In an election year supposedly all about character, George W. Bush used a powerful ideological appeal to overwhelm John McCain in Saturday's South Carolina primary and regain the upper hand in the GOP presidential race.
By relentlessly challenging McCain's conservative credentials on taxes and campaign finance reform, and attacking him as a Washington insider, Bush amassed huge advantages among Republican and conservative voters. Those margins were so large that they swamped McCain's success at persuading record numbers of Democrats and independents to participate in the state's open Republican primary, according to a Los Angeles Times/Voter News Service exit poll in the state.
Bush's dominant performance among core Republicans frames the challenge for McCain as the race careens Tuesday into Michigan and Arizona, states that have now become critical to McCain's hopes of stopping the re-energized front-runner. For all McCain's ability to attract new voters, the South Carolina result pointedly reminded that he's unlikely to win the Republican presidential nomination without winning a solid share of the Republican base.
"As long as Bush can build up margins like this with Republicans, it is very difficult to attract enough independents to overcome it," said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster neutral in the race.
VNS is a consortium for ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News and Associated Press. The VNS South Carolina exit poll, which surveyed 2,078 voters at 40 precincts around the state, had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The defeat is especially foreboding for McCain, not only because it shifts the campaign's momentum back to Bush but also because it suggested that when both Bush and McCain successfully mobilize the constituencies they are now targeting, Bush's is likely to be larger in all but the most moderate states.
McCain lost decisively even though he succeeded at his central goal: attracting new voters into the primary. The exit poll found that Democrats constituted 9% of the record turnout and independents 30%. That's a substantial jump from the 31% of the votes that non-Republicans cast in the 1996 primary.
Just as his campaign hoped, those voters strongly bolstered McCain: He carried Democrats by more than 4 to 1, and beat Bush among independents by roughly 25 percentage points. And just as he did in New Hampshire, McCain carried moderate and liberal voters in South Carolina.
But the exit poll indicates that Bush overcame those advantages by achieving his top strategic goal: consolidating his vote among Republicans, who cast 61% of all votes Saturday.
In New Hampshire, the two men split the Republican vote almost evenly; here Bush carried 69% of the Republicans. South Carolina conservatives preferred Bush over McCain by more than 2 to 1. And religious conservatives, who comprised about a third of the total vote here, also gave Bush a 44-percentage-point advantage.
Anti-abortion groups pounded McCain in the state with radio ads questioning his commitment to their cause and saw their efforts rewarded as voters opposed to legalized abortion gave Bush huge margins over the senator. The one remaining candidate, Alan Keyes, drew his support overwhelmingly from social conservatives but attracted far too few votes to affect the overall result.
With these core Republican voters, McCain's independence wasn't much of an asset: by nearly a 20-point margin, Republicans voting Saturday said they prefer a candidate "loyal to the Republican Party" over one who is "not tied to party leaders."
Combining both ideology and partisanship shows even more clearly how the conservative core of the state GOP provided the bedrock of Bush's coalition. By far the biggest single group in the electorate was Republicans who consider themselves conservatives, and they gave Bush a towering advantage of about 50 percentage points, the exit poll found.
Bush's Reform Message Resonates
But, just as important, Bush broadened his appeal beyond the party's most conservative elements. Even as he challenged McCain's conservative credentials, Bush labeled himself a "reformer with results" and touted his commitment to reform public programs such as the schools and Medicare, issues he stressed in his victory speech Saturday night. That message apparently resonated: In one of the poll's most dramatic findings, more voters termed Bush than McCain a "real reformer."
That repositioning helped Bush reduce McCain's advantages among voters just to the right of center. In New Hampshire, McCain won all four of the groups at the center of the ideological spectrum who voted in the primary: centrist Democrats, moderate Republicans, and independents who consider themselves both moderate and conservative.
In South Carolina, McCain ran about as well as he did in New Hampshire with centrist Democrats and moderate independents, the groups least attached to the GOP. But in a dramatic change, Bush won moderate Republicans handily in South Carolina and ran even with McCain among conservative independents. With that breakthrough, Bush held McCain to a significantly smaller overall advantage among independents in South Carolina than in New Hampshire, cutting into the senator's greatest strength.
