Virginia GOP Primary: |
VCU Political Analyst Robert Holsworth
Monday, February 28, 2000; 1 p.m. EST
Virginia voters head to the polls tomorrow for the GOP presidential primary, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush continue to battle for both core Republicans and crossover voters. While McCain is fighting an air war on TV and is taking on the Christian Coalition on their home turf, Bush has brought out the big guns of the state's GOP establishment, including Sen. John Warner and popular former governor George Allen, the presumptive Republican favorite for this fall's U.S. Senate contest.
Will Virginia's open primary bring out crossover voters in the same number as other states? Will the Democrats in Northern Virginia sway the outcome, or will downstate conservatives dominate the decision? Ask Prof. Robert D. Holsworth, director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert in politics in the Old Dominion. Holsworth talked about the GOP primary on Monday, Feb. 28. The transcript follows:
Free Media: Good afternoon, Prof. Holsworth, and welcome. What do you think is likely to happen in the primary tomorrow? Any early clues on turnout? What are the latest numbers you've seen?
Robert Holsworth: Virginia hasn't been polled as heavily as some of the other states have been, so there's probably more uncertainty here than in other places. The latest polls taken at the end of last week seem to suggest that McCain has narrowed the gap, but Bush still enters this race as the favorite. As he had in Michigan, McCain will need a large number of Democrats and Independents. George Bush has the support of the entire gamut of the Republican establishment in Virginia, ranging from Pat Robertson to Sen. John Warner. Unlike South Carolina, where McCain had the support of two of the four Republican congressmen, he's running a campaign against the entire establishment here in Virginia.
Columbia, S.C.: Which part of Virginia has embraced McCain's message? Is it Northern Virginia or Tidewater? I'm sure Richmond and the Southside areas are Bush country.
Robert Holsworth: The polls seem to show that McCain is running strongest in Northern Virginia. And these are the swing voters who often are instrumental in choosing the winner in Virginia elections. McCain seems to be running not as strongly in the Tidewater area, but is competitive there. The Richmond metropolitan area ought to be the stronghold of the Bush campaign in Virginia. But again, if this election were to be decided strictly by Republicans, Bush would probably win handily in Virginia. Again, the question is the number of Democrats and Independents who turn out for McCain.
Ft. Wayne, Ind.: Virginia just elected its first Republican legislative body ever. With the vulnerability of the party in mind, are the endorsements of the party establishment likely to carry more weight here than they have in other primaries?
Robert Holsworth: Most people believe that Virginia is typically not a state that had been extremely receptive to the "outsider" message. Ross Perot did not run as well in Virginia as he did in a number of other states. But, McCain has confounded expectations time and again in this campaign. If McCain were to win in Virginia, it would send the national Republican Party establishment into a state of near panic, because this is a state that everyone felt would be a firewall for Bush. And if that firewall turns out to be a sand castle, it would probably lead to a serious reassessment of Bush's capacity to be the party's standard-bearer.
Big Stone Gap, Va.: How big of a boost do you see Attorney General Mark Earley's endorsement giving Gov. Bush going into tomorrow primary?
Robert Holsworth: Attorney General Earley was probably helpful in reinforcing Bush's support among social conservatives in Virginia. But my feeling is that he already had their support to begin with. So I don't think that Earley's support is any more helpful than Jim Gilmore's or John Warner's. In fact, what has been interesting is that in the past few days, some of Bush's strongest supporters have suggested that they may not exercise that much influence. Gov. Gilmore has said that he's recommending Bush to the Virginia voters, but he's not promising to deliver Virginia voters to Bush. Gov. Gilmore watched the humiliation of [Gov.] John Engler up in Michigan, and decided not to take that risk. But I think that if Bush does win, as most people expect, some of the credit will be given to Gov. Gilmore and Sen. Warner in particular.
Free Media: It appeared as though Sen. McCain was going to write off Virginia then he made a big ad buy and scheduled a couple of appearances. For a candidate seeking crossover voters, isn't Northern Virginia fertile ground to pick up Democratic support?
Robert Holsworth: I think that the McCain campaign early on felt it would be very difficult to win Virginia, given the extent of endorsements Bush had received from the Republican establishment and given the fact that McCain has taken positions that at times have been antithetical to the express interests of some people in Virginia his position on more flights out of National Airport, his position on tobacco and his position on the upgrading of the Seawolf submarine. So it made some sense. But as the polls seemed to narrow, the McCain campaign decided that this might be a state where they could essentially steal the primary at the last minute.
