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Election 2008: Romney Drops Out

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John Sides
Assistant Professor of Political Science, George Washington University
Thursday, February 7, 2008; 3:00 PM

John Sides, a George Washington University assistant professor studying candidate strategy in campaigns and how campaigns affect voter attitudes, was online Thursday, Feb. 7 at 3 p.m. ET to discuss the departure of Gov. Mitt Romney from the Republican presidential primaries.

The transcript follows.

Sides's research centers on political behavior, both American politics and in comparative politics. His current research focuses on candidate strategy in campaigns, the effects of campaigns on the attitudes on voters, the consequences of higher turnout for election outcomes, European attitudes toward immigration, and the nature and meaning of patriotism and nationalism.

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John Sides: Hello, everyone. It's a pleasure to take your questions today. I'll be online until about 3:45 p.m. or until my newborn son starts screaming -- whichever comes first.

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Anonymous: McCain's pick for a running mate becomes really crucial -- any names mentioned as being on a short list? I heard someone propose Colin Powell but that seems a little far out to me.

John Sides: One piece of idle speculation: Mike Huckabee. He shores up the social conservatives and has home-turf advantages in the South. And, apparently, he and McCain likes each other, which is never a requirement but doesn't hurt!

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Inquiring Minds Want to Know: Mr. Sides, thanks for doing this chat. This may be a silly question, but what happens to Romney's delegates now (and, for that matter, Edwards's)? Are they just gone? Thanks!

John Sides: No, they are not gone. The precise rules vary state by state, but it's likely that the delegates will be "freed" to vote for a different candidate at the convention.

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Alexandria, Va.: With Romney dropping out, the Virginia GOP primary becomes pretty meaningless. Considering rules in Virginia that allow anyone to vote in whichever primary they choose, regardless of self-described party affiliation, will there be any effort to get center-right Republicans to participate in the Democratic primary? (Seemingly an advantage for Obama.)

John Sides: There are a few questions in the queue about this, so I'll try to answer them in one fell swoop. The question is whether voters will "cross over" to vote in the opposite candidate's primary. Some research suggests that crossover voting happens, but tends to be "sincere" (i.e. Republicans who genuinely like Obama -- or hate Clinton -- vote for Obama) rather than "strategic" (i.e. Republicans vote for whichever candidate they tend to think will be the weakest in the general election).

Could independents who would have voted in the Republican primary (to support McCain) vote in the Democratic primary (to support Obama)? Sure, that is a definite possibility. Will there be an effort among Democrats to mobilize independents and Republicans? Rhetorically, sure. But it's tough to know how much the candidates can do in terms of actual shoe-leather politics, given that none of them had extensive ground operations in these later states. So it remains to be seen how any such rhetoric would be translated into action.

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Anchorage, Alaska: With all the focus on the financing of these campaigns (how many millions wasted on Rudy, Freddy, Johnny, Denny et al) can we all agree on this question? Is big money identical to free speech? Thanks.

John Sides: The Supreme Court seems to think so! Candidate spending is free speech. However, note that there is no ready relationship between who spends the most and who wins.

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Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Do you think that the competitive participation of a Mormon in the race made the America more open to the acceptance of inside differences?

John Sides: It's always nice to see questions from abroad. I don't necessarily think that Romney's participation leads to any sea change in attitudes toward Mormons, but I think that most every time a "minority" candidate of some kind runs, it helps normalize the idea that political leadership does not have to come from white Catholic or Protestant men. Obviousl, viable female and African American candidates have the same effect.

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Portland, Ore.: How much of a factor in Romney's lack of success were his policy changes on social issues (abortion, gay rights, immigration)? Did voters perceive him as lacking principle?

John Sides: I don't think it's policy positions, per se, in part because voters don't necessarily translate their policy positions into candidate preferences. I think Romney had to compete in a field where other candidates had natural advantages in the early states (Huckabee in Iowa; McCain in New Hampshire) and after their victories it was tough to develop any momentum. So it may not be that voters were rejecting Romney so much as choosing Huckabee or McCain.

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washingtonpost.com: As it's something you've researched: What impact has the widespread increased turnout in the Democratic primaries had on the race? What has been the impact of such turnout in past races?

John Sides: To me, the turnout signals what everyone says it signals: a highly energized Democratic base that is anxious for Bush's term to end. It also signals that the Democratic Party has had many quality candidates whom most Democratic voters like.

I'm not sure that the higher turnout among Democrats necessarily has benefited Obama or Clinton per se -- except perhaps in Iowa, where the higher overall turnout was driven in part by a higher turnout among young voters, who tended to support Obama.

