A Big McCain Win, But Trouble in the Weeds

by Nathan L. Gonzales January 20, 2008 · 3:46 PM EST

Sen. John McCain won a narrow victory in South Carolina on Saturday, but the final results and the exit poll continue to show a very fractured Republican party without a single candidate who has emerged as a consensus choice.

Once again the devil is in the details, and anyone who digs through the exit poll will find that the GOP race is still wide open.

McCain won again, as he did in New Hampshire, on the basis of strong support from self-described moderates and liberals, and by attracting the votes of Independents. He won among primary voters who believe abortion should be legal, who believe that illegal immigrants should have a path to citizenship and who had a negative opinion of the Bush Administration.

McCain and Huckabee each won about 30 percent of the GOP, with Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson drawing another 16 percent each. Huckabee easily won conservatives, evangelical Christians, and voters who favored deporting illegal aliens.

Did McCain measurably improve on his 2000 showing in South Carolina? Not if you compare the 2000 and 2008 exit polls.

In 2000, McCain won 29 percent of self-described conservatives. This time, he won just 26 percent. In 2000, he drew 26 percent of Republicans. This time he won 30 percent – an improvement but not a dramatic one. McCain won 48 percent of veterans in 2000 against George W. Bush but only 37 percent this time.

If McCain didn’t increase his percentages, why did he win? McCain won because of the fractured GOP field. Huckabee, Thompson and Romney divided the GOP vote and conservatives, allowing McCain to win with only a third of the total primary vote.

McCain’s formula for victory can work in states that allow Independents to vote, but it’s still unclear whether he can compete successfully in states with closed primaries, which includes a number of Super Tuesday states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Montana, New York, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

McCain’s victory is disappointing news for Rudy Giuliani, who is waiting in Florida. Giuliani’s poll numbers have been slipping, and McCain’s momentum could make him appealing to some Florida Republicans who had been considering the former New York Mayor.

Some observers surely will see McCain’s victory in South Carolina as fundamentally changing the GOP race. But the evidence is not there yet that that is the case. If you look deep, deep into the weeds, the Republicans are still in a very wide-open race.