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How Primary Losers become General Election Winners

How Primary Election Losers become General Election Winners

Paul G. Buchanan

Given the nature of the 2008 US presidential primary campaigns, the role of losing sides in the primary voting will play a pivotal role in the November general election. “Losing side” in this case means the voters, not the candidate. In order to understand why, some explanation is in order.

In the past two presidential elections, Republican strategist Karl Rove understood that in a country with relatively low national voter turnout rates (under 50 percent), the key to electoral success was to mobilize the grassroots base rather than court the middle ground of independent and swing voters. For the Republicans that base rested in the Christian conservative movement, which turned out en mass in both the 2000 and 2004 elections. That turnout—better than any other organized interest group—is what turned the tide in favour of George W. Bush (a few dangling chads notwithstanding). No other single constituency, be it the labour movement, African-Americans, Hispanics or environmentalists, delivered the vote to Democrats the way Christian conservatives did for Republicans.

However, given the trials of the last eight years, including sexual scandals amongst important religious supporters of the president and ethical scandals involving some prominent neoconservative members of his administration as well as conservative media supporters, the gloss is off such an approach in this year’s presidential campaign. The country faces severe challenges at home and abroad, and the public is anxious. The pendulum has consequently swung back to courting the electoral middle ground, and that is why this year’s elections will be decided by independents and swing voters, be they so-called “Reagan Democrats” or “Rockefeller Republicans.” But there is more to this than meets the eye, because voters who back the losing candidates in the primaries will have the most important role to play in the general election.

To begin with, Barack Obama’s campaign has re-energised the Democratic grassroots while attracting legions of new, mostly young and Black, voters to the polls. Voter turnouts in Democratic primaries are running at all-time highs in many states, and most of that is due to his candidacy. The November election promises more of the same. Although not as energized, Republican voters are worried that a Democrat winning the White House, particularly with a Democratic majority in Congress, could see a reversal of many Republican policies (such as tax cuts for the upper ten percent of income earners, conservative social and environmental policies and military continuity in Iraq). They consequently have defensive reasons for voting in numbers.

Under such conditions a strategy that focuses on gaining maximum turnout from just one segment of the electorate, be it young, black, female, Christian or gun-toting, risks missing the forest for the tree. This is an election year where, due to a combination of US problems and the candidates on stage, all constituencies (save dispirited Christian conservatives) have been galvanised. No candidate can afford to ignore the many in favour of a select few.

It should be noted that some conservatives believe that this is a presidential election the Republicans can afford to lose. Given the myriad economic problems of the moment and possibility of a recession, to say nothing of the issue of what to do in Iraq and a host of domestic and foreign policy dilemmas, they believe it would be strategically in the best interest of the GOP to play to lose in 2008. During the four years that the Democratic administration will have to grapple with these intractable problems the Republican Party can regroup and find new faces for the 2010 congressional and 2012 national elections while not being saddled with the blame for any policy failures during the interval or guilt by association with the W. Bush administration. But that is a minority view.

A variant on this theme which has more support amongst conservative voters is the strategy of abstaining or voting third party in the presidential election while concentrating efforts on the local, municipal, state and congressional elections held concurrently in November.
Ron Paul’s candidacy will siphon the isolationist/nationalist vote (known as the “Pat Buchanan wing” of the conservative movement) away from John McCain. Most other conservatives, including many evangelical Christians, will concentrate their energies on winning elections and ballot initiatives more immediately related to their lives, as well as on trying to win back control of Congress from the Democrats. But given the massive numbers being turned out in the Democratic primaries, even this is a minority strategy within the GOP.

For the majority of those who favoured Romney, Huckabee, Giuliani, Thompson or other Republican candidates early in the primaries, the best option is to back McCain, be it to win or lose. Should Senator McCain find a politically attractive Vice Presidential candidate that balances out his age and health issues as well as his socially moderate views, then he stands a strong chance of giving the Democrats a strong run for their money when it comes to courting the electoral middle. But that depends on what the Democrats do before and after their national convention in August, because this is a presidential race that is more for Democrats to lose than Republicans to win.

The more interesting developments will be in the Democratic camp. Many of those who support Hillary Clinton are dyed-in-the-wool Democrats who will never vote for McCain if she loses the nomination. A minority of her supporters will cross over to McCain or abstain in November. But Senator Obama is pretty much guaranteed the bulk of Senator Clinton’s supporters, although in order to cement that support he will need to make concessions on policy issues that are important to Senator Clinton (such as health care and a more incremental reduction of US forces in Iraq). In the measure that he does so he comes more electable while the Clinton supporters win by losing.

