Florida’s closed Republican primary was supposed to be John McCain’s undoing.
Tomorrow’s vote marks the first time balloting in a G.O.P. contest is restricted only to registered Republicans, leaving out the independents who boosted Mr. McCain’s performance in New Hampshire, Michigan, and South Carolina. At the mercy of a party base that despises him for his positions on immigration, campaign finance reform and a dozen other apostasies, the thinking goes, McCain faces the prospect of defeat at the hands of Mitt Romney.
Actually, Florida may not be quite the uphill fight for McCain that conventional wisdom suggests. It’s true that polls have McCain and Romney running neck and neck and it’s certainly possible that Romney, buoyed by a strong debate performance last week and a spike in voter interest in the domestic economy, could emerge victorious.
But McCain is better positioned to engineer a victory than many realize.
For one thing, the focus on the Republicans-only nature of the Florida primary has ignored a potentially mitigating statistic: Independents account for a much smaller share of the Florida electorate than they do in states with open primaries.
Consider New Hampshire, where support from independents paved the way for McCain triumphs in 2000 and 2008. Independents account for 44 percent of the New Hampshire electorate, while Republicans make up only 30 percent. Many of those independents lean decidedly toward the G.O.P. but have no incentive to declare themselves Republicans, since they are free as independents to vote in the G.O.P. primary anyway. Since these moderate, independent-minded de facto Republicans are not technically enrolled in the party, New Hampshire’s registered Republicans become a more conservative and ideologically rigid bunch.
But in Florida, the closed primary provides a powerful incentive for those same G.O.P.-leaning moderates to enroll in the party. As a result, only 22 percent of the state’s electorate is independent—half the New Hampshire total—while 38 percent are registered Republicans. On the whole, this means that a larger share of registered Republicans in Florida are open to supporting a maverick like McCain than in New Hampshire. In other words, by forcing voters to declare a party or surrender their right to vote in primaries, Florida may have encouraged more moderates to join the party.
And, in fact, the Florida G.O.P. has a history of supporting candidates who are not always rigid adherents to conservative orthodoxy. Charlie Crist, the first-term governor who endorsed McCain on Saturday night, has embraced aggressive civil rights and voting rights enforcement, environmental protection, and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers (ridiculed as “amnesty” by Romney and others). And as the state’s attorney general in 2005, some on the right attacked him for not using his office to keep Terri Schiavo on life support. To secure the Republican nomination in 2006, Crist handily defeated an opponent who ran on conservative social themes.
Connie Mack, a two-term U.S. Senator who retired after the 2000 election, and Jeb Bush, the state’s governor from 1999 until 2007, also made successful appeals to moderates and non-traditional Republican voters in their political careers (even if Bush governed more conservatively).
It would be inaccurate to label Crist, Mack, or Bush as moderates (Bush especially), since they all hew to conservative orthodoxy on most issues. But McCain falls into this category as well. He has split with his party on some high profile occasions but for the most part has racked up a record of exemplary conservatism over his 25 years in Congress. To be sure, he remains anathema to a significant chunk of the Florida G.O.P.—hence Romney’s status as co-leader in the polls—but candidates like McCain have won Florida Republican primaries many times before.
Moreover, there are other signs that McCain may be on the verge of a win, however narrow, in Florida. Late last week he picked up the backing of Mel Martinez, his Senate colleague and an influential figure among the state’s Cuban-American voters. And the last-minute backing of Crist, who has racked up high approval ratings since becoming governor, sends a powerful message to Republicans who have been considering McCain but who have had reservations.
Romney, who has finally found his natural campaigning voice, remains a formidable contender. If he wins on Tuesday, Republicans will face the real prospect of a split verdict on February 5 and a nomination battle that could drag on into the early spring.
But, in part because of the media’s intense focus on the closed primary issue, McCain has the opportunity to deliver a fatal blow to his rivals. With a win, the media will celebrate McCain’s newfound appeal to the party base, the final test of his burgeoning front-runnerhood. From there, he would be well-positioned to score a sweeping national victory on Feb. 5, keyed by Republicans who consider him acceptable enough and who are anxious to unite behind someone—anyone.