Sunday, May 11, 2008

Was the Long Primary Fight Inevitable?

With press coverage of the Democratic presidential intramurals (finally) recognizing the impossibility of a Clinton nomination, the post mortems have begun in earnest. Today's New York Times Week in Review section includes a discussion of the argument that this will all turn out to have been good for Obama, by ____ (fill in the blank with: toughening him up, forcing him to be more of a populist, etc.). A friend, however, recently sent me an email suggesting a more fundamental question about the nominating process: "Did the Democrats set up a situation that couldn't be resolved until very late in the primary season?"

The arguments for this conclusion are pretty convincing. The Republican primaries and caucuses were to a large degree winner-take-all, while the Democrats use a system of proportional representation all but guaranteeing that multiple candidates will receive at least some delegates. In addition, the winner of the popular vote in some states receives less than his or her proportional share of delegates. (The oddest of these was Texas, with its "primacaucus" hybrid, by which Obama ended up with a majority of the delegates even though Clinton was the winner of the popular vote in the early March primary.) That alone suggests that getting to over 50% in delegate count probably could not happen until quite late in the process. Add in the mysteries of the superdelegates and the Michigan and Florida messes, and you seem to have a recipe that assures a long process with no clear winner.

Why, then, was I as surprised as almost everyone else by how long this nominating fight has dragged along?

The easiest answer, of course, is recent history. There has not been a seriously dragged out nominating fight for either party in many years, so people assumed that these battles had been relegated to discussions in political science seminar rooms. There are, however, explanations with a bit more content.

First, the real contest in running for president before the primary season officially begins has become the so-called money primary. Locking up the big donors (and thus the best advisors and consultants, and inevitably the most prominent endorsements) can turn an apparently drawn-out process into a pro forma exercise. Indeed, the entire early Clinton strategy was based on making her candidacy look so formidable that it would be foolish to donate to anyone else. It was all supposed to be over by Super Tuesday.

Note that this script played out almost exactly as planned. The surprises were Obama's emergence and Clinton's refusal to walk away. Had there been no Obama phenomenon, it seems pretty clear that all of the narratives about Edwards's well-meaning-but-quixotic candidacy, Biden's gaffe-in-waiting candidacy, Kucinich's pointless-but-at-least-his-wife-is-good-for-reaction- shots candidacy, etc. would have played out exactly as planned for Clinton. Her ex post disastrous presumption that she could wrap it up by early February would have been confirmed as brilliant political maneuvering. Indeed, as late as early February, I was telling friends that I simply could not see how Clinton could lose, no matter how weak she was turning out to be as a candidate. Like many people, I didn't see the Obama candidacy's popular -- and especially nontraditional financial -- potency.

Once that emerged, I doubt that anyone could have predicted that Clinton would refuse to give up for as long as she has. Like virtually every candidate from both parties in all recent election cycles, Edwards dropped out when the writing was on the wall but well before he had to do so. People have been pointing out for months that Clinton simply did not have a prayer other than to hope for (and to help create) a melt-down of her opponent's candidacy. Hoping for disastrous missteps by front-runners is as American as uncounted ballots, but no one prior to Clinton in '08 ever showed the willingness and ability to keep going for this long.

Finally, I was surprised by the change in voter psychology this year from "go with the winner" to "rally around the underdog." One of the reasons that John Kerry so easily won the nomination in '04 was that he became inevitable after Iowa and New Hampshire. The voters in that year did not fight that idea but ratified it. This year, Clinton managed to find a way to rally surprising support to what had become an impossible candidacy.

In short, I do not think that anyone was wrong to imagine that the nominating process adopted by the Democratic Party would again end quickly and that we would have had a general election season running from early February through November. Although the fight has been ugly along the way, I am happy to have been wrong.

Posted by Neil H. Buchanan


Howard Wasserman said...

The perception that this long primary was a problem relates to something underlying Mike's post about press coverage: The media's inability to cover process stories and to only be able to talk about winners and losers. So when the process lasts a while and no definitive winner comes to the fore, the media inevitably portrays this is a failure in the process--and the public tends to believe that portrayal.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

The interesting thing is that the media in this instance went along with portraying this as a live race long after it stopped being seriously in doubt. I don't think that this can be explained by Mike's observation (true though it is), because one can easily imagine non-policy coverage of Clinton's downfall happening a month (or two) ago.

That's the other surprise that I didn't emphasize in my post, i.e., the extended time before a winner was declared in press coverage. Without this collective decision by the press (along with the other issues discussed in my post), even a primary process as seemingly stacked against early knock outs as this one would again have resulted in another early knock out.

Michael C. Dorf said...

A propos of Neil's point that people have been rallying 'round the underdog, I heard Joe Trippi give a talk the day after the Pennsylvania primary, and he said much the same thing. According to Trippi, the Obama campaign made a tactical error by trying to play the conventional lower-expectations game. Every time the voters heard people saying that Clinton was done---which is what you are saying when you say that she failed to meet the expectations---they rallied around her. However, Trippi did not provide an explanation for why this particular rally-'round-the-underdog phenomenon was in play this year.

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