No other demographic variables proved as significant as ideology and partisanship. There was only the slightest gender gap, with women a bit more likely than men to prefer Bush; voters younger than 65 strongly preferred Bush, while senior citizens split between the two men; and Bush led decisively among voters born in the state, while McCain ran almost even among newcomers. Another advantage McCain had hoped for did not materialize: Despite the former prisoner of war's intense courtship, veterans split evenly between the two men, the poll found.
The exit poll suggested that McCain was driven back to a stronghold largely of voters attracted to his personal story and qualities of leadership. Just more than half of those voting Saturday said personal qualities were the most important factor in their decision; they split evenly between the two men. But an additional 41% said issues were key and they preferred Bush by about 2 to 1. That came despite the fact that a slight majority of voters Saturday said that strengthening Social Security, as McCain urged, should be a higher priority than cutting taxes, a central component of Bush's agenda.
Many Late-Deciders Voted for Bush
Rather than focus primarily on issues, McCain spent much of the campaign's last week complaining about Bush's "negative" attacks, an issue he stressed again in his concession speech Saturday night. But only about one-third of the voters said Bush attacked McCain unfairly. A higher percentage said McCain, who compared Bush to Clinton in one controversial television ad, unfairly attacked the Texas governor. Those numbers may help explain why voters who decided in the campaign's final days broke sharply toward Bush, a reversal of the usual pattern in which late-deciders lean against the front-runner.
Asked directly what issue most influenced their vote, more than 40% cited moral values or abortion rights; they gave Bush a substantial lead. An additional 1 in 7 cited taxes, and they backed Bush by almost 4 to 1. McCain, not surprisingly, led among those who cited two of his signature issues, campaign finance reform and stabilizing Social Security, but only about a quarter of the voters named those as their top concerns.
As those numbers indicate, part of McCain's problem Saturday was that the overall center of gravity in South Carolina tilts so heavily to the right; just more than 60% of the voters termed themselves conservatives, and even moderates in the state tend to be more conservative than moderates elsewhere, especially north of the Mason-Dixon line. McCain's continued appeal to centrist voters even in South Carolina suggests he could still be a formidable candidate in more moderate states, especially in the Northeast or along the West Coast, if he's still considered viable by the time those states weigh in with primaries on Feb. 29 and March 7.
Michigan Becomes Key State for McCain
With McCain unlikely to receive much of a boost from winning his home state of Arizona on Tuesday, his future viability may hinge on the results in Michigan's primary on the same day.
Demographically, Michigan offers McCain more congenial ground than South Carolina in two respects. First, only about half of its GOP presidential primary voters in 1996 termed themselves conservatives; second, independents and Democrats, who can vote in the Michigan Republican primary, constituted almost 40% of the GOP electorate last time.
Based on the results in New Hampshire and South Carolina, both of which saw greater participation from non-Republicans this year, it seems likely McCain may increase that number in Michigan this week as well, strengthening his hand there.
McCain's risk is that these demographic advantages will be swamped by the tidal wave of momentum from Bush's big win. "The momentum of this victory," says Ayres, "probably outweighs 10 points' difference in conservative ideology in Michigan."
Times Polling Director Susan Pinkus and Times staff writer Maria L. La Ganga contributed to this story.
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S.C. Exit Poll Results
Los Angeles Times/Voter News Service interviewed voters in Saturday's South Carolina Republican primary. The columns at right should be read horizontally; for example, of all self-described Democrats who cast ballots, 18% voted for George W. Bush and 79% voted for John McCain.
Source: L.A. Times/VNS Exit Poll
How the poll was conducted: The Los Angeles Times/VNS Poll interviewed 2,078 Republican voters who cast ballots in the South Carolina primary as they exited 40 polling places across the state. The Voter News Service is an association of ABC News, CNN, CBS News, Fox News, NBC News and Associated Press. The exit poll results are based on interviews with a probability sample of voters exiting polling places around the state on election day. The survey was a self-administered, confidential questionnaire. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points. For some subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher.