Wednesday, January 30, 2008

And Then There Were Four

The presidential primary season has produced some unexpected results. Of course, since nobody really had any idea of how things would go in this highly compressed primary in which neither party had a substantially clear incumbent or front runner, pretty much any results were unexpected.

Both parties are down to two candidates. Obama and Clinton on the Democratic slate, and McCain and Romney for the Republicans. It is now clear that one of these four individuals will be the next President of the United States. Sure, there are others that haven’t thrown in the towel yet, but any hope that any of these might surge at this point is pure fantasy. None of them has the momentum, money, or campaign organization to do that.

Once considered the GOP front runner, Giuliani is out. Once thought of as a serious Democratic contender, Edwards is out. Although Ron Paul’s support is deep and tenacious, it’s too narrow for him to gain any real traction. Richardson once showed promise, but he’s out. Huckabee’s Iowa win has turned out to be a fluke. It’s now clear that he can’t pull support outside of his narrow base. Nor does he have the money or organization to be competitive in most states. Once breathlessly talked about as the next conservative hope, Thompson has fizzled. Any remaining candidates on either side don’t even warrant discussion at this point.

It is also clear that neither party will have their nomination substantially settled after next week’s 20-state primary. On either side, even if a candidate were to win all 20 states, he/she would still lack sufficient delegates to secure her/his party’s nomination. A lot can happen in a week, but most pollsters today think Feb. 5 will produce a mixed bag for both parties. Each candidate will come out with a lot of delegates. It is possible that in either or both parties, one candidate might become his/her party’s obvious front runner, but that is far from clear at this point.

The media has been reporting on state primaries like they’re football games, where the winner advances and the loser drops. But that’s not how it works. It’s more like the baseball season than the football season. At this point, it’s all about getting delegates. Winning states is important because it shows momentum. And it’s especially important in a winner-take-all primary, like Florida’s. In Florida, McCain’s 36% to Romney’s 31% earned McCain all of Florida’s 57 GOP delegates. But all of the major players now know that it’s about delegate count at this point.

Unhappy Voters
The primary process is bound to leave many dissatisfied. For example, how many Republican voters a few months (or even weeks) ago would have rated as their number one choice McCain (whom Deroy Murdock calls Bob Dole 2.0 here) or Romney (the champion of RomneyCare, Massachusetts’ variation of HillaryCare)? George Will thinks the GOP is headed for a 1964-style butt kicking this November (see here). Some Republicans are hoping that Clinton wins the Democratic nomination because she would galvanize Republicans as well as many independents and even some Democrats to vote against her. Let me just say for the record that simply not being Clinton is a pretty lousy strategy, both from a political angle and from the perspective of what’s best for the nation.

On the Democratic side, as Peggy Noonan notes here, the vigorous battle being waged by the Clintons is tearing the party apart. (Noonan says that Pres. Bush already did that for Republicans.) It’s not just Obama’s optimistic approach that attracts voters. He wouldn’t be competitive if Clinton’s negative ratings weren’t so high. Besides, who really thinks that either Obama or Clinton have the kind of experience necessary for the highest executive office in the land? So consternation among voters in both parties is understandable.

How Primaries Really Work
You may totally disagree with the way things actually work, but the fact is that voters in later primary states pick among the contestants still standing after the early primaries. They take cues from candidates’ early performances to formulate an idea of which of the remaining major contenders is likely to both represent them and win. At least the opinion leaders among these later voters do so. Studies show that most voters don’t really get serious about looking at the candidates until about three days before the election. And then they rely heavily upon opinion leaders that have been watching things develop.

Some have argued for a single national primary election. I’m not sure this would serve us as well as our current flawed system. Voters had time after Huckabee’s Iowa victory to take a closer look at him. That is part of the reason he hasn’t fared well since then. Voters have now had more time since Iowa to consider Obama. Some are liking what they see. If we had a single national primary, opportunities for firming up opinions and observing performance would be limited. We could easily end up with serious buyer’s remorse. Our current primary system unquestionably needs repair, but it’s not all bad.

For better or for worse, one of the four individuals listed at the top of this post will be our next president. There are lots of opinions about this, but it’s quite unclear at the moment which one it will be. Each of them is imperfect and leaves much to be desired. You might be sufficiently dissatisfied to vote for someone besides one of these four. That’s understandable. But you will not be voting for a prospective contest winner.

Studies show that most voters want to be aligned with the winning team. They are going to vote for the candidate they feel most closely aligns with their political ideals and that they think can win. We also know that not a small number of voters will vote for the person they believe is most likely to prevail, even if they disagree with her/him. So the vast majority of people that vote next Tuesday will pull the lever for one of these four. Next Wednesday morning after the dust settles, we’ll have to see what those votes mean.

How the General Election Really Works
Long before November, each party will produce a clear candidate. There will be plenty of people in each party that don’t care for their party’s candidate. A very small number of them will be sufficiently disgusted to vote for the opposing candidate. A larger number will simply choose not to vote. But most will vote for their party’s nominee anyway because in their mind, he/she will be better than the gal/guy on the other side.

But it doesn’t work that way for the large cohort of unaligned and independent voters. While each party’s grass roots tend to be ideologically driven, there are vast numbers of Americans that don’t think that way. And recent studies show that the percentage of voters in this category is expanding and even includes many that are registered with political parties.

These voters will look at the candidates in a different way than do most primary voters, and they will largely be the ones that ultimately determine which of the final two candidates will serve as our next president. For this reason, the fall campaign will look far different than the pre-convention campaign. Watch for far more reaching out and moving to the middle. If we’re lucky, it’ll all be over in the wee hours of November 5. (Keep your fingers crossed that we don’t have a repeat of the 2000 election.)

Then life can get back to normal. That is, until a few months after the inauguration. Then we can get on with the time-honored tradition of bashing the new president for doing a lousy job of managing the unwieldy leviathan that the federal government has become, until he/she looks like an ineffective jerk by the sixth year of her/his presidency.


That One Guy said...

Although the current system BAFFLES me, A national primary day would be a total crap-shoot.

Perhaps going away from the first states being Iowa and New Hampshire would help - I believe they were chosen as good cross-sections of the nation's population(?), but I can't see that at all... neither is big enough or diverse enough to be immune from from the pandering of politicians.

I think California should be first. It's such a large and diverse state that there is no politician who could pander to the entire state.

Cameron said...

I don't suppose there's any perfect way to do it, but this year has worked out pretty well in that since it's been so wide open more candidates have been able to stick around longer, giving later states more of a choice.

Reach Upward said...

There are a number of interesting primary reform proposals listed in this Wikipedia article. One problem with any of these is that they take a national approach, whereas, each state currently is left to its own devices.

We can see from this year's situation that national parties don't have much power to influence actual dates, other than to set a moratorium on the earliest date. But only taking away all of a state's delegates seemed to help. Taking away half didn't help much. The states that lost all of their delegates also lost their importance, so they probably won't repeat that mistake again.

Like TOG, I can't for the life of me figure out why IA and NH ought to always be first in the nation. It's ridiculous and demeaning.

It does not appear that anyone has the will (or perhaps political capital) to carry any of the reforms through to implementation. But this year's screwy primary might help provide some impetus.