It’s a bit of puzzle why Sen. Lindsey Graham is jumping into the presidential pool. After all, neither social nor economic conservatives have much use for the South Carolina Republican. Most of the major party players in his home state appear to have signed up with another candidate.
What Graham is up to, it seems, is running John McCain’s third presidential campaign. To see how, go back to McCain I and II.
McCain in 2000 accidentally wound up finishing second. He was too moderate for the Republican Party, but his biggest hurdle was his push for campaign finance reform, which turned Republican-aligned groups, who felt targeted by it, against him.
Instead of waging a conventional campaign – spending a year glad-handing Iowans and big-shot national Republicans – McCain instead hung out in New Hampshire with political reporters. Normally, that would have produced a few nice feature stories and nothing more. But in 2000, George W. Bush quickly dispatched his serious Republican rivals before or in the Iowa caucuses. New Hampshire voters (who famously love upsetting the Iowa winner, from Walter Mondale in 1984 through Barack Obama in 2008) punished Bush for wrapping up the nomination early by voting for McCain, thereby making him the last man standing against W.
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McCain’s 2008 adventure was, if anything, even more unlikely. McCain spent the beginning of Bush’s first term in open revolt against his former rival before returning to the ranks of loyal Republicans just in time for the 2004 election – and the beginning of the 2008 nomination fight. McCain then put together a typical Republican front-runner campaign, heavy on corporate-style bureaucracy, only to have the whole thing collapse halfway through the cycle.
But once again, McCain was lucky. No candidate emerged who combined normal qualifications for the presidency, positions well within the mainstream of the party and the ability to build a competent presidential campaign. McCain came close enough on each of those scores to wind up as the nominee.
It isn’t going to work this time. To begin with, Lindsey Graham simply isn’t John McCain, charismatic war hero. Perhaps more important, Republicans in 2016 have at least half a dozen people with conventional credentials who are stronger candidates for the nomination than anyone McCain faced in 2008.
Luck isn’t much of a campaign strategy. So it’s unlikely Graham will even have sufficiently good poll numbers to qualify for Republican debates. It’s unlikely he'll finish among the top half-dozen candidates in Iowa or New Hampshire. And if he’s still running by the time the race moves to his home state, he'll likely get embarrassed in South Carolina. And even if he manages to win there, it’s not going to impress anyone or turn him into a serious contender for the nomination.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.