There is a strain of conventional wisdom that holds that Barack Obama’s resounding win in Iowa is bad news for John McCain.
The reason: McCain and Obama both enjoy strong support among New Hampshire’s crucial bloc of independent voters. And with Obama ascendant after his resounding Iowa win, independents are now more likely to participate in the Democratic primary, potentially depriving McCain of thousands of votes that would otherwise be his.
There is certainly some truth to this. History shows that independents in New Hampshire break lopsidedly to one party or the other, and even before Iowa, polls had independents –by a 60 to 40 margin, in one recent survey — favoring the Democratic race. (New Hampshire’s secretary of state Bill Gardner today predicted 90,000 independents turning out for the Democrat primary and 60,000 for the Republican.)Plus, the turnout figures in Iowa, in which the previous Democratic turnout record was doubled, in part because of unprecedented independent participation, suggest a larger trend favoring Obama and the Democrats.
But even if Obama now reaps the independent windfall, it’s beginning to look like there’s room for McCain to win next Tuesday as well.
That’s because McCain, who had essentially fought his way into a tie with Mitt Romney before Iowa, is poised to pick up considerable support now from Republicans who deemed him a washed-up traitor to the G.O.P. as recently as a few months ago.
The sudden vulnerability of Romney, who had been the reluctant choice of New Hampshire’s regular Republicans, is the main catalyst. Much of the New Hampshire party establishment had concluded, with varying levels of enthusiasm, that he was the most ideologically acceptable candidate with a realistic shot at claiming the nomination and winning the general election. To cement their support, Romney needed to post a win in Iowa, which would have created a sense of momentum and inevitability for his candidacy. But by losing, badly, he has instead given these Republicans cause to jump ship.
And there aren’t many ships to which they can jump. Mike Huckabee, the Iowa winner, is not making an all-out effort in New Hampshire, and his evangelical appeal does not rub off on the Granite State’s G.O.P. establishment. Rudy Giuliani isn’t even campaigning in the state anymore, and Fred Thompson was a non-factor (2 percent in a poll last week) even before his poor Iowa finish. That leaves McCain, who is now getting a second look from Republicans who’d written him off as yesterday’s news over the summer.
Many of them were offended by his campaign finance reform apostasy in 2000, but his credentials as a loyal and reliable conservative have been boosted recently. The endorsement of the Union Leader, the state’s largest newspaper, has helped immensely. The paper is unafraid to announce its opinions with front-page editorials, and has aggressively rallied to McCain’s defense as Romney has attacked him. McCain also benefits from weak competition. His foes all have deficiencies that have prevented them from unifying and energizing the party base.
Then there’s the Huckabee factor. To many Republicans, in New Hampshire and across the country, Mr. Huckabee is a certain loser in the fall, and with his Iowa victory, they are growing frantic to stop him. With Romney faring poorly in Iowa, McCain may represent the establishment’s last best chance of thwarting Huckabee and mustering a fight in the fall.
As one neutral Republican put it today, “If you think Huckabee is a walking disaster, your choices are McCain and Romney — and after last night, you’ve got to be warming up to the idea that McCain’s a guy who can actually win this thing.”
If McCain succeeds in winning over the G.O.P. base, then he won’t need the same infusion of independent voters that he received in his 2000 upset of George W. Bush. And a McCain win next Tuesday would probably send Romney to the sidelines (after a last-stand effort in Michigan the following week), positioning the Arizonan to emerge as the only viable alternative to Huckabee.
The irony would be almost overwhelming: Thwarted by the party base in 2000 (and very nearly again in the summer of 2007) , McCain may now succeed because of it.