Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What a Difference a Few Weeks Make

Many Republicans, both among pundits and the rank-and-file, are quite happy about the current Democratic hammer-and-tongs fight for the party’s presidential nomination. In fact, some of the GOP folks are positively giddy about it. The Democratic nomination fight, they assume, can only improve the GOP’s November prospects.

Pundits point to recent polls showing that regardless of which candidate wins the Democratic nomination, a significant number of Democrats that currently support the other candidate will refuse to vote for the winner. It’s very easy to find Democrats that say that they would much rather vote for John McCain than for Sen. Clinton or Sen. Obama, whichever of these two they don’t presently support.

It is true that historically the party that has had the most bruising nomination fight loses the White House in the general election. But there are many variables in this equation that are shunted aside in favor of the proposition that the Democrats are killing themselves this year.

Let’s be real, people. As recently as a couple of months ago, many of the Republicans now expressing schadenfreude at the Democrats’ disagreements were vehemently opposed to supporting John McCain, who had too many policy and relationship heterodoxies for their tastes. Oddly enough, the passage of a few weeks has somehow brought them into the McCain camp.

This is really just human nature. Can we really convince ourselves that the losing side of the Democratic battle will behave any differently than the losing side of the Republican campaigns? Oh yes, some claim. Republicans will have had many more months to overcome their McCain dyspepsia than Democrats will have to overcome their problems with their nominee. While the sheer time factor cannot be discounted, I wonder how much it will really mean come November.

In real life, most Democrats that now support whoever will end up losing the nomination will lick their wounds for a few days. The media will happily report on any national figures that express outrage or a willingness to support McCain. But before long, most of these people, similar to the GOP McCain supporters that used to detest McCain, will think to themselves, “I’m not totally happy with my party’s choice. But I can’t bring myself to vote for the Republican.”

Will there be Democrats that cross over and vote for McCain? Of course. Will that number be significantly larger than the number of Democrats that ordinarily vote Republican in general elections? Probably not. Maybe the number that sit out the election will be higher, but that’s hard to tell. I suspect that once the Democrats settle once and for all on a nominee, the vast majority of Democratic voters will ultimately vote for her/him in November.

But perhaps I’m focusing on the wrong question. It’s probably not the registered Democratic voters that might be driven away by current party struggles. It might be the independent voters that will be affected. Democrats are probably right to be concerned about this.

Still, it would be well for Republicans that are enjoying the Democratic infighting to remember an important rule of political contests. Waiting for the opposition to destroy itself via disunity is hardly a winning strategy. You have to win people over, not just on the strength of a candidate’s personality, but on the appeal of your policies and the sense that you have the ability to carry them out. In case you hadn’t noticed, the GOP hasn’t been performing very well in this arena lately.

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