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McCain’s “Big Win” in South Carolina — Reconsidering the Media Spin

- January 20, 2008

Today the media are hailing the great victory that John McCain won yesterday in the South Carolina primary, which they see as giving him great momentum in the walkathon (a more apt metaphor than “race” in this particular instance, I think) for the GOP presidential nomination. It might do just that, but if it does, part of the reason will be the media’s spin on his performance rather than his performance per se.

How impressive was McCain’s performance, really?

According to Jim Campbell (political scientist at the University at Buffalo and election watcher extraordinaire), a useful benchmark on McCain’s showing in the South Carolina primary is his showing in South Carolina the last time he ran there, in 2000.

In 2000, McCain received 42 percent of the South Carolina GOP primary vote, with a total of 237,888 votes. This was portrayed as a big loss.

Yesterday McCain received only about 33 percent of the vote (9 percentage points lower than in 2000), with a total of approximately 140,000 votes (still not complete returns), nearly 100,000 fewer than in 2000. This was portrayed as an amazing win.

Even assuming (unrealistically) that everybody who voted for McCain yesterday had also done so back in 2000, there would be 100,000 South Carolina Republicans who supported him in 2000 but didn’t bother to turn out for him in 2008. Granted, he finished first in a crowded field. Even so, his showing was not as impressive as it might have been, based on a reasonable benchmark like that of his 2000 showing.

That, at least, is Jim Campbell’s take — and it’s a very different take than the one we’re reading in today’s papers and hearing on the Sunday political gabfests.

[Hat tip to Emmett Buell]