Going forward, McCain looks unbeatable. He’d have to self-destruct.
I’m also still not buying the argument that Huckabee is preventing Romney from consolidating the conservative opposition to McCain. First of all, in only four states that McCain won was the combined Romney-Huckabee vote total higher. In two (California and Delaware), Romney finished a relatively distant second; in the other two (Missouri and Oklahoma), Huckabee finished a close second. It seems to me at least as plausible to say that Romney harmed Huckabee as to say that Mike hurt Mitt.
Second, those who make this argument assume that "conservatism" is so salient for voters that their preferences are simply transferable from one "conservative" to another. Might not character or particular issues matter more? Indeed, isn’t it McCain’s stance on particular issues--as opposed to his overall orientation--that leads some to declare he’s not a conservative?
Third, note that in many places--California, for example--McCain gets a significant portion of the "conservative vote." To be sure, in California he lost the "very conservative" vote (roughly a quarter of the Republican electorate) quite substantially, but even if all the "very conservative" Huckabee supporters had gone over to Romney (a totally implausible scenario in any event), McCain still would have won...and handily. It’s more likely that on some issues (e.g., the war) or some dimensions (e.g., character or leadership) or some considerations (e.g., electability), some conservatives are going to choose McCain over Romney. Taking Huckabee out of the picture doesn’t change any of this. And, to be fair, taking Romney out of the picture wouldn’t enable Huckabee to climb Mount McCain.
Finally, if you look at the distribution of the self-identified Republican vote in the states McCain won, there are four (CA, IL, MO, and OK) in which his percentage of the Republican vote was lower than the combined Romney-Huckabee proportion. McCain did worst in states--Missouri and Oklahoma--where Huckabee came in a close second. Indeed, if all these states had closed primaries, Huckabee would have won Missouri and tied McCain in Oklahoma. And the only way Romney could have won in California and Illinois is by taking an implausibly high share (75%+ in CA, 85%+ in IL) of the Huckabee vote. In other words, McCain did quite well among Republicans, winning outright majorities in three of his states and effectively insurmountable pluralities in three others. In the other two, he would have tied Huckabee or finished a close third behind Huckabee and Romney.
I’m far from arguing that McCain is the perfect Republican or conservative candidate, but there is no one in this race who is doing so much better as to be the Republican or conservative.
And, by the way, I didn’t vote for McCain yesterday, though, unlike James Dobson, I could vote for him in a general election.