December 21, 2015
And then there were 12. Thirteen if you count Jim Gilmore. Lindsey Graham has exited the GOP race, just in time to remove himself from the South Carolina primary ballot.
Though never considered a strong contender, removing oneself from the campaign in order to avoid a micro result in your home state is a particularly ignominious final result.
Graham is not the first experienced senator with a concentration in national security to swing and miss at the presidential level. Richard Lugar of Indiana made nary a ripple in the 1996 pool, exiting after netting 4% in Iowa and 5% in New Hampshire.
In general, senatorial experience isn’t a plus. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, two less-accomplished colleagues of Graham who are doing just fine in the current race are more the model.
The three most recent senators to make the transition to president are Barack Obama, JFK, and Warren G. Harding. None are remembered for what they accomplished in the Senate.
The failure of a senator is not news in and of itself. It was a crowded field. Graham outlasted Rick Perry, Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal, a 2012 front runner, 2016 front runner, and onetime rising star.
Still, it is remarkable that a candidate could run on a single issue, the need to send ground troops back to the Middle East to deal with ISIL (Graham’s preferred acronym) before they attack America, have this issue become a leading one in the GOP primary and gain no support.
There’s a lesson in here somewhere. A majority of Americans (not just Republicans) are now willing to send more boots to the sand. Terrorism is now on par or above the economy among GOP voter concerns.
Donald Trump has gained in the polls since Paris, despite having put little emphasis on ISIS ahead of the attack. The guy who was more than happy to leave them to Vladimir Putin is doing great.
Cruz has established himself as the clear #2 in polling. With a lead in Iowa, he’s arguably the best positioned of all the candidates. He also has little desire to send American ground troops to Iraq, Syria or anywhere nearby.
Though stopping a little short of Graham, Rubio is the most interventionist of the leading candidates. He’s made no polling progress after Paris and San Bernardino. In some polls, he’s lost a little.
For some reason, GOP voters are finding more comfort in the bellicose Trump and Cruz than the more directly committed and more recently correct Rubio and Graham. Why?
A few things, none of which are absurd. As many have mentioned, voters, especially those of the opposing party, often look for an antidote to the incumbent. After seven years of Obama, it’s natural to expect a search for the opposite tone.
Trump is the absolute opposite here, not the smooth Rubio or sometimes clever Graham. There’s also the matter of senatorial record. The Donald doesn’t have to worry about this. Absent voting on or signing legislation, it’s relatively safe for a politician to shift.
Cruz has made a career out of not playing well with others. Even more than Gang of 8 member Rubio, Graham has made a career out of finding bipartisan solutions.
Plus, he’s short and doesn’t have a commanding voice. The taller candidate doesn’t always win, but we haven’t elected anyone noticeably under 6 feet in generations. This is also a potential obstacle for the 5’10” Rubio, who sometimes appears noticeably smaller than his opponents.
Many things are part of making voters feel safe. Being correct is only one of them, and perhaps less effective than most, as (guessing/projecting here) we may inherently realize that being correct (or incorrect) in the past does not guarantee future results.
While Trump will always be loud and Cruz always calculating, Graham and Rubio may not always find themselves correct. For the majority of Republicans who do not view the 2013 attempt at comprehensive immigration reform as a plus, there’s a recent example.
Rubio has time to work on this a bit. While he needs to instill more confidence to get nominated, he’s still in contention. Graham’s result is a cautionary tale. Squabbling with Cruz and noting where he was right over the past couple years isn’t enough.
Graham was forcibly removed by the electorate. He spent his greatest amount of time in New Hampshire to no benefit. Last week’s Boston Herald poll found 7 times as many respondents viewed him very unfavorably as very favorably.
These are Republicans, not the whole electorate. It’s almost inconceivable a mostly successful politician could find himself there. Where Chris Christie rehabilitated himself in the Granite State this fall, Graham could not, winding up in the Pataki Zone. Christie is a good example of the tone voters are finding more acceptable.
Regardless of his extensive military service, thirty-plus trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, and strong stance against ISIL, voters don’t think Graham is tough. Maybe it’s how he complained about Trump, maybe it’s his appearance. Maybe it’s his senatorial record.
Either way, the nominee is going to be someone voters think is tough.