With his victory in Florida tonight, it is very, very hard to see a way that McCain does not win the Republican nomination for President now. I had been cheering for Romney, largely because McCain is tied with Clinton and Obama, while right now Romney loses to Obama by 17.0% , and Clinton by 12.4%. Basically, Romney was generic Republican against Clinton and Obama (generic Republican stands virtually no chance against any Democrat right now), while McCain is a known for his "maverick" and "anti-Bush" stances. However, there are many reasons to believe that while Romney would have been an easier Republican opponent, the difference between him and McCain was nowhere near the 12-17% mark in current polls. In truth, the difference between McCain and Romnry is more like 5-7%, at best, and here is why:
Romney is still a relative unknown: While John McCain's name ID is 100%, Mitt Romney's is much lower. Between 4-10% of Romney polling deficit on McCain is derived entirely from being lesser known. In and of itself, this makes the actual gap between Romney and McCain only 8-13%.
Conservative media elites will thrash McCain. Rush Limbaugh and his ilk with thrash McCain for months on end, encouraging conservatives to either sit at home or support a third-party. This should be worth at least a 3% Nader gross effect, and certainly a 1% Nader net effect. By contrast, conservative media would have produced the opposite impact for Romney. With conservative media not only denying McCain the same buzz, but actually creating counter anti-McCain buzz, chalk up at least another 1-2% in favor of Romney. At least. We might even be able to close the triangle against McCain on multiple occasions, destroying his cred nationwide.
Money. McCain will simply be unable to raise as much money as Romney could raise, mainly owing to their differences in personal fortune. This will, once again, account for at least a 1-2% difference at the polls, simply because either Clinton or Obama will be able to vastly outspend McCain from February though August. In truth, the difference will probably be larger, 2-3% or more.
McCain only has Iraq. McCain simply cannot engage in a substantive debate on anything except Iraq. While a right-wing foreign policy might help someone in a Republican primary, the truth is that Democrats still win this discussion, hands down, with the public at large. Democrats still have a significant advantage on Iraq, the country's desire for withdrawal has not waned one iota, and people just don't know how right-wing McCain is on Iraq (source for the first two). When people get a whiff of McCain's hawk stances on Iraq, they will crumble. When they realize he can't debate things like the mortgage crisis (which, btw, Clinton is actually very, very good on, both in terms of policy and rhetoric), they will crumble further. A Republican running on foreign policy right now is a doomed campaign.
McCain is soft. McCain's upward "surge" in favorables is only two months old, and largely a result of him emerging as the hero, Republican frontrunner. First, rises like this always fade. Second, a drop of only ten points in McCain's favorables--which is absolutely doable for all of the reasons already listed--would put him at a huge deficit compared to either Obama or Clinton. Third, his numbers have dropped and risen thirty points in either direction in just one year. That means the public has an extremely soft and vague view of McCain, something that will disappear during a general election. Under closer scrutiny, the best McCain could hope for is his current situation: a tie with Clinton an Obama. If his current bubble collapses, then he falls way behind either.
Beating McCain is better than beating Romney: If McCain becomes the nominee, it is only because Republicans think he can win, not because they actually like him. As such, as long as we can pull it off, defeating McCain is actually preferable to defeating Romney. If we beat McCain, then not only did we beat Republicans, but we beat Republicans who sold out in order to try and beat us. Crushing a patsy placeholder like Romney is one thing, but crushing Republicans and conservatives who hated their nominee, but chose him because they thought he could win, is way, way, better. If we beat McCain, then Arnold is the only national Republican moderate left, and he can never run for President. In other words, beat McCain, and we not only beat Republicans, but we beat their entire bench.
Now, with all of this said, I still think that Romney would have been 5-7% easier to defeat. Further, with Romney we had a much better chance of a blowout election that could result in a generational mandate that would realign American politics. However, I just want to make it clear that McCain is still a highly vulnerable target, no matter who wins the Democratic nomination (Clinton and Obama perform roughly equal against him). Better yet, defeating McCain by 5% or more would send the Republican Party reeling for a long, long time to come. Even better than that, a narrow victory over McCain, coupled with progressive primary challenger success and big wins in the Senate, would still produce the most progressive government in D.C. in forty-five years, and possibly ever. Beating McCain crushes Republicans and conservatives over the long-term, whereas beating Romney would only be a temporary victory.
So bring on McCain. While I would have preferred Romney, there are still many benefits to McCain as the Republican nominee.