Posted on May 05, 2008
Many analysts are taking the position that the ongoing presidential nomination battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is a gift to likely Republican nominee John McCain. Worried Democrats and gleeful Republicans are a regular feature of the horserace drumbeat.
I don't think so. And there's some good evidence to suggest I'm right.
Sure, many Democrats can rightly worried about the tenor of the campaign, but there are two basic points to keep in mind: 1) Democrats are engaging far more voters than Republicans as the primary season continues; 2) there's plenty of time to heal wounds.
Let's start with the broader impact on the two major parties' electoral chances. Already we are seeing a near certain connection between the Democratic primaries and Democrats' success in special elections this spring.
As background, Democratic voter turnout has been far higher than Republican turnout. Even when both parties' nominations were in play, for example, more than 970,000 people chose to vote in the Democratic open primary in Virginia on February 12th --- that was more than double the 481,000 voters in the Republicans' open primary. The Democratic candidates keep registering and mobilizing voters in every single state and territory, building networks of participation and mobilization. Republicans are treading water.
Does that matter? Of course it does. Take the fact that on Saturday (May 3rd), Democratic state Rep. Don Cazayoux defeated Republican Woody Jenkins in a special election in Louisiana in a race to fill Republican Richard Baker's sixth congressional district seat. George Bush carried this district by 19% in 2004 and by 12% in 2000, but Democrat Cazayoux won this weekend by 49% to 46%. It's no coincidence that more than 357,000 voted in the Democratic presidential primary on February 9th, more than double the turnout in the Republican primary won by Mike Huckabee. (As an aside Louisiana asked its voters to come to the polls three times to fill this seat -- a primary, a runoff to determine both major party nominees and a general -- but still didn't get a majority winner.)
This result is consistent with a special election in Mississippi's first congressional district that George Bush carried by 25% in 2004 and 19% in 2000. On April 22, Democrat Travis Childers fell just short of an outright victory with 49% of the vote and now faces Republican Greg Davis in a May 13th runoff. It's remarkable that this district is even in play -- and yes, on March 11, more than 411,000 Democrats voted in a hotly contested presidential primary, more than three times the 136,000 voters in the Republican primary that day.
Looking ahead, Democrats are going to have big, energized turnouts in states like North Carolina, Indiana, Kentucky, Oregon and Montana that have key elections going on for other offices this November. They also are showing no signs of losing their new advantage in voters' party preference, building from the momentum of their 2006 election.
As to the rancor between the Obama and Clinton camps, I doubt it will matter nearly as much as people think as long as it doesn't continue much beyond the last primary in Montana on June 5th. There's plenty of time to heal wounds. Just remember that the Republican race was far nastier than the Democratic race last winter -- but once John McCain secured the nomination, his opponents endorsed his campaign.
I write this as an institutional reformer, not a partisan. Republicans are in the midst of thinking seriously about a major revamping of their nomination schedule, with a vote scheduled at their September convention on adopting the Ohio Plan, a proposal that would almost certainly result in more states having meaningful contests in future years. Republicans also should think twice about having most states use winner-take-all rules where the plurality winner (no matter how low -- note that John McCain did not win more than 37% of the vote in a single contest in January, when he moved into frontrunner status) takes all that states' delegates. Winner-take-all rules shortchange the process -- getting a nominee faster than proportional allocation of delegates, perhaps, but not necessarily the one with the greatest ability to bring the party together and not necessarily to the advantage of their party in November.
You can see more from FairVote on primaries at:
* Fix the Primaries, our website highlighting different primary reform proposals
* Delegating Democracy, my paper with colleague Adam Fogel on ways to improve future nomination contests