Conversely, should Senator Clinton win the nomination, many of the new youth and Black voters—particularly young black voters—will abstain in the general election out of a sense of frustration and betrayal. For them Senators Clinton and McCain are cut from the same Establishment cloth. The same will be true of Leftist activists and elements in the environmental and civil-rights communities. But the number of these disenchanted voters, within the overall framework of increased electoral participation, will be little more than a mirror reflection of what is happening on the Republican fringe. Even so, in order to win in November Senator Clinton will have to engage concessions to Mr. Obama’s supporters on issues such as tax rebates for lower income families, welfare reform, and trade (since Mr. Obama is much more protectionist than either Senator Clinton or McCain). That allows Obama’s supporters to achieve a partial victory in defeat. However, depending on the specific concessions, in the measure that she does so she opens up space for Senator McCain to make inroads amongst more conservative Democrats. That will make for a more contested middle ground, especially if disgruntled Republican primary voters return to the fold.

Some commentators believe that given the delegate numbers, Senator Clinton is staying in the campaign in order to hurt Senator Obama’s chances in the general election. The assumption is that she will expose Mr. Obama’s weaknesses, her supporters will flock to McCain in November, McCain will win but prove ineffectual once in office, and the path will be clear for her to run unimpeded in 2012. That is wishful thinking. Not only is this the best moment for her or any Democrat to run against a damaged and fractured Republican Party, which will unify behind its president should McCain win but which will engage in serious internecine bloodletting in the event that he loses (even more so if the Congressional balance remains in favour of the Democrats). This scenario also assumes that Mr. Obama will just fade away and never compete for the presidency again. That is preposterous. If anything Mr. Obama will use the next four years to gain experience in the Senate, put distance between himself and the controversies that currently dog him, deepen his networking connections throughout the Democratic Party, then return to the fray in 2012 as a known commodity with more substance and fewer surprises. And he will be in his early 50s when he does so.

They key for the Democrats, therefore, is unification after the bitter primary campaign around a hybrid policy platform that combines the best of Senator Obama’s and Senator Clinton’s ideas for improving the lot of the mobilised mass of swing voters, new and old. For Senator McCain, the same electoral middle will also be targeted, but his policy prescriptions will be focused more to the centre of those of his eventual Democratic rival or the Republican Right with emphasis on graduated reform rather than drastic change.

Of course a “dream ticket” of Clinton/Obama or Obama/Clinton will result in a Democratic landslide in November, but at the moment it looks like egos and personality clashes will make that impossible. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a former close associate of the Clintons who now supports Senator Obama, would be a good Vice Presidential choice for Mr. Obama because he could help siphon Hispanic votes from Senator Clinton (Mr. Richardson is half Mexican-American, extremely accomplished, moderate in his views and speaks fluent Spanish; Mrs. Clinton has a forty year history of working on behalf of Hispanic political interests and overwhelming support from its leaders). In general, Mr. Obama has a relatively wide range of choice when it comes to vice presidential partners (so long as they are centrist Democrats) simply because of who he is and what he represents.

Mrs. Clinton’s vice presidential choices are more difficult to discern and more circumscribed by who she is and what she represents. What is certain is that the choice cannot be female simply because, to put it gently, America is “not ready” for a two female White House (especially with Nancy Pelosi as House Majority Leader). A male Black or Hispanic VP candidate would be very beneficial for her, but the voter-acceptable talent pool in those categories is thin now that Mr. Richardson has switched sides (assuming Senator Obama declines an invitation to be Vice President). Put another way: the likes of Al Sharpton will not cut it in a general election. Thus Senator Clinton’s vice presidential choice will be a very important one, yet is one that has severe constraints in terms of voter appeal and ticket “balance.”

It will be interesting to see what Al Gore and John Edwards decide to do come convention time and what, if any role they will play in its aftermath. Whether or not they are offered jobs in a future Democratic administration, their opinions on preferred ticket “mixes” will be highly valued by supporters of both candidates in the lead up to the nomination. Mr. Edwards stance in the upcoming North Carolina primary will give early indication of the trend.

In effect, the November 2008 US presidential election has a “back to the future” feel to it. Independent and swing voters will have a decisive role to play, but their numbers will be greatly expanded by a new generation of voters keen to make their mark. The losing side of each primary campaign will play a key role. They will do so not only with their votes in November, but with their votes and pressure in the lead up to and within the respective national conventions in which each party’s presidential ticket will be nominated. Although it may be true that sausage and legislation are two things that one should never watch being made, the equally ugly backroom bargaining between party factions at both national conventions will not only make or break their respective campaigns. It will also make for great political theater, and in due course, history.


Paul G. Buchanan writes about comparative and international politics.

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