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Unconventional wisdom: longer nomination helps Democrats

Rob Richie // Published May 14, 2008 in Belleville News Democrat
 The conventional wisdom is that the hotly contested presidential nomination battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is a gift to presumptive Republican nominee John McCain. But the hard evidence suggests otherwise, with important implications for the elections this fall and prospective changes to the nomination process.

Looking first at the partisan impact on the two major parties, we already have seen a near certain connection between the Democrats' competitive primaries and their success in special congressional elections this spring. Democrats understandably may worry about the negative tenor of their campaign, but they have engaged far more voters than Republicans this spring - and have months to heal any wounds.

Democratic voter turnout has dwarfed Republican turnout. Nearly 35 million Americans have voted in Democratic contests, including the great majority of the year's 5 million young voters. Of eligible voters under 30, 58 percent now prefer Democrats, while only 33 percent prefer Republicans. Democratic candidates keep registering and mobilizing voters in every state, building networks of participation and mobilization. Republicans are treading water.

This difference in engagement is having a measurable impact. Of four U.S. House seats filled in special elections, Democrats have won three - including two former Republican seats. In March, former Speaker Denny Hastert's seat fell to Illinois Democrat Bill Foster. On May 3, Democrat Don Cazayoux won a special election for a Louisiana congressional district that George Bush carried by 19 percent in 2004.

It's no coincidence that turnout in Louisiana's Democratic presidential primary was more than double Republican turnout. Similarly, more than three times as many Democrats as Republicans voted in Mississippi's presidential primary in March. A few weeks later, Democrat Travis Childers fell just short of an outright victory in a special election in a district that George Bush won by a whopping 25 percent in 2004 - Childers still may take the seat in a runoff.

More recently, Democrats flooded the polls in Indiana and North Carolina - not only in the presidential primary, but in primaries for governor's races that are very much in play this November. In North Carolina, the Democratic winner in a hotly contested gubernatorial primary won more than twice as many votes as all Republican candidates combined.

The Democratic contest has also helped widen the gap between Americans ready to self-identify as Democrats compared to Republicans. Rasmussen Research found that the Democratic partisan advantage was 10 percent in April, up from only a 2 percent advantage in December when both major parties' presidential candidates dominated the news.

As to the rancor between the Obama and Clinton camps, it will matter little if ending soon after their last contest in Montana on June 3. Last winter the Republican race was at least as nasty as the Democratic race - but once John McCain secured the nomination, opponents quickly rallied behind him.

Looking beyond partisan calculations, these findings have important ramifications for institutional reformers. Republicans are in the midst of debating a major overhaul of their nomination schedule. They will vote at their convention on a proposal that would almost certainly result in more states having meaningful contests in 2012 and beyond.

Republicans should also reconsider rules where a state awards all its delegates to the plurality vote winner no matter how low their share of support - John McCain in fact won less than 38 percent of the vote in every Republican contest in January even while cementing his front-runner status. Winner-take-all rules may determine a nominee faster, but not necessarily the one with the greatest ability to bring the party together - and not necessarily to the party's long-term advantage.

The Democratic nomination process is far from perfect, of course. But at least Democrats start from a point of having brought millions of voters into the process and paved the way for what could be their strongest general election performance in nearly a half-century.