Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Long Campaign: Good or Bad?

Since Hillary rallied on Tuesday, "punching her ticket to keep on fighting" (can we retire that cliche now, please?), a debate has ensued: is this good for the Dems or bad?

Instinctively it seems bad, because Hillary's going negative and can only tear Obama down. If she does happen to win the nomination, she'll lose a lot of Obama voters along the way thanks to the tactics she'll have to use to get there. A lose-lose. Meanwhile, McCain just chills, firing a scud at the Dems every now and again while cozying up to Hagee, Rush, and the rest of the Fox 'n Friends nuthouse, hoarding his pocket change as Hillary and Obama deplete their massive warchests on each other.

But Kevin Drum says hogwash and cites 1968 as an example. Even in that most divisive of years, when the liberal coalition was busy eating itself, Humphrey lost by less than one percentage point.
If long, bitter, primary campaigns really destroy parties, then Humphrey should have lost the 1968 election by about 50 points. "Bitter" isn't even within an order of magnitude of describing what happened that year. And yet, even against that blood-soaked background, Humphrey barely lost. This suggests that if primary divisiveness has any effect at all, it must be pretty small.
He reprises the theme later, linking to political scientist Phil Klinkner and John Sides, who bolster the claim (even citing a study that finds no link between divisiveness and outcome between 1936-96).

And then there's the argument that it's actually better for the Dems to continue to battle, because in doing so, they suck all the oxygen out of the room. If the media's covering the latest scrum between Wolfson and Axelrod, they're not listening to McCain drone on about the "respectful" campaign he plans to run.

On the other hand, I have to think that the nature of a divisive primary battle in the mediascape we have in 2008 differs dramatically from 1960's. Drum's analysis selected an election in which the Dems were the incumbent and had vast institutional advantages--not exactly a mirror of this year's. In 1960, we had a presidential candidate who was hiding affairs and health problems; in 2008, we have candidates who must, thanks to pinheads like Drudge, respond to crimes they did not commit. Every election is a one-off. Events and contexts change enough that it's difficult to look at the historical record for a roadmap into the future.

I don't actually know. One factor that I think hasn't been explored too much is the flipside to the"at least McCain's getting no press" argument: true, and that's probably bad. He's cranky and has a lot of skeletons in his closet. There's a good reason to think that forcing him to endure months scrutiny will exacerbate his huge downsides, force him to take positions that will inevitably alienate members of the conservative coalition, put him in a crucible that will expose his crankiness, and give the press time to dig into his dubious past.

Who knows? Since we can't run a control experiment with Obama winning Texas and forcing Hillary out, we'll never know. But it's an interesting riddle, even if we can't know the answer.

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