About this Blog
About The Author
Email Me

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« The Pennsylvania Polls Look Familiar... | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | A Review of the Pennsylvania Primary »

Unconventional Thoughts on the Democratic Primary

A lot of analysis on the Democratic campaign has depended on a few key points that have become the conventional wisdom. While many of them are on the mark, some strike me as incorrect. In what follows, I outline where I think the consensus view is mistaken.

For the good of the party, the Democratic primary battle needs to end. It is providing no benefit whatsoever.

I think the primary battle has actually been quite helpful for the Democrats. It has exposed weaknesses in both campaigns that might not have been identified until October. This has given both an opportunity to strengthen themselves.

Consider a few examples. We have learned that the Clinton organization was plagued by pro-Clinton myopia. Operating under the assumption that she could not lose, it failed to do everything it could to ensure victory. This included small things like mismanaging Bill, to big things like leaving caucus states unorganized. If Clinton had won Iowa and New Hampshire, knocking Obama out, it might not have discovered its myopia until it was too late. Learning in October that its basic assumptions were fundamentally flawed would have been disastrous.

The Obama campaign has learned several important lessons about "elitism." It has learned that Republicans are quite attracted to this idea. This is a good thing. Now it knows how the Republicans will come after him. Furthermore, thanks to last week's debate, it also knows it must have a better response ready for the GOP. Suppose Obama had won Texas and Ohio, knocking Hillary out. Flash forward to the fall debates, when Obama is asked about William Ayers. Not having the benefit of having been asked in April, he gives a tepid answer like the one he actually gave last week. This time, his debate opponent is not Hillary Clinton, whose spouse pardoned members of the Weather Underground, but John McCain, who was in the Hanoi Hilton when they were engaging in terrorism. Obama would have been in much more jeopardy.

The problem is not that the campaign has gone on this long. Rather, it is that there is no obvious terminal point. There will be a point at which the benefits to the campaign are outweighed by the costs. I do not think we are there yet, but we are getting close. The trouble is that there is nothing to stop the race when that point is reached.

Put another way, when does Clinton meet her Waterloo? It probably won't happen today. It probably won't happen on May 7. Even if she loses Indiana and North Carolina, she can still limp to West Virginia the next week and Kentucky the week after that. What's to stop her then? If she can limp to West Virginia and Kentucky, can't she limp to Puerto Rico, and then to Denver? Remember - no candidate who has won as many votes and delegates as Clinton hasn't taken the fight to the convention.

Of course, it is easy to overestimate the likelihood that Denver will be a mess. There are two distinct ways I could see the nomination battle ending, even if Clinton doesn't get knocked out in a specific contest. First, the superdelegates could grow tired of the race and swing Obama's way. In response, Clinton could work to flip them. However, if her endeavors to do so are met with strong assurances that no, in fact, they are not interested in changing their minds - there will be strong pressure on her to drop out.

Second, she could run out of money. This is why many presidential candidates drop out. They can no longer afford to put fuel in the plane. Clinton is not yet at this point. Pundits who frequently mistake the race for cash as a proxy for the race for votes have been hung up on the fact that Obama has outraised her so far this year. This emphasis misses the point. At least as of March, Clinton was raising enough cash to subsist. In fact, she could still put forward a real campaign. Nothing on the level that Obama could, but she could still advertise and do mailers and get-out-the-vote activities.

If this changes, that could be the end for Clinton. And it might change. In the last six weeks, we have had just two primaries. In the next six weeks, we will have eight. It will become more expensive to subsist, let alone put on a real campaign.

This prolonged campaign is damaging the party's prospects by dividing the base.

Any poll you look at will indicate that the Democrats are divided. However, I think these numbers belie the relative ease the nominee will have in stitching the core coalition back together.

According to the American National Elections Study, the last time "strong Democrats" defected in significant numbers was 1984, when 11% went for Reagan. In an election like this one, where the Democrats face better-than-even odds, it is quite unlikely that this will occur. Barring extraordinary circumstances, the two parties are going to pull 95% of their strong partisans. In that case, this election will be determined by the question that has decided all recent ones: who wins that middle chunk of the electorate, the weak partisans and the Independents?

Here's how I think it could work out. Suppose that the nomination battle continues to Denver. It will be messy and divisive. However, when it is over, the general election campaign will begin. McCain will attack Obama or Clinton, and Obama or Clinton will attack McCain. This should unify the Democratic base. Disappointed Democrats will begin to perceive the vast differences between their side's nominee and McCain, and they'll feel affinity for the candidate they currently oppose. The rhetoric will re-activate their partisanship. By November, they'll be ready to go.

