The Race Between John McCain and Mitch Daniels

Is John McCain beating Mitch Daniels? Now wait, you say, John McCain isn't running against Mitch Daniels. McCain is running for president and Daniels is ...
by | July 2, 2008

Is John McCain beating Mitch Daniels? Now wait, you say, John McCain isn't running against Mitch Daniels. McCain is running for president and Daniels is running for reelection as governor of Indiana. They're both Republicans.

But this is one of my favorite games to play. I had a good sense that John Kerry was in trouble early on Election Night in 2004 when he was running a few points behind the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Florida, Betty Castor (who's race was expected to be very close). Kerry ended up losing Florida by 5% and Castor lost by 1%.

This type of comparison isn't just interesting on Election Night, however. Who is running ahead of whom influences campaign strategy. If Daniels' numbers are better, then McCain will try to link himself to Daniels, but the governor might try to show some indepedence from the national ticket. At the extreme, a governor might pull a Freudenthal and openly mull not backing his party's nominees.

Even when the candidates have enough partisan devotion to support their party mates regardless of self-interest, this is a fun way to think about who is overperforming and who is underperforming. With all of that in mind, here's an analysis of how gubernatorial candidates are performing in comparison to the presidential nominees, relying heavily on pollster.com averages.

There's no recent presidential polling in Delaware, a state that Democratic presidential nominees have won comfortably in four consecutive presidential elections. I also know of no polling in the gubernatorial race, although the Democrat, be he State Treasurer Jack Markell or Lieutenant Governor John Carney, will start out as a favorite. I do wonder how much name recognition and favorability Republican Bill Lee retains from his 2004 campaign, but, regardless, the Democratic nominee will want to be as closely associated with Barack Obama as possible, especially given that more than 20% of the state's population is African-American.

Here's the surprising answer for you: Daniels is ahead of McCain. This is surprising because Indiana has been really Republican in presidential politics. Bush was stronger in Indiana than Mississippi in 2004. Yet one recent poll actually had Obama ahead by a point. Daniels leads Democrat Jill Long Thompson 50.6% to 42.5% in the pollster.com average. Based on the state's voting history, though, I bet if you told Daniels he could get the same percentage of the vote as McCain, he'd take it in a heartbeat. Don't expect Daniels to run away from McCain anytime soon.

Missouri is known for its close elections, but right now the gubernatorial race is only a barnburner if the Republican Party is the barn. Democrat Jay Nixon leads both of his potential Republican opponents by 20 points. The pollster.com average gives McCain a 47% to 43.5% edge. Nixon can afford to help Obama for now, but I expect the gubernatorial race to tighten.

Will Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer expend political capital on Barack Obama? Schweitzer appears to be in good shape, up 55%-30%. Obama is running T.V. ads in Montana (a traditionally Republican state) and, believe it or not, he's spending his 4th of July at a parade in Butte. In a poll that's now three months old, McCain only led by 5%.

New Hampshire was the one state that voted for Bush in 2000 and Kerry in 2004. Despite McCain's two presidential primary wins in the state, Obama seems likely to keep it blue. He leads 50%-39.4% in the pollster.com average. Democratic Gov. John Lynch is in even better shape than Obama, though, so expect the Illinois senator to campaign heavily with the governor. 

Now here's an intriguing one. North Carolina should be in the bag for McCain. John Kerry couldn't even make it competitive with John Edwards as his running mate. Yet McCain's lead in the pollster.com average is only 44%-41.1%. If anything, though, McCain's weakness creates a dilemma not for Republican nominee Pat McCrory, but for Democrat Bev Perdue. Perdue leads by a near mirror image 44.7%-41%. Perdue endorsed Obama in the Democratic primary over Hillary Clinton, but will she want to be closely associated with him if he's coming up a few points short? North Carolina looks as though it just might be close enough that Obama will be spending time in the state in October. 

North Dakota, like Montana, is a traditionally Republican state that Obama is trying to put in play (hoping, perhaps, to expand the playing field and stretch McCain's inferior war chest thin). No one has polled the state in months. The long-shot Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Tim Mathern, probably will not have a high enough profile for Obama's relationship with him to matter.

Nothing to see in Utah. Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman is running somewhat ahead of McCain, but both will win easily.

Vermont, one of the most Democratic states in the country in presidential politics, is home to a potentially competitive gubernatorial race between Republican Gov. Jim Douglas and House Speaker Gaye Symington (I don't think it has been polled). You might think that Symington would want to run on a platform of Obama, Obama, Obama (or Bush, Bush, Bush), but efforts to nationalize Douglas' elections have never worked before for Democrats. Regardless, Obama and McCain won't be spending any time here.

John McCain seems to have designs on making inroads in the Pacific Northwest, but if he does it will be in Oregon, not Washington. Obama's edge in the pollster.com average is 54.8% to 37.6%. This might explain why Gov. Christine Gregoire endorsed Obama at the last moment before Washington's Democratic caucuses. Gregoire's pollster.com advantage over Republican Dino Rossi is somewhat smaller at 49.8% to 41.6%. Will Rossi seek distance from McCain?

Given that West Virginia was the epicenter of the whole "working class whites won't vote for Obama" discussion, it comes as a bit of a surprise that one post-primary poll showed McCain with only an eight-point lead. Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin shouldn't have any problem winning reelection, unless the diploma scandal is a much bigger deal than I realize. It will be interesting to see how hard Manchin works for Obama -- and may say something about whether the governor has national ambitions.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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