Beyond that, Virginia has provided a venue for McCain to set up the argument he's going to be making for the next couple of weeks. We saw that this morning, when he traveled to Pat Robertson's home town and denounced Robertson and Rev. Jerry Falwell, along with Rev. Al Sharpton and Minister [Louis] Farrakhan as agents of intolerance. So even if he loses Virginia, McCain will now say that he came to Pat Robertson's home town and was able to comment frankly on him, and contrast this with George Bush's stance on Bob Jones University.
Greenbelt, Md.: Good afternoon, Mr. Holsworth.
Could you please explain the purpose behind "open primaries" which permit voters to cross over and vote for candidates not of the same party? Why should a registered Democrat have a say in who the candidate of the Republican Party should be? And does the Bush campaign not have a valid point in saying that these crossover voters that are currently accounting for so much of Sen. McCain's success cannot be counted on to support the Republican ticket in the fall?
Robert Holsworth: Good questions.
This is one of the great ironies of the Republican presidential selection process. Many state Republican parties developed open primaries as a way of attracting the idea was that by holding an open primary, the party could demonstrate that it was more inclusive. This was important given the fact that you need Independents and members of the other party in order to win the election. Indeed, part of George Bush's initial appeal to Republicans within the party was that he demonstrated a capacity to cross traditional party lines. He attracted Hispanic voters, did well with women voters and garnered a higher percentage of the African-American vote in Texas than Republican candidates were doing nationwide. So the irony of this campaign is that George Bush's original rationale applies more to McCain's candidacy at the moment than it does to his. Bush has become dependent on elected Republican officials and organized conservative interest groups, and it's McCain who's shown the capacity to attract voters from outside of the Republican Party. The idea of permitting Democrats and Independents to vote in Republican primaries now looks like a bad idea to many of the Republicans who were most vigorously in favor of it when it was instituted. That's what makes politics so much fun to watch.
Annapolis, Md.: McCain has enjoyed a great deal of support from Democrats and Independents in Michigan and New Hampshire. Do you think we will see this pattern repeated in Virginia? Do you think that his ability to capture these votes is a good sign should he win the primary?
Robert Holsworth: Another good question.
I think McCain will run fairly strongly among Independents in Virginia and he will do well among the Democrats who come out and vote in the primary. But a fairly large but in order to vote in Virginia, people will have to pledge not to participate in the Democratic Party's or the Reform Party's nomination process for presidential candidates. And while this is unlikely to discourage any Independents, it will probably minimize "Democratic mischief." People who are recognized Democrats in local office are unlikely to want their names published as participating in the Republican primary process and not participating in the Democratic primary process. Unlike Michigan, there is not an organized Democratic Party effort to embarrass the governor. In fact, the spokesperson for the Virginia Democratic Party has publicly stated that Democrats should participate in the party's nominating process and not in the Republican primary.
In Michigan, approximately 50 percent of voters were Democrats and Independents. Very few people expect that to be repeated in Virginia. If it is, however, it could be another long evening for George Bush.
Vienna, Va.: To vote in tomorrow's Republican Primary, I am required to sign a statement that I don't plan to participate in any other party's primary nomination procedure. This appears to me to be dumb, possibly illegal. First of all there is no other primary taking place; secondly, how is this enforceable; thirdly, a person has the right to change his mind; fourthly, my right to vote is guaranteed by the Constitution.
Free Media: Since there are Democratic caucuses in Virginia in April, isn't that what this is referring to? Do the Virginia caucuses carry anywhere near as much influence?
Robert Holsworth: It's probably reasonable to note that the Democratic Party, when they hold their caucuses in April, ask participants to make a fairly similar pledge to pledge some degree of loyalty to the party as well. So the Republican Party is not doing anything that the Democratic Party does not have its own version of in Virginia.
Having said that, the reader's concerns will probably be repeated on a number of occasions tomorrow at the voting booth. The pledge is not legally enforceable. And the right to change one's mind, while it may not have any wording in the Constitution, is considered a basic American birthright. In general, the pledge will not be seen very favorably by people who are not organized Republicans. The basic defense that the party uses is that if it didn't have some kind of pledge, it would run the risk of not having their delegates seated at the national convention. I'm not sure how much water this position holds, but it is the official position of the Virginia Republican Party.
The original idea was to have a pledge in which the voter would promise the candidate of the Republican Party in November. This would have clearly angered voters and would have done the Republicans much more harm than good.
Laurie: Dr. Holsworth,
Do you anticipate Virginia Democrats coming out in droves to support Sen. McCain just to spite Gov. Gilmore and the New Republican Machine? The Republican leadership has been very quick to discount results in open primaries because of "Democratic Dilution." Come November, is this approach going to come back and bite them in their collective butts?
