Until the past week or so, the press had pretty much written off John McCain’s chances of gaining the GOP nomination. But if he can gain his party’s nod, he remains the candidate, from either party, most likely to prevail in a general election — and thus win the presidency.
That could make a difference in the homestretch of the Iowa and New Hampshire campaigns, since surveys have shown time and again that voters on both sides of the aisle care about electability. But the polls everyone’s studying at the moment don’t accurately address this issue. How voters view the candidates today is not how they’re going to view them in November — once a candidate gains the nomination, he or she is transformed into an altogether different character.
By looking at historical trends and the appeal of each of the current candidates, one can come up with fair indications of who is likely to rise or fall in a general-election campaign. Assuming each of these candidates were to win his or her party’s nomination, here, in order, is an assessment of their chances of winning a general election.
1) JOHN MCCAIN McCain would bring a number of advantages to a general-election campaign. He’s been in the national-election eye the longest, so he’s well known and trusted — passing the presidential-threshold test by a mile. He’s a national hero of sorts. And, he’s perceived as enough of a maverick that he would appeal to some Democrats and independents. His weaknesses would be his age (he’d be the oldest person ever initially elected to the presidency), and the fact that his soft immigration stand might attract a third-party anti-immigration candidate. Still, despite his lukewarm showing in current GOP polls, he began this whole cycle as the strongest potential candidate in a general election, and he remains so — as long as it continues to appear that the war effort has turned a corner.
2) JOHN EDWARDS The only Democrats to win the popular vote after 1960 have been Southerners. Why should it be any different now? Yes, Edwards is liberal, but his candidacy would put a number of usually safe GOP states, such as Virginia, into play. Edwards expands the playing field, which is what you want to do to be a strong general-election candidate.
3) RUDY GIULIANI Giuliani does for the GOP what Edwards does for Democrats — he puts states normally carried by the other party into play (in his case, New Jersey or Pennsylvania). His weakness is that his candidacy would likely trigger a third-party social-issues candidate from the right, who would need to get only one to two percent of the votes in key states to throw the election to the Democrats. A Bloomberg independent candidacy wouldn’t do him any favors, either.
4) (tie) HILLARY CLINTON Clinton and Obama have the same initial problem. Each has a scenario to get to about 310 electoral votes — more than enough to win (270 is required), but one that doesn’t give either a large margin of error. Of the two, Clinton has less upside potential than Obama because she’s divisive. But she has far less downside potential, too, because she’s a known commodity. If there’s a serious independent candidacy, her chances improve markedly. After all, getting to 46 percent (which is probably all it would take to win a three-person race) isn’t Clinton’s problem — it’s getting to 50 percent plus one.