One more time: Winnowing works. Sen. Lindsey Graham dropped out of the presidential campaign Monday, reducing the field of active candidates to 13. He’s the fourth announced candidate to withdraw, along with another half-dozen or so who did candidate-like things but quit before reaching the announcement step.
It’s more confirmation that losing candidates leave the race. Others will soon follow, especially after the early primaries and caucuses in February.
Graham’s candidacy seemed mostly silly as it played out: He was acting as if his party needed saving from a massive antiwar movement, but in fact Republicans seem as hawkish as ever.
It’s worth remembering, however, that at one point Rand Paul, perhaps the most war-averse Republican candidate, was considered by some to be a formidable contender. It’s also the case even now that Graham brought national security expertise to a candidate field that’s been a lot longer on warmonger bluster than actual foreign policy knowledge – and that for all their harsh words, the other candidates really never matched Graham in his willingness to accept at least somewhat realistic costs of military intervention.
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Still, Graham’s campaign really never advanced much from showing up a lot on the Sunday television talk shows. He was never a serious contender for the nomination, and he never picked up any polling support – he couldn’t even clear 2 percent of the vote in trial heats in his home state of South Carolina.
Despite that, it’s not impossible that Graham’s decision to quit now instead of waiting until after the South Carolina primary might have some effect.
In New Hampshire, as the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein notes, John McCain – who backed his friend Graham – remains popular. Of course, if previous McCain voters would do whatever he suggested, then Graham would have been doing a lot better in the Granite State.
But for those voters currently choosing from among Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Jeb Bush – and that’s nearly 40 percent of the New Hampshire vote in current polls – it’s not hard to believe that McCain’s support could be at least a small factor. Especially if most of those voters want to join forces to stop Donald Trump, but are receiving mixed signals about which candidate is the one to get the job done.
Meanwhile, Graham and the mainstream conservatives who supported him are now free to endorse a candidate with a chance at winning. That won’t guarantee victory in the early South Carolina primary (just ask Mitt Romney, who lost there to Newt Gingrich in 2012), but it certainly would help. Again, that’s especially true if there’s a good-sized block of moderate and mainstream conservative voters who like several candidates, but really care most about defeating Trump (and perhaps also want to defeat Ted Cruz).
One more thing: Place order really can matter in how the early primaries are interpreted, which in turn matters because “winners” receive valuable resources. If a candidate picks up three or four or five percentage points in South Carolina with Graham out, it could be the difference between a first-place or second-place finish.
So put it all together, and it’s possible that Graham may matter more in (campaign) death than he ever did when he was still alive.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.