Also, I get a sense that the governor is politicking for a Cabinet job or even a spot on the ticket? Your thoughts?
By the way, I am planning to vote tomorrow and I am doing it because I can It is my right and duty as a citizen.
Robert Holsworth: This is a serious issue for the Bush campaign if he obtains the nomination. Until the fight with McCain had become so competitive, Bush certainly hoped that he could position himself as a compassionate conservative who had broad appeal across traditional partisan lines. But in order to obtain the nomination now, he has defined himself much more narrowly than I think he originally intended to do. And if he is the party's nominee, he will have to find some way of becoming the candidate that he was in Texas.
In terms of Gov. Gilmore, there is a belief that because of his close relationship with Gov. Bush, that he would be considered very seriously for top Cabinet positions such as attorney general and secretary of commerce. One of the delicious rumors that sprouted up today, courtesy of Virginia Democratic strategist Paul Goldman, is that if McCain won the nomination, Gilmore would be a great choice as VP, because of his connection to the Bush campaign. I have no idea if that would be the case, but it's fun to watch Goldman's mind at work.
Alexandria, Va.: Now that George Bush has apologized to Catholics for not disavowing anti-Catholic sentiments espoused by Bob Jones, how can he really expect them to forget that he got in bed with reactionary right-wing politicians just so that he could win the South Carolina primary? Can he continue to play both sides of the fence and still win?
Robert Holsworth: I doubt that Bush can continue to play both sides of the fence, and I think he has to choose which side he's on. The question for him is whether the apology can ultimately reduce the amount of attention that is given to this issue so that he can focus on the themes that are the crucial element of his campaign. The New York Post this morning had a headline: "Bless Me Father, for I Have Goofed." I also think that John McCain's trip to Virginia Beach this morning and denunciation of Pat Robertson will be contrasted by the McCain campaign to the two weeks it took for George Bush to make his act of contrition on Bob Jones University. McCain will argue that it's an issue of leadership. Again, this is an example of how the original intention of the Bush campaign has been subverted by the McCain challenge. It certainly appeared that Bush would be the candidate of inclusiveness, not the candidate who would have to be defending himself against charges of religious parochialism.
Anyone who's watched George Bush's political career would find it hard to believe that there's any religious bigotry in him. His outreach efforts to religious groups appear to be extremely sincere. What he has had difficulty doing, however, is fully understanding the symbolic dimensions of running for office. What you say before various groups, whether you know how to eat ethnic food appropriately can make a big difference in sending a message to people who don't really know you. And the challenge that Bush has to overcome is that a number of Catholic voters have now first met him through his appearance at Bob Jones University.
Arlington, Va.: I've been in Virginia for 20 years now and this is the first statewide primary I can recall. Why did the Republican establishment decide to have it open to all comers the fact that there is no party registration?
Robert Holsworth: First, there was a presidential primary in 1988 in Virginia in which George Bush [Sr.] received 53 percent of the Republican vote, Bob Dole 26 and Pat Robertson 14. And Jesse Jackson won the Democratic primary with 45 percent of the vote, and Al Gore and Michael Dukakis each received 22 percent. But the primary on the Republican side was a beauty contest, because it didn't mean anything for delegate selection.
There has been a movement of late inside the Virginia General Assembly to call for registration by party, but it doesn't appear that that would be successful. My sense is that voters are becoming more and more independent, and that registration by political party is less likely today than at almost any other time to be something that the majority of people would really support. I think more people like to consider themselves Independents, even if they typically support one party most of the time at the polls.
Free Media: At a rally yesterday in Alexandria, Sen. McCain talked about how his campaign defeated the "Engler machine" in Michigan and would defeat the "Gilmore-Warner machine" in Virginia. How much of a machine exists in Virginia, and how does it compare to what was supposedly one in Michigan?
Robert Holsworth: I think that both Jim Gilmore and John Warner would have been surprised to know that they are the joint leaders of a political machine. But it is true that the organized Republican Party in Virginia has been extremely successful in statewide elections throughout the 1990s. Republicans were able to take the three statewide offices for the first time in 1997, and won a Republican majority in the general assembly thanks to the 1999 elections.
But it's often a humbling experience for political leaders to suggest that they can translate their popularity onto someone else. Gov. Jim Gilmore entered a Republican primary battle on behalf of a challenger to an incumbent Republican to the house of delegates, only to find himself rebuffed by the local voters. The elected Republican establishment can be very helpful in providing voter lists and in providing advice to the Bush campaign, and it can help try to mobilize the activist members of the Republican Party. But it cannot always guarantee what rank-and-file Virginians are going to do. In short, they provide Bush with a tremendous advantage, but not a guarantee.
