Friday, February 29, 2008

Divisive Primaries: 2008 vs. The Past

Last night's divisive primaries post and subsequent comments on The Monkey Cage (TMC) got me thinking about divisive primaries a bit more. And I'm wondering if what we call divisive primaries within political science is a blanket term that we use to describe several different but interconnected concepts. There are several layers to this:

Could it be that it is not the divisive primaries at all but the ability/inability to overcome them in a reasonable amount of time that has an effect on general election vote shares? Well, what does "reasonable amount of time" mean? It's a moving target. In 1980, that meant before the convention was over. Reagan and Bush joined forces on one side after a competitive primary fight, while Carter and Kennedy hardly came across as buddies at the Democratic convention. The result: the GOP ticket moved into general election mode while the Democrats continued to put the pieces together internally. [Paul Gurian gets a tip of the cap for placing this notion in my head. He may even be able to bolster the anecdote a bit if he reads this. He's also done some work in this area.] In other words, divisiveness on the Democratic side gave the Republican party a head start. In 2008, the worry for the Democrats is that the Obama/Clinton battle will cause a real rift in the party that won't be able to be healed enough before the election. Which brings us to...

Time, time, time.
The timing is a lot different now than it was thirty years ago. The prolonged primary seasons of the past gave way, for all intents and purposes, to the Super Tuesday model of presidential nomination by 1988 for the Republicans and 1992 for the Democrats. The time between Iowa and Super Tuesday shrunk during that interim, preventing insurgencies from being mounted effectively. If a challenge cannot gain steam then the likelihood of a divisive series of primaries developing decreases. [What's this, a benefit of frontloading? The drawback, of course, is that voters do not have the opportunity to fully vet the frontrunner/nominee, leaving them to suffer from what has been dubbed "buyer's remorse."]

But there's a tipping point here that fits in with this timing issue. At what point does competitiveness morph into divisiveness? This where the 2008 example could (when the history book is written on it) prove illustrative. Jacob Sohlberg, in the comments section over at TMC, alludes to this:
"The fighting candidates and their party get most of the media attention while the real competitor (say McCain) gets little. This is under the (strong) assumption that all news are good news."
And that's the thing: as long as the news is good. At what point does the positive competitiveness of the race for delegates turn into the negative, party-splitting divisiveness? Should Clinton do well in Ohio and Texas on Tuesday, then 2008 may have reached that point for the Democrats. But in the Super Tuesday era (1988/1992-2004), no challenger has been afforded such an opportunity. That era was marked by frontrunners who were able to snuff out insurgencies before competitiveness turned to divisiveness. [And just for the record, this is not an obituary for the Super Tuesday era, as I call it. 2008 may prove to be an anomaly and not a system changing election. Let's revisit this in four years and see.] Mondale quelled Gary Hart before a movement started (No, this isn't within the era I defined above but it is a good example.). George W. Bush kept McCain at bay. And Kerry silenced John Edwards. Competitiveness yielded to reality in all three cases before divisiveness took hold or could attempt to take hold.

What we see then is that the ability to stop competitiveness (My, doesn't that sound democratic. This is, of course, from the frontrunner's and national party's perspectives.) in its tracks is important. The GOP's unwritten strategy of going with an "heir apparent" as its nominee makes sense in this context. It helps avoid divisiveness. The onus is then on the Democratic party to steer clear of protracted nomination battles in their overall more competitive nomination process. Should competitiveness turn to divisiveness, then healing the divisions in a timely fashion (at least in relation to the opposing party) becomes the next obstacle.


Robert said...

Another great and thought-provoking post. One other possible exception to your Super-Tuesday theory is Howard Dean who was the supposed front-runner going into Iowa in 2004, but Kerry can't exactly be considered an insurgent. I suspect that this primary season will be system-changing, but time will tell. When things settle down a little, I'll have to go back and read Paul's article. Did you see that Wolfson is now saying that Obama has to sweep the four primaries on Tuesday to stay in the race. I think he is developing a credibility problem.

Josh Putnam said...

Yeah, I think I've asked more questions than answered with this one.

The Dean example is an interesting one. Before he made his moves in the polls and in fund-raising, one could argue that John Kerry was considered by many to be the frontrunner for the 2004 nomination. If you take that view, Dean was the insurgent. The timing was different with that example though. All of Dean's movement was during the invisible primary and Kerry was able to stem the Dean tide once the contests got underway. In the terms of the post above, the competitive phase was during the invisible primary and it never reached divisiveness when the real contests started.

