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CAMPAIGN 2000 | ANALYSIS OF THE NATIONAL RACES

Amid All the Good News, Some Ominous Signs for Bush

March 08, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Overwhelming support from core Republicans and conservatives allowed George W. Bush to push John McCain toward the edge of elimination Tuesday night in the GOP presidential race but left open questions about the breadth of Bush's appeal as a general election candidate.

By winning all of the contests at stake outside the Northeast, Bush has amassed a lead in the delegate race so commanding that some McCain advisors believe he could soon decide to withdraw from the race, especially after failing to win a majority of the delegates in New York. Over the next week, the calendar turns sharply against McCain, with primaries in nine conservative Mountain and Southern states that all now lean heavily toward Bush.

But while Bush amassed crushing margins among Republicans, he continued to struggle with more centrist voters in the largest states, according to exit polls by The Times in California and The Times and Voter News Service in Ohio and New York. Even though Bush has now forced McCain to the brink, the senator from Arizona has outpolled the Texas governor among moderate voters in every major primary. The pattern suggests that if Bush wins the GOP nomination, he will need to broaden his appeal to centrist voters after his highly partisan and ideological duel with McCain.

That picture was perhaps most vivid in California, where a surge of conservative support swept Bush past McCain not only in the battle for the state's 162 delegates but also the nonbinding "beauty contest" portion of the primary. Yet The Times exit poll found that Bush's apparent victory over McCain in the blanket primary depended entirely on his strength among Republicans: Bush actually ran far behind not only McCain but also Vice President Al Gore among such critical swing groups as moderate and independent voters, the survey found.

Vice President Shows Wider Appeal in State

The Times exit poll found that Gore showed broad appeal in California while dispatching Bill Bradley in the competition for Democratic delegates and finishing atop the primary's popularity vote. While Bush won only conservatives voting in his primary and lost moderates, Gore beat Bradley by a resounding margin among both moderate and liberal Democrats in California. Bradley, who had spent weeks attacking Gore as a "conservative Democrat," ran somewhat better among liberals in Ohio and New York. However, in both those states Gore still carried clear majorities among both liberal and centrist Democratic voters.

The Times exit poll in California surveyed 4,106 voters, including 1,707 Democrats and 1,468 Republicans as they left 75 precincts around the state; it has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points. (Polls of Democrats only and Republicans only had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.)

The Times/VNS poll surveyed 1,698 Democrats and 1,414 Republicans in New York at 50 precincts; in Ohio, the Times/VNS poll surveyed 1,226 Republicans and 918 Democrats in 45 precincts. The New York and Ohio surveys have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points for each party's primary.

Tuesday's contests between Bush and McCain followed precisely the grooves cut in February, with each mobilizing now-familiar coalitions. In each of the three major prizes on Tuesday's calendar--California, New York and Ohio--Bush flattened McCain among conservative voters, especially conservative Republicans, according to the exit polls. In all three states, McCain beat Bush among moderate voters and independents. That was enough to keep McCain within range in New York and the popularity portion of the California primary--but not nearly enough to seriously threaten Bush in the race for the delegates in California or Ohio.

Ideology proved especially significant in the portion of the California race open only to Republicans: the delegate contest. Bush overpowered McCain on the strength of a huge margin among conservatives--and a huge conservative turnout, the exit poll found. Conservatives constituted more than two-thirds of California GOP voters Tuesday, more than in any Republican primary so far this year. About one-quarter of the GOP electorate described itself as "very conservative," a share as high as in South Carolina.

Similarly, one-quarter of California GOP primary voters described themselves as evangelical Christians. That was a big increase over the share of the vote that evangelicals cast in the GOP presidential primary here in 1996 and could reflect a backlash against McCain's attacks on conservative Christian leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. It could also reflect high turnout because of California's anti-gay marriage initiative, Proposition 22.

These voters all overwhelmingly preferred Bush.

That powerful uprising on the right placed McCain in a hole too deep to escape. Moderate and liberal Republicans gave McCain a 15-point advantage over Bush in California. But such moderates constituted only about 3-in-10 Republican voters, far too few to save McCain.

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