Wash. Post's Birnbaum suggested -- contrary to the evidence -- that midterm election results bode well for McCain in '08, not Clinton


The Washington Post's Jeffrey Birnbaum reported that Sen. John McCain has "long been seen as a champion of independents" and the "good news" for him is that this voting bloc played a significant role in determining the outcome of this year's elections. However, that logic overlooks the fact that independents cited the Iraq war -- which McCain supports -- as one of their top reasons for voting Democratic this year.

In a November 9 Washington Post article, staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum reported that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) learned from the results of the 2006 midterm elections that "her positions on Iraq might be an electoral handicap," while Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) "was handed another reason to think his reputation as a maverick has its advantages." According to Birnbaum, McCain has "long been seen as a champion of independents" and the "good news" for him is that this voting bloc played a significant role in determining the outcome of this year's elections. But that logic overlooks the fact that independents cited the Iraq war -- which McCain supports -- as one of their top reasons for voting Democratic this year. While Birnbaum highlighted Clinton's previous support for the war as an "electoral handicap," he made no mention of McCain's position on the issue.

Further, Birnbaum described McCain as a "much-sought-after GOP surrogate on the campaign trail" this year, reporting that McCain attended 346 events on behalf of Republican candidates nationwide during the 2006 election cycle, compared with Clinton's 131 appearances in support of Democratic candidates. But Birnbaum failed to note that 32 of the 46 candidates (with three races undecided) Clinton campaigned for won on November 7, while only 12 of the 43 candidates (with two races undecided) McCain campaigned for were victorious.

In the November 9 article -- headlined "Results Give Clinton and McCain Food for Thought on the Future" -- Birnbaum focused on the effect the midterm elections had on both senators' possible bids for the White House in 2008. Citing "analysts," Birnbaum reported that the results proved that Clinton's stance on Iraq could be a liability and that McCain's "reputation as a maverick" could be an asset. From the article:

Democrats romped this year, but Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), who polls say is the party's front-runner for president, learned that her positions on Iraq might be an electoral handicap, analysts said. And, they said, while the Republicans were set back severely, the GOP's leading presidential contender, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), was handed another reason to think his reputation as a maverick has its advantages.

Clinton voted to allow the president to go to war in Iraq and long defended that view. Although she turned into an opponent of the president's war policy last year, the party's liberal wing -- which played a key role in inciting the Democratic wave that swept through Congress this year -- has not forgiven her for the delay.

McCain, on the other hand, was a much-sought-after GOP surrogate on the campaign trail because he was widely accepted as independent of his party and President Bush in particular.

Birnbaum later reported Democratic pollster Mark Mellman's assertion that "the midterm results served as a reminder to Clinton that she must be careful to highlight her opposition to the war in order to avoid alienating a sizable number of Democrats." Birnbaum then explained how the results benefited McCain, who was purportedly "able to mine some good news from the rubble":

Republicans may have lost control of the House, and perhaps the Senate, but McCain was able to mine some good news from the rubble. One of the secrets to the Democrats' success was winning over independents and moderates, exit polls showed. McCain has long been seen as a champion of independents; in the 2000 GOP primaries for president, that trait proved to be a liability, but it may now be a benefit.

"After a year in which independents determined the outcome of the election, maybe Republicans will be more interested in nominating a candidate in 2008 that plays well with moderates and independents," said Jon McHenry of the Republican polling firm Ayers McHenry & Associates.

But in characterizing independents' influence on the midterm elections as "good news" for McCain, Birnbaum ignored two facts that appear to undermine his premise: that McCain continues to support the war and that independent voters increasingly do not. Indeed, while Birnbaum focused on the possible negative effects of Clinton's early support for the invasion of Iraq, he ignored entirely the substantial difference between McCain's views on the war and those of a majority of independents.

Polls conducted in the weeks prior to November 7 and on Election Day show that independents' growing support for Democrats was largely due to the Iraq war:

  • An October 19-22 Washington Post/ABC News poll found that independent voters favored Democratic candidates over Republicans by a margin of "roughly 2 to 1 -- 59 percent to 31 percent." The poll further found that the largest share of voters -- 27 percent -- cited Iraq as the "most important issue determining their vote in November" and that "[i]ndependents are almost as likely as Democrats to cite Iraq as the single most important issue in the campaign."
  • A November 9 New York Times article reported that approximately 60 percent of independents -- "driven by their distress over the Iraq war, disapproval of Congressional leadership and concern about the direction President Bush was leading America" -- voted for Democrats on Election Day, according to exit polls.

In light of the fact that McCain has repeatedly affirmed his support for the war and opposed Democratic efforts to begin considering withdrawal, the fact that the Iraq war led independents to vote Democratic would appear to be a worrisome trend for McCain.

As Media Matters for America has noted, while McCain has selectively criticized the White House's handling of the war in recent years, he has also repeatedly defended Bush's management of the conflict. For instance, on the March 1 edition of MSNBC's Imus in the Morning, he said that Iraq is "on the right track" and claimed to be focused "on the bright side of this." On the March 7 edition of ABC's This Week, he expressed confidence that "we're on the right course" in Iraq. And on the August 20 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, guest host and NBC News chief White House correspondent David Gregory asked McCain if he had confidence in Bush and his administration to "lead the war" in Iraq. He replied: "I do. I do. I have confidence in the president and I believe that he is well aware of the severity of the situation."

