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GOP Focuses on McCain, Democratic Race Tightens

Authors: Robert McMahon, Editor, and Toni Johnson
February 7, 2008

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In the aftermath of the Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses, the Republican Party has a clear front-runner with momentum heading into the final few months of voting. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has won roughly 60 percent of the delegates needed for his party’s nomination after big coast-to-coast wins on Super Tuesday. He received a further boost on February 7 when his main rival Mitt Romney suspended his campaign. Romney said that if he continued to battle McCain he would strengthen the hand of the Democratic candidates, both of whom are in favor of drawing down U.S. troop levels in Iraq. “In this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror,” Romney said. McCain will continue to vie for his party’s nomination with a resurgent Mike Huckabee, who swept up a group of southern states. CFR’s Walter Russell Mead tells CFR.org that Huckabee’s strong southern evangelical base poses a challenge to unifying the Republicans.

On the Democratic side, the nominating race is more complex. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) scored important Super Tuesday wins in major battleground states like California, New York, and New Jersey. But her rival, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), also won some some big states, including his home state of Illinois. And, due to the Democratic Party’s proportional-representation rules for winning delegates to the nominating convention this summer, Obama won a significant number of delegates, though many surveys still showed him trailing Clinton by a slight margin. With policy differences neglible between the two—for example, both favor an early U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq—voters were divided along the lines of “identity politics,” according to Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times.

Exit polls found concerns about the U.S. economy continued to be the top issue for voters from both parties. These polls also signaled that McCain and Clinton did best in states where voters valued candidates with a long history of public service (AP). McCain once again performed better among voters identifying themselves as moderates and independents, especially in big northeastern states like New York and New Jersey. Asked to rank four top issues selected by exit pollsters, Republicans voters cited the economy first, followed by immigration, the Iraq war, and terrorism (WashPost).

Indeed, in some states, including the border states of California and Arizona, immigration ranked very close to the top of GOP voter priority lists. Romney’s advocacy for strict penalties for illegal immigrants in the United States apparently made him more popular among voters who identified immigration as their top issue. McCain, who has advocated for a legal “path to citizenship” for illegal aliens, did better with voters who picked Iraq as their chief concern. Voters in sixteen of the GOP voting states consistently told pollsters McCain would make a better commander in chief (NYT).

For Democrats, little may be settled on Super Tuesday. The complex Democratic delegate system always made a clear-cut victory by Clinton or Obama unlikely, but the vote split dramatically nonetheless. Besides the big prize of Illinois, Obama won at least eleven states, including middleweights like Minnesota, Georgia, and Alabama. He held his own among Hispanics in Illinois, receiving almost 60 percent of the state’s Hispanic vote, according to CNN exit polling. But Clinton received the overwhelming support of Hispanics in several states. CNN exit polls show Clinton received two-thirds of the Hispanic vote in New Jersey, for instance, and she also did well among Hispanics in California, New Mexico, and Arizona, where they represent a significant portion of the Democratic vote. In a CFR.org podcast, political analyst David R. Ayon noted Clinton has been helped by long-standing relationships to prominent Latino leaders.

But in some states where Clinton won, exit polls showed Obama performed better among voters concerned about Iraq. Obama received support from two-thirds of voters who said Iraq was their top issue in Massachusetts and 53 percent of those voters in New Jersey, both states that Clinton won by significant margins. In other states won by Clinton, she performed well on all three top Democratic issues, including Iraq.

Candidates in both parties now face a more leisurely primary election calendar but competition is expected to remain strong, with the next big delegate state contests, in Ohio and Texas, not taking place until March 4.

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