It's hard not to notice: In each of the last three Republican primaries, roughly a quarter of the vote went to someone other than John McCain.
Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee got a combined 27 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania last month, long after the GOP nomination had been settled in McCain's favor. On Tuesday, Paul, Huckabee and Mitt Romney received a combined 23 percent in Indiana. Alan Keyes, Huckabee, Paul and "No Preference" took 26 percent in North Carolina.
On the surface, it would seem that McCain, the party's presumptive nominee, still has some distance to go in winning over his party. But aides to McCain and other observers say the results are less than meets the eye.
They argue that the lingering votes for Paul and Huckabee—who together won about one-fifth of the vote in Indiana and North Carolina—represent vestigial passion for two candidates who developed a fervent, if narrow, grassroots following.
Still, for a candidate viewed with suspicion by some in his party’s base, the dissenting votes are a nuisance he could do without.
One McCain strategist suggested it was part of a long-term effort to influence the direction of the party.
“Ron Paul is doing now exactly what Pat Robertson did in his heyday,” said this adviser. “This is a systematic effort to have a major role in the party.”
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By showing up and voting for their candidate even after he’s conceded he can’t win the nomination, the argument goes, supporters are doing the same thing as their fellow believers in other states who are packing party conventions in an effort to elect Paul delegates to the national convention in St. Paul and onto county and state committees.
Similarly, if more subtly, Huckabee backers are seeking to register their support for a candidate who carried the Christian conservative and anti-abortion banner.
“These are Christians and libertarians who are staking out their turf for two years and four years from now,” said the McCain strategist of the never-say-die Paul and Huckabee backers.
Huckabee campaign manager Chip Saltsman said they hadn’t done a thing in any of the three states and downplayed the results.
“There’s a lot of affection and lot of people out there still love Mike Huckabee,” said Saltsman. “They know John McCain is the nominee and, like Mike Huckabee, they’re going to work for him.”
David Beasley, a former South Carolina governor who was one of Huckabee’s most ardent backers in the primary, conceded that some of it may be related to conservative unease about McCain.
While noting that such voters first “love Huckabee,” Beasley said “they dislike McCain, so there is a little protest factor.”
“In November, though, they will vote for McCain because of their utter disgust for Hillary and/or Obama,” Beasley added. “Unless McCain does something new that really upsets the Right, I believe they will be energized voters against the Democrat nominee.”
G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Pennsylvania’s Franklin & Marshall College, agreed.
“These primaries are about letting voters vote their hearts,” Madonna said. “It’s a little protest. But before it’s over the contrast between Obama and McCain will be sufficiently drawn and the relevance of the election will be sufficiently understood that the protests will be gone.”
Indeed, a search of past presidential primaries reveals that other eventual nominees saw one-time rivals who had galvanized discrete constituencies take a share of the vote even after they had ceased to be active candidates.
McCain himself should know – he was once the recipient of such symathy votes.
Nearly a month after withdrawing from the race in 2000, McCain took 22 percent of the vote against then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the April 4 Pennsylvania primary. A month later, still on the ballot, McCain received 19 percent against Bush in Indiana and 11 percent on the same day in North Carolina. Even as late as June, McCain got 10 percent in New Mexico and 14 percent in South Dakota. And he wasn’t alone. Even Keyes, a perennial candidate, cracked double-digits in three June primaries.
Four years earlier, a similar scenario took place. That time, it was the pugnacious Pat Buchanan who was still drawing votes well into the political after-life. Even after effectively withdrawing from the race on April 17, the pitchfork populist won 19 percent in Indiana and 13 percent in North Carolina on May 7. A week later, he got 16 percent in West Virginia. All this came long after Bob Dole had picked up the necessary delegates to seize the nomination on March 26th.
Buchanan and Paul were similar in that each withdrew from the race without completely withdrawing. Neither formally quit but rather couched their decision in more vague terms about not actively seeking the nomination.
The common thread among all these pro forma contests was that dismal turnout exaggerated the share of symbolic votes captured by the has-beens beyond what it might have been otherwise.
As for this year, McCain’s campaign dismissed the results with another line of argument: they weren’t doing anything to drive supporters to the polls.
“The day we got 1,191 [delegates] was the day I stopped thinking about Mike Huckabee and started thinking about kicking Barack Obama’s ass,” said a McCain aide, discussing the matter only on background.
The campaign said they spent no money and no man hours on turnout for the moot contests.
“We’re saving our resources for the fight ahead of us,” said the aide.
McCain’s camp argues that polling data is the better indicator of how they are faring in consolidating party support.
In a memo sent out Wednesday, campaign manager Rick Davis pointed to a recent Wall Street Journal and NBC survey that showed McCain was taking over 80 percent of the vote among Republicans against either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.
“This is before we have even begun the general election cycle,” Davis wrote.