Furthermore, in the November 9 article, Birnbaum suggested that McCain -- "a much-sought-after GOP surrogate" -- had been a greater asset on the campaign trail this year than Clinton:

How they and other potential presidential aspirants were perceived during the campaign has been important because the midterm elections were always about more than electing people to Congress and governors' mansions. They were also opportunities for aspiring presidents to gain allies around the country to help them with their quests for the White House.

During the two-year midterm election cycle, McCain attended 346 events and raised more than $10.5 million on behalf of Republican candidates across the country. Clinton, who stayed close to home to campaign for her own reelection, still managed to raise more than $21 million for Democratic candidates and headlined 131 events in 51 cities.

But Birnbaum did not mention the fates of the various candidates McCain and Clinton supported. According to lists published on National Journal's The Hotline -- here and here (subscription required) -- Clinton's candidates fared much better. Indeed, McCain stumped for 43 candidates during the 2006 election cycle -- only 12 were elected on November 7:

  • Candidates elected

    Sen. Jon Kyl (AZ)
    Rep. Dan Lungren (CA-03)
    Rep. Mike Castle (DE-01)
    Rep. Steve King (IA-05)
    Rep. Steve Chabot (OH-01)
    Rep. Jim Gerlach (PA-06)
    Rep. Todd Platts (PA-19)
    Rep. Frank Wolf (VA-10)
    Rep. Thomas Davis (VA-11)
    Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (CA)
    Gov. Jodi Rell (CT)
    Gov.-elect Charlie Crist (FL)

  • Candidates defeated

    Sen. Mike DeWine (OH)
    Mike Bouchard (MI-SEN)
    Sen. Rick Santorum (PA)
    Michael Steele (MD-SEN)
    Sen. Lincoln Chafee (RI)
    Mark Kennedy (MN-SEN)
    Sen. George Allen (VA)
    Tom Kean Jr. (NJ-SEN)
    Mike McGavick (WA-SEN)
    Asa Hutchison (AR-GOV)
    Jim Nussle (IA-GOV)
    Judy Baar Topinka (IL-GOV)
    Chandler Woodcock (ME-GOV)
    Richard DeVos (MI-GOV)
    John "Ken" Blackwell (OH-GOV)
    Ron Saxton (OR-GOV)
    Rep. Nancy Johnson (CT-05)
    David McSweeney (IL-08)
    Rep. Chris Chocola (IN-02)
    Mike Whalen (IA-01)
    Jeff Lamberti (IA-03)
    Rep. Jeb Bradley (NH-01)
    Rep. Charles Bass (NH-02)
    Rep. Sue Kelly (NY-19)
    Rep. John Sweeney (NY-20)
    Rep. Curt Weldon (PA-07)
    Martha Rainville (VT-01)
    John Gard (WI-08)
    Christopher Wakim (WV-01)

  • Undecided

    Rep. Deborah Pryce (OH-15)
    Rep. Heather Wilson (NM-01)

Meanwhile, Clinton campaigned for 46 candidates -- 32 were victorious:

  • Candidates elected

    Sen. Dianne Feinstein (CA)
    Sen. Bob Menendez (NJ)
    Sherrod Brown (OH-SEN)
    Sen. Bill Nelson (FL)
    Bob Casey Jr. (PA-SEN)
    Sen. Daniel Akaka (HI)
    Sheldon Whitehouse (RI-SEN)
    Rep. Ben Cardin (MD-SEN)
    Sen. Debbie Stabenow (MI-SEN)
    Jim Webb (VA SEN)
    Amy Klobuchar (MN SEN)
    Sen. Maria Cantwell (WA-SEN)
    Jon Tester (MT-SEN)
    Sen. Robert Byrd (WV-SEN)
    Kirsten Gillibrand (NY-20)
    Michael Arcuri (NY-24)
    Chris Murphy (CT-05)
    Bruce Braley (IA-01)
    Rep. Louise Slaughter (NY-28)
    Rep. Leonard Boswell (IA-03)
    Rep. Donald Payne (NJ-10)
    Tim Mahoney (FL-16)
    Joe Sestak (PA-07)
    Patrick Murphy (PA-08)
    John Hall (NY-19)
    Gov. John Lynch (NH)
    Gov. Ed Rendell (PA)
    Bill Ritter (CO-GOV)
    Eliot Spitzer (NY-GOV)
    Ted Strickland (OH-GOV)
    Gov. John Baldacci (ME)
    Gov. Jennifer Granholm (MI)

  • Candidates defeated

    Ned Lamont (CT-SEN)
    Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (TN-SEN)
    Diane Farrell (CT-04)
    Dan Maffei (NY-25)
    Eric Massa (NY-29)
    Tammy Duckworth (IL-06)
    Lois Murphy (PA-06)
    Steve Harrison (NY-13)
    Judy Feder (VA-10)
    Phil Angelides (CA-GOV)
    Rep. Jim Davis (FL-GOV)

  • Undecided

    Joe Courtney (CT-02)
    Christine Jennings (FL-13)
    Patricia Madrid (NM-01)

Posted In
The Washington Post
Jeff Birnbaum
John McCain, Hillary Clinton, 2006 Elections, 2008 Elections
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