Got Indiana?

Yesterday, I wondered how perverse it would be for Senator Clinton to win the Democratic nomination in good part because of her appeal among voters who, in a general election against Senator McCain, would just prefer McCain. Some of the comments (when they weren't supposing I was naive or misinformed or something worse) inferred that I was arguing the DNC is irrational for trying to involve less ideologically committed voters in a nominating process. That is not what I argued at all. What I argued is that individual voters are only asked to make a highly constrained choice in our (mostly ordinal) elections and that that is no way to "reveal preferences" or to aggregate them into some kind of "collective will." Moreover, there is good reason to believe that what nominees for President need most is a committed base to whom they will not have to pander or communicate at all in the general election.

So the results are finally in and Senator Clinton won Indiana -- some of it by wide margins. An area with one of the most lopsided margins (70/30), Pike County, makes my point. Pike County is 99.1% white, disproportionately poor, older than normal, under-educated (this is a demographic profile, mind you, and all this means is that most college educated people leave and don't come back) and clearly a place that has suffered in a post-industrial economy. It has about 12,000 people (down from 20,000 in 1900) and about 3,000 of them voted last night. Is this the sort of victory the DNC should pay attention to in picking the nominee? I'm betting there are WAY more registered Republicans there than about 3,000. More importantly, though, virtually no one even puts Indiana in play this fall. Bush/Cheney states in 2004 that could go "blue" this year include Colorado (9 electoral votes), New Mexico (5), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), and Missouri (11) and they all seem more likely to go for Obama according to people more knowledgeable than I (although even I can fathom the power of popular home state backers like Richardson, McCaskill, Webb and having won those primaries by wide margins).

Thus, when some suppose that Senator Clinton would be a stronger nominee because a few national polls put her further ahead of McCain than Obama, I am, shall we say, floored. Obviously, the general election is still an eternity away, we don't vote for President as a nation, and THERE ARE STILL THREE CANDIDATES BEING PUT UP IN THESE POLLS. Now readers of this blog will all know (thankfully) that the electoral college is what shapes the Presidential race. Getting to 271 is all that matters. George W. Bush proved that twice (and, in his case, it didn't even matter how he got to 271 in one of them (sorry - couldn't resist)).

But before we think the nominating process is anything other than a crude approximation of what it supposedly accomplishes, ask yourself why more Americans voted for GWB in 2004 than for any other President in history. It wasn't because of his popularity or because Bush was a centrist or because he had been nominated in a process designed to get at those two qualities. He was a presumptive nominee of a tightly organized party, running in a year in which the nation was extremely polarized, he and the RNC ran an extremely polarizing campaign in the "swing" states, and Senator Kerry was close in a lot of the polls leading up to the election.

There are plenty of good reasons to want someone with broad appeal to be a party's nominee. But it is exceptionally unlikely you will nominate that person by just opening primaries up to anyone or making the delegate counting "proportional." (Incidentally, Senator Clinton certainly isn't that person. She the kind of politician Chris Matthews idolizes: she has surrounded herself with professionals whose only expertise is in how to exploit the flaws of an ordinal election and those of our mass media-driven electoral process at the national level. They have "sliced and diced" the voters they need by coming up with "winning" strategies like a gas tax holiday, for example.)

Now imagine Senator Clinton trying to run a race that wins the swing states she might even possibly win. Is she really going to campaign to win places like Pike County, IN? That would be a terrifically stupid strategy because it would cost her (in opportunity costs, if nothing else) dearly to have to triangulate her message for so little voter payoff.

Finally, having the nominating contest end swiftly very well could be means/ends rational for a party. More and more of Senator Clinton's voters have been answering in exit polls that they will not vote for Senator Obama should he be the nominee. I can only surmise that that trend line is a function of the primary campaigning - assuming, of course, that these voters are Democrats at all.

Posted by Jamie Colburn