Late last year when we learned that half of U.S. states would be holding primary elections on February 5, observers assumed that the major parties would select a nominee by the end of that evening, and the general election season would begin February 6, today. It did not happen quite that way, but the general election campaign is beginning anyway.
The Republican party may as well start rallying around John McCain because no other candidate seems to match the breadth of his appeal. Mitt Romney appeals to the conservative branch of the party, but there are no longer enough of them voting to win a primary in any state, so it is hard to picture Romney winning any more states than he has won already. Mike Huckabee is seen as likeable among evangelical Christian voters in the South, but he would be hard pressed to extend that appeal to the east and west coasts where most voters live. And so, it scarcely matters whether McCain gets to his party’s convention with enough votes to win a nomination, or a few less. It would be hard to put forward any other candidate for the Republican nomination with a straight face.
In the Democratic party, the votes so far are so evenly split between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that it is now virtually impossible for either to lock up the nomination before the convention. At this point, Clinton could win every remaining state and still not have the votes to win, and the same can be said for Obama. To win the nomination, either candidate will need the support of the party officials who also get a few votes at the convention. And what will the party officials be looking for in a candidate? More than anything else, they will be looking for a candidate who can win the general election — a candidate who can beat McCain in November.
And so, although the nomination is still far from decided, neither Clinton nor Obama can afford to spend much time campaigning against each other. Instead, they have to start campaigning against McCain. And in fact, we observed that shift in tone late last week.
And so it is effectively a general election campaign from here forward. McCain might seem to have a disadvantage in that he is running against two candidates of the other party, but his bigger disadvantage is that Democratic primary voters have sometimes seemed to outnumber Republicans by two to one this year. He’ll need to start now to try to find a way to make people feel good about the Republican party again.