I don't know whether I subscribe to that view, but it is another way to think about the Dean phenomenon.

I still lean toward the system returning to the Super Tuesday model in subsequent cycles. But I'll add one caveat: it depends on which party wins the White House this time. If McCain wins, I could see 2008 repeating itself on the Democratic side. If the Dems win this November though, then I find it hard to imagine that the GOP won't have an heir apparent ready for 2012. Now, I don't know who that person is, but my guess is that they rally around someone pretty quickly.

And despite all the talk of reform, I just don't see it in the offing; even with the mad dash to the front of the 2008 calendar. The only reform will be all or most states going on whatever date the national parties choose as the earliest date on which those contests can be held.

I did read Wolfson's comments and it is a stretch to be sure. Let's say that Clinton and Obama split the contests on Tuesday (each taking a big and small state). Do you think the media will report that as an Obama failure when he will have won 13 of the last 15 contests? I doubt that (especially when the resulting delegate spreads from these contests will be close to even). The line in the sand has been drawn. Clinton needs both Ohio and Texas to move on. And both are tightening up.

Yesterday was the last day of early voting in Texas.

Robert said...

Points well taken. Dean was more of the insurgent than Kerry, although Kerry was somewhat in the same position in 2003 as McCain was in 2007.I think it is going to be increasingly difficult for frontrunners to succeed. They get more vetting, and, with frontloading, there is less time for the press to vet the one who is coming on. Besides the underdog winning makes a better story. I think Hillary has somewhat of a point that Obama has gained a free ride. However, her strategy was to run as an incumbent and to suck out all the air from Obama. She almost succeeded. If she had accompanied that with a caucus strategy OR had not alienated the African-American community, she would have probably won by now. It is interesting how her campaign has changed the expectations from her needing to win big in Ohio and Texas on Tuesday to just winning in both states. I see where most of the counts now have her behind by more than the 100-delegate magic number. In addition to winning three of the four states on Tuesday, I think she needs to chip away at the delegate count.

On the Republican side, I think they will have a frontrunner in 2012 if the Democrat wins. Right now, that frontrunner appears to be Romney, but Huckabee and McCain's running mate will also be possibilities.

Josh Putnam said...

Frontrunners having difficulty staying in that position differs across the parties. The Democrats will always have some level of problems there while the GOP just won't. And then I think the worry for that Democratic frontrunner is that they don't peak to early.

Peaking to early is a concept I hadn't really thought about. I think it played at least some role in the Clinton camp's strategy. Obama wins Iowa. "He's peaked." Obama splits Super Tuesday. "He's peaked. It is ours now." Obama runs off 11 straight. "I hope he's peaked. We need Texas and Ohio now. And what are the chances of getting Florida and Michigan seated at the convention as is?" The Clinton campaign just never anticipated a candidate like Obama. And that isn't totally their fault. He's evolved into a formidable challenger and now frontrunner. And if the Clinton team thinks they can rewrite the expectations rulebook for Tuesday, they are mistaken.

This batch of candidates for the GOP reminds me of the group of Democrats that ran in 1988. The party just wants to move away from a group that was underwhelming from the start. Sure, Gore saw another day and Gephardt ran again. But they had to wait. And I think these guys will have to also. We will have to see who emerges though. If Huckabee and Romney jump in early (in the event that the Democrats win in November) then it may scare off some other candidates (think Mark Warner or Evan Bayh in 2008 for the Dems.).

Anonymous said...

Virtually all studies of divisive primaries, including Lonna Atkeson's 1998 research, address the impact of divisive state primaries, not national party division.
Atkeson and I, together with Damon Cann, Nathan Burroughs and Audrey Haynes, have measured the effects of national party division (controlling for 14 other factors). We find that a divided party will lose up to 5% nationally in the general election, as well as losing up to 2% in individal states that had divisive state primaries.

Anonymous said...

The national Democratic party was divided in 1968, 1972 and 1980 and lost all three of those elections. The national Republican party was divided in 1964 and 1976 and lost both of those. But it's more complex than that. As Josh pointed out, in 1980 the Republicans were able to heal their divisions at the convention; the Democrats were not. And, of course, there were other powerful forces at work in the above-mentioned elections, as there are today. In particular, the Democrats have substantial advantages because of the economy and the unpopularity of the president and the war. A nasty, divisive fight at the convention would diminish, but probably not eliminate, those advantages. On the other hand, if the losing candidate exits gracefully, and enthusiastically supports the nominee, then the effects of party divisiveness could be minimal.