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Rockville, Md.: Do you believe Romney or Huckabee are viable candidates for vice president on a McCain ticket? Thanks.

John Sides: One last comment on the veepstakes to go with my earlier post. Huckabee: Yes, as I said before. Romney: No. He and McCain do not have a warm relationship, to put it mildly, and it's not clear that he brings any net advantages in terms of constituencies, states, etc.

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Raleigh, N.C.: How does Mr. Romney's exit from the race affect Democratic voters' decisions now that they know that McCain is the de facto Republican Nominee? They want to win the White House; could they coalesce behind one candidate?

John Sides: Certainly the Democratic Party elites fear a divisive primary and would love to have a nominee sooner rather than later, but I don't think this will bring any quick resolution to the Democratic contest. Lots of Democratic voters genuinely like their preferred candidate, and it seems unlikely that they would coalesce behind Obama or Clinton just because of Romney's departure.

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Alexandria, Va.: With Romney out, where are his supporters likely to vote in the upcoming races? Any chance of Huckabee pulling enough of the more-traditional Republicans now to make the race between him and McCain a close one, or is McCain too far ahead at this point?

John Sides: I think McCain's too far ahead.

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Midlothian, Va.: After Super Tuesday, I'm a little surprised that Romney hung it up so fast. Were the sheer dollars spent starting to add up?

John Sides: I only can speculate. I would be surprised if it were a money question -- he's got plenty in the bank. I wonder instead if he simply wanted to avoid a protracted losing battle, in which his candidacy would look more and more irrelevant with every McCain victory. He said in his speech today that he hates to lose. I also suspect he wants to save as much face in losing as he can.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: To win, the Democrats need to hold onto all their blue states (which I presume either Clinton or Obama are capable of doing) and they must pick up one more state somewhere. Does this mean they should look to someone like Bill Richardson (New Mexico), Evan Bayh (Indiana), or Ted Strickland (Ohio) for their vice presidential nominee?

John Sides: Richardson is a strong possibility: He helps in a swing state and appeals to Latinos. I'm less certain that even Bayh could deliver Indiana, and, while Ohio is a key state, I'm not sure Strickland (a virtual unknown) helps as much in other places.

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Huckabee as Vice President: Why would McCain want to solidify the conservative base, when he's winning this election fight with independents and moderates? Those voters will run fast to any Democratic candidate if McCain chooses an evangelical for a running mate. Could McCain win the general election if he has solely the support of the Republican base? I think he needs that large swath up the middle.

John Sides: Don't underestimate Huckabee's appeal beyond social conservatives. His economic populism and genial personality make him less polarizing than he otherwise might be.

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Anonymous: My wife and I are lifelong Republicans (70 years young). For the first time in our lives we will not vote for McCain -- or, for that matter, a Democratic candidate. It is a matter of principle with no true conservative choice. Question -- is there any chance a conservative now will enter as an independent candidate?

John Sides: There is only more idle speculation on this front: Ron Paul, Lou Dobbs (on an anti-immigration platform). Certainly if McCain's the nominee, there is a rationale for a certain stripe of conservative, certainly one that takes a harder line on illegal immigration. But, as always in American politics, there's an infinitesimal chance a third-party candidate could win, so the best this person could do is further his or her agenda and act as a spoiler for McCain.

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Takoma Park, Md.: If Obama were the Democratic nominee, could his moral message be enough to win Utah away from the Republicans?

John Sides: Nope, I don't think Utah is in play -- the party balance is just too tilted in the Republicans' favor. He might do better in Utah than some past Democrats, but not well enough to win.

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College Station, Texas: Obviously, McCain returned from the dead because his unpopular stance on the Iraq war seems to have received some vindication with claims of success regarding the "surge." But most opinion polls still show the American people disapprove of the war by a margin of some 66 percent. How does this translate into sentiment for the general election? Are Americans really as opposed to the Iraq war as I am, because Bush sold it to us under false pretenses, or do the voters only oppose being in a war when we're losing?

John Sides: As you note, a majority of voters do not think the war is going well, and would like the troops to begin coming home soon. McCain's disadvantage is that he seems committed to having troops there as long as it takes (however defined), and most voters don't support that. So that is a potential liability as the election starts. A bigger question is whether he can speak to growing economic anxiety, as national security always has been more of an emphasis for him.

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Kensington, Md.: Assuming John McCain has this wrapped up (soon), do you expect that he'll name a running mate before the convention, or will he wait until then in order to optimize his pick to match up well to whomever the Democratic nominee is? Has any presumptive nominee named their running mate well before the convention in recent cycles?

