratic front-runner (she’s got huge leads in the big states), but this win doesn’t mean much. In other states many more Democrats voted than Republicans. But not in Florida. Seniors turned out, which is good for Hillary. But younger people and minority groups didn’t so much. In short, Florida is not a test of where the Democratic race is.
Finally, here are two things I don’t know about yet:
First, how desperate is Romney? The Wednesday debate is his last shot at turning this around. If he is truly frantic, he will hit McCain hard on the temperament issue and hope McCain blows up on national TV. It will be an ugly assault, but the mark of a man who is willing to try anything. If Romney’s not willing to get that ugly, he’ll just use the same arguments he tried in Florida.
Second, what does delegate hunting look like? For decades, presidential primaries have been settled by momentum. That is unlikely to happen on the Democratic side. Super-Duper-Looper Tuesday will almost certainly not settle the Democratic race because each side will emerge with many delegates. But how do you campaign in this environment? Do you try to win states? Do you focus on Congressional Districts with high turnouts, which sometimes get rewarded? Do you care about the national aggregate numbers next Tuesday? Almost nobody now living has done this before. And the challenge for us journalists is that we will have no clue next Tuesday how to make sense of the hundreds of different sorts of results that will come in.
If you don’t find this prospect exciting then you don’t like politics. And if so, why have you read this deep into this post?