Richmond, Va.: Dr. Bob I drove up to Alexandria yesterday for a McCain rally and it appears that NOVA is energized for this primary and solidly McCain. The rest of the state appears to be paying less attention. How big a spread in NOVA does McCain need to win or make it close? Thank you.
Robert Holsworth: McCain is likely to have to win Northern Virginia by a good margin. Polls that show McCain down by eight points show him leading in Northern Virginia by 10. So his margin in Northern Virginia would probably have to be mid-double digits in order to carry the entire state.
Certainly the McCain campaign has made some late television buys in Northern Virginia, and they believe that is the part of the state that is less influenced by folks such as Gov. Gilmore and former governor George Allen. Probably the most popular Republican figure in Northern Virginia has been Sen. Warner Northern Virginia and the Tidewater are his base. The Bush campaign hopes that Sen. Warner's support of Virginia's military interests and his own standing as a major representative of the moderate wing of the party would be sufficient to help fend off the McCain challenge.
It seems to me that Sen. Warner's background as secretary of the Navy and currently as chair of the Armed Services Committee should be helpful to George Bush when he confers his imprimatur as a leader. Sen. Warner has been very careful not to denigrate McCain while supporting Bush. In fact, in one of the taped telephone calls he makes on Bush's behalf, he notes that the endorsement was a tough call for him to make. And I think John McCain would probably much prefer Warner's endorsement, but can't object to the manner in which Sen. Warner has conveyed his support for his opponent.
Annapolis, Md.: Do Pat Robertson and the Bob Jones University "crowd" share a common mind set within the Christian Coalition? Irregardless, does either and/or both faction(s) share a notable proportion of the GOP electoral base in the upcoming Virginia elections?
Robert Holsworth: While John McCain is attempting to lump Bob Jones and Pat Robertson together, these are two camps that don't see the world the same way. Robertson himself suggested at one point that the visit to Bob Jones University could be potentially damaging to Bush. But McCain is hoping that politically, much of the moderate wing of the public doesn't see much of a distinction.
Chester, Va.: What are your opinions about Sen. McCain's relatively sudden rise in other primaries as well as Virginia's? Even So. Carolina was not a shoo in for Bush as everyone predicted. I really don't believe it is the "anti-Clinton" reaction as the media portrays. Also, what do his VietNam experiences have to do with being President? I don't feel it qualifies him any more than the others. Do you think this is really a personality contest? The issues even seem to be somewhat moot. Do you think either Bush or McCain can win over Gore?
Robert Holsworth: Lots of good questions.
McCain's appeal is certainly in part biographical. People see him as a genuine hero who stood up for his country and now is willing to stand up against the so-called special interests, which many people believe dominate American politics. It's McCain's biographical and thematic appeal that is giving him this phenomenal run in this primary season, much more than his articulation of any specific issue. I do think part of McCain's appeal is the contrast he makes with Bill Clinton, and in fact with most politicians. Polls continue to show that the public believes the economy is doing very well, but much of the public does not believe that the moral fabric of America is doing very well. And McCain's embrace of honesty and straight talk, and his condemnation of the so-called special interests have struck a resonant chord.
In terms of the general election, any Republican candidate will ultimately have to find a way to make a case for change, despite what appears to be a very sound economic situation. This may not be an easy case to make. But, the polls also seem to indicate that Al Gore's personal appeal as a candidate is limited, and this would give both McCain and Bush a good deal of hope.
Free Media: In Michigan, some congressional Democrats notably Rep. John Conyers set up phone banks and urged Democrats to get out and vote for John McCain. Has anything like that happened in Virginia? Do you think that signals anti-Bush forces or anti-Gore?
Robert Holsworth: The Democrats in Virginia have not engaged in the same kind of organized effort to embarrass Gov. Gilmore. Ultimately, I would say that 18 percent of the electorate in Michigan said they were Democrats. If McCain can do that well in Virginia, he will probably wind up being more competitive than the polls seem to indicate. But I'm not certain that one out of five Democrats will be there at the polls tomorrow voting in the primary.
But with whatever happens, there's no doubt that John McCain has made the Republicans' decision to go to a primary in Virginia a lot more fun than anyone imagined when they initially established it.
Free Media: That was our last question today for VCU Prof. Robert Holsworth. Thanks so much to Prof. Holsworth, and thanks to everyone who joined us.
Tune in again at 3:30 p.m. EST, when Detroit Free Press reporter Chris Christoff will join us to talk about the far-reaching effects of the Michigan primary both on the GOP candidates and the standing of Gov. John Engler.
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