For the past year, pundits have been warning: Don't pay attention to the national polls. They are more a gauge of name recognition than considered choices by voters. Remember Rudolph Giuliani, the "likely Republican nominee?"
Now that the biggest Super Tuesday in US history has arrived, with almost two dozen states holding primaries or caucuses, the national polls are truly meaningful, analysts say. Voters are engaged across the country, not just in the few states that had early nominating contests. And Republicans appear set to all but anoint Sen. John McCain of Arizona as their choice for November.
The latest Realclearpolitics.com average of national polls shows Senator McCain towering over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by 19 points – 43 percent to 24 percent, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at 18 percent and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas at 6.
"If past Super Tuesdays are any indication, it's going to be very difficult for Romney to dig himself out of the hole he's in at the moment," says William Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University in Boston.
Romney comeback still possible
Still, given the rules of delegate allocation, Mr. Romney could rack up a decent number of delegates for the Republican convention in September, especially in states that award delegates by congressional district, such as California. Romney could also do well in some of the smaller states, most of which are holding caucuses, a format that has benefited Romney's highly organized campaign. And both Missouri, a winner-take-all state, and Tennessee are within reach for Romney.
"Unless [McCain] sweeps the table on Tuesday, Romney's in a position to claim at least a partial victory and keep going forward," says Dan Schnur, who was McCain's communications director in the 2000 presidential race and is now unaffiliated with any presidential candidate.
"If Romney wins six, seven, eight states out of the 21 that are voting, he can make a case that there's a reason to keep going forward."
Romney could, in that case, opt to dip further into his personal fortune and soldier on in the Feb. 12 primaries and beyond. But the hard truth for the former governor is that, with Mr. Huckabee still in the race, his chances are slim. Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, is siphoning away evangelical votes from Romney.
With the anti-McCain vote divided, the Arizonan – who inspires considerable animosity among some conservatives over his positions on campaign finance, immigration, and global warming – will be tough to beat.
A divided evangelical vote
The future of the evangelical vote, an important constituency of the Republican Party, remains in flux, analysts say. But they note that it would be a mistake to assume that all the Huckabee votes would be going for Romney, if Huckabee weren't in the race. In the South Carolina primary on Jan. 19, the exit poll showed that 60 percent of GOP voters self-identified as "born-again or evangelical Christian," and of those, 43 percent went for Huckabee, 27 percent for McCain, and 11 percent for Romney.
In Florida, the "born-again or evangelical Christian" vote in the Republican primary – 39 percent of GOP voters – was almost perfectly divided among McCain (30 percent), Romney (29 percent), and Huckabee (29 percent).
Huckabee could do well Tuesday in a handful of Southern states, but lacking the resources to buy ads and organize, he seems a much longer shot than Romney. And if enough of his voters decide to vote against McCain by voting for Romney, that could give Romney some more delegates.
But "the only way Romney really gets a big boost is if everybody who deserts Huckabee goes to him – and I don't think that's a foregone conclusion," says James Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, SC.
When all is said and done, he and other experts on the religious right don't anticipate large numbers of evangelical voters sitting out the fall general election if McCain is the nominee – especially if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is the Democratic nominee.
Can the right rethink McCain?
The opposition to McCain is "much stronger at the elite level and maybe among activists, and of course McCain's military background and hero status help him," says Mr. Guth, referring to McCain's years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
The Rev. Richard Land, an influential evangelical leader who heads the public policy department of the Southern Baptist Convention, has been all over the media in the past week, encouraging conservatives – including the very anti-McCain talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh – to calm down and "listen to the voters."
Conservative pundit William Kristol, writing in Monday's New York Times, suggests conservatives "owe John McCain at least a respectful hearing," and suggests that McCain's support in Congress was critical to getting President Bush's military surge off the ground in Iraq.
"No surge, failure in Iraq, a terrible setback for America – and, as it happens, no chance for a GOP victory in 2008," he writes.
Evangelical leader Gary Bauer notes that there have been conversations between the McCain campaign and various conservative leaders in the past couple of weeks, and that McCain has stepped up his signals to conservative voters, such as his promises to veto any Democratic tax increases.
"And in each primary he's won ... he has said I want to put judges on the court that will interpret the Constitution, not read things into it that are not there, which is a signal on abortion and same-sex marriage," says Mr. Bauer.
"Temper tantrums aren't going to help," he adds, referring to the conservatives who are vocally angry at the prospect of a McCain nomination. "We should all help the senator discover his inner Reagan rather than berating him."