That being said, I think the Democrats could suffer some damage if the nomination battle continues to Denver. The problem will involve the nominee's campaign organization, rather than his or her core voting group. I see three potential difficulties.

First, the nominee will have spent the summer angling for the nomination, rather than preparing a general election strategy. A good strategy is going to be harder to develop than it might first appear, given that the Republicans have put forth John McCain. He needs to be tied to the Bush administration - but this will not be as easy as Democrats might think. The guy has a reputation for being a thorn in Bush's side. So, the strategy that links him to Bush has to be a clever one.

Small example. I was watching Hardball last week. Chris Matthews had Joe Biden on. He was critical of McCain, but he couldn't resist complimenting him at several points. As an individual incident, it was pretty trivial - but if Democratic surrogates can't help but say nice things about McCain amidst their attacks, the forcefulness of those attacks is going to be muted.

Second, there are organizational tasks in the swing states that might be delayed because the nominee's campaign is distracted. I'm talking about the little stuff like hiring staff, getting office space and supplies, preparing a get-out-the-vote strategy, etc. Unfortunately for the Democrats, the DNC does not have the funds to make up the difference while Obama and Clinton are wrapping up their nomination fight.

Third, there is the simple matter of fatigue. I'd wager that John McCain is getting more and better sleep than Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Over the course of four more months, this could make a major difference - for the candidates and the staffs. Obama seemed a bit drained in last week's debate. How drained will he be if he has to fight Clinton all the way to Labor Day, only to turn around to face McCain?

The only reason this pointless, self-destructive race persists is Hillary Clinton. She's a hyper-ambitious pol who won't do the high-minded thing and drop out.

I have three problems with this argument.

First, while it might be that Clinton is more ambitious than Obama, both of them get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and think to themselves, "I should be the next President of the United States." This makes them more ambitious than 99.999999% of the nation. The difference between them, if there is any at all, is in the barest of degrees. It is certainly not in kind. If the shoe was on the other foot, Obama would probably remain in the race, too.

Second, what exactly are we talking about here? Is it hyper-ambition that is driving Clinton, or is it simple scrappiness? I would submit that it is scrappiness, which is actually kind of admirable.

The Clintons are a scrappy crew, and most Democrats have appreciated this at one point or another in the past. Most were grateful for their scrappiness when the bottom fell out in 1994. In just two years, Bill Clinton went from defending his relevancy to trouncing Bob Dole. That's the thing about the Clintons. They play until the buzzer sounds. If you watch C-Span late at night, as I do, you'll see people crowd around Bill and Hillary after their speeches are over. At least half of the intelligible phrases I hear are, "Thank you!" I think this is what they're thanking them for. The Clintons hang in there. They don't quit.

Third, blaming Clinton just obscures the real problem, which is that the Democrats' nomination rules are socially inefficient. They are not designed to secure the collective good of the party, i.e. maximizing the chances of electoral victory. Instead, they are a hodge-podge of rules designed to satisfy the personal interests of politicians, state governments and parties, and interest groups. Each group gets a slice of the pie; all the while, the party's collective good remains unsecured. Why? Nobody is really in charge of the party.

Take a simple example. Super Tuesday saw 51% of all pledged delegates allocated. This was a bad idea. It greatly enhanced the likelihood that the Democrats would face the problem they currently do: no decisive tiebreaker. It would have been better to hold back several more significant states - California, Massachusetts, etc. - to serve as tiebreakers. In fact, the only reason Pennsylvania can serve as a modest tiebreaker is that the Pennsylvania legislature refused to go along with Rendell's idea to move the primary forward.

This is thanks to the state governments. They saw all of the attention and money that campaigns and media organizations devoted to Iowa and New Hampshire in 2004 - and they wanted a piece of the action. Never mind that these individual choices added up to collective peril for the party. That wasn't their concern, nor should we expect it to have been. It is unreasonable to expect California to submit willingly to a diminished role so that there might be a tiebreaker in case one is needed. Instead, what is necessary is some central agent who could force states to behave in a way consistent with the party's collective good.

Nobody like that exists. Nobody has the power to make sure that the rules are made to give the Democrats the best chance of winning in November. You can thank the party reforms of the 20th century for his. When progressives reformed the plutocratic party system of the 19th century, they chose not to make them wield power responsibly. Instead, they chose to disempower them. The power of the parties, which was once concentrated among the state organizations, was disseminated downwards - to state governments, interests groups, and politicians. The parties retain many of their old functions - like nominating presidential candidates - but they lack the power to ensure that those functions are performed efficiently.

There's nobody approaching a "party boss" these days, and the Democrats are paying the price for his absence.

-Jay Cost