John Sides: It seems like a better strategy is to hold off on naming a running mate -- sometimes the announcement leads to a bump in the polls, and I wouldn't want to "waste" that too early. That said, I think we're likely to know the running mates before the convention -- which seems current practice -- but not several months before.

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Frankfort, Ky.: Have there been any research studying the relation between election campaign rhetoric and congressional gridlock?

John Sides: The best I can tell you off the top of my head is this: Research suggests that politicians do tend to follow up on their campaign promises once in office -- e.g., by introducing bills and the like. Whether commitments made in elections produce gridlock is a different story. My guess is that gridlock depends more on interparty dynamics that arise after the election.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I understand Romney would have had to win two-thirds of the remaining delegates to be chosen in order to get the nomination, and we all knew that was extremely unlikely. Do you expect Huckabee and Paul will follow and withdraw as well, or do you see one or both of them continuing as sort of protest candidates.

John Sides: Huckabee has nothing to gain by continuing his run; Paul does, because he is a protest candidate. So, I see Huckabee exiting before Paul. The open question is what Paul expects to do if the Republican race is essentially over and there are no more candidate debates, where he has been able to draw at least some attention.

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Oakland, Pa.: Professor Sides, on a scale of one (no way) to 10 (guaranteed to happen), how likely is Sen. McCain to tap Jeb Bush as his running mate? I know it sounds crazy, but Jeb Bush would appease the Southern conservatives, and he actually is qualified for the job.

John Sides: Two Florida figures have been mentioned in questions: Crist and Jeb Bush. Both are relatively popular in Florida, but I wonder what Crist would help McCain accomplish outside of Florida. Jeb Bush seems like a long-shot to me. Given President Bush's low approval -- especially among independents -- why potentially weigh down the ticket with another Bush?

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Maplewood, N.J.: Do you think that Mitt's Mormon faith did him in? I don't like to think so, but it seems like all the Baptist conservatives (who are known to not like Mormons) voted for Huckabee -- most likely taking away from Romney. In other words, was Huckabee the real competitor for Romney, not McCain? Were both going after the same voters?

John Sides: It was more than just his Mormon faith, I think. Certainly that gave some Christian conservatives pause, but at the same time you have a lack of cohesion among Christian conservative leaders and organizations -- e.g., Romney, Huckabee, Thompson, etc. all picked up endorsements -- and you have Huckabee, who is a Baptist minister and best fits the profile of a Christian conservative. To repeat something I said above, it may be that Christian conservatives were voting more for Huckabee than against Romney.

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Sun Prairie, Wis.: Good afternoon, Mr. Sides. In modern presidential elections, partisan control of the White House always has changed in years when the incumbent president was unpopular -- and by this November George Bush will have been more unpopular for a longer period of time than any president, even Nixon during Watergate. Doesn't this suggest that Sen. McCain (or any GOP candidate this year) will labor under an absolutely crushing handicap in the campaign this fall?

John Sides: Some political scientists and others have "forecasting models" of the election that predict the presidential election's outcome using the state of the economy, the popularity of the incumbent, the presence of a war, and maybe a few other factors.

Those models tend to suggest that the Democratic candidate will win, though not necessarily by a landslide. However, if the economy continues to weaken, these models' predictions will grow increasingly favorable to the Democrats. But at the same time, I doubt we're in for a landslide -- I think it will be a competitive race, and it's possible that the campaign itself (ads, debates, etc.) could help the Republican candidate overcome unfavorable conditions in the country.

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Anonymous: Could Obama increase black turnout enough in the Deep South to put it into play, especially because McCain doesn't have the best relationship with the evangelical community?

John Sides: I'd need to do some math to give you a good answer. I think that an Obama nomination could put at least a few states in play (certainly ones more favorable to Democrats in the past, such as Tennessee or Arkansas), so the Democrats then could feel emboldened to contest them and Republicans may have to spend valuable resources to defend them.

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Washington: Random question: When a candidate ends their race (and this could be congressional candidates too) what happens to the staffers on the campaign? At least on the Hill, if your representative/senator loses, you presumably know people and might get picked up by other offices pretty quickly. Is there any kind of severance pay or continuing benefits for those whose chosen candidate bows out?

John Sides: I could e-mail a few friends on the Edwards campaign and find out! My guess is that there's enough money to pay a very modest severance -- at least so that your paycheck doesn't stop the moment the farewell speech is over -- but not much beyond that.

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John Sides: Folks, I'm sorry not to have answered every question, but I definitely enjoyed this chat. Thanks for tuning in!

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