A Good Fight

The Washington Post - - Letters To The Editor - Peter Beinart Peter Beinart, a se­nior fel­low at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, writes a monthly col­umn for The Post. His book, “The Good Fight: Why Lib­er­als — and Only Lib­er­als — Can Win the War on Ter­ror and Make Amer­ica Great Again,” has just come ou

The tone of the Obama-Clin­ton race has pun­dits wor­ried. “The con­cern is this bit­ter cam­paign could end up hurt­ing whoever the nom­i­nee is,” CNN’s Jack Cafferty warned last week. The con­test, Peggy Noo­nan wrote in the Wall Street Jour­nal, is “tear­ing the party apart.” On MSNBC, Newsweek’s Howard Fine­man dubbed it a “civil war.”

Huh? For starters, the con­test be­tween Hil­lary Clin­ton and Barack Obama isn’t all that nasty. To be sure, it has had its low mo­ments: Clin­ton sur­ro­gates rais­ing Obama’s past drug use, for in­stance. But by re­cent his­tor­i­cal stan­dards, it’s noth­ing out of the or­di­nary. In 1992, Jerry Brown ac­cused Bill Clin­ton of fun­nel­ing busi­ness to Hil­lary’s law firm. In 2000, sup­port­ers of Pres­i­dent Bush ac­cused ri­vals of spread­ing ru­mors that he had used co­caine. That same year, Al Gore in­sin­u­ated that Bill Bradley’s health-care plan was racist, and Bradley bashed Gore for hold­ing a fundraiser at a Bud­dhist tem­ple. For bet­ter or worse, this is what Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics is like.

What’s more, bit­ter pri­mary con­tests don’t nec­es­sar­ily hurt can­di­dates in the gen­eral elec­tion. In a 1998 study, the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico’s Lonna Rae Atke­son found that when you con­trol for other fac­tors, di­vi­sive pres­i­den­tial pri­maries have a “mar­ginal or even nonex­is­tent ef­fect in un­der­stand­ing gen­eral elec­tion out­comes.” To be sure, when an in­cum­bent pres­i­dent faces a tough pri­mary chal­lenge, it’s usu­ally a sign that he’s in trou­ble. Think of Ger­ald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 or Ge­orge H.W. Bush in 1992. But it’s im­por­tant to dis­tin­guish cause from ef­fect. Ford, Carter and Bush were all po­lit­i­cally weak, which is why they ul­ti­mately lost. Their pri­mary chal­lengers didn’t cause that weak­ness; the weak­ness caused those chal­lengers to run.

But when there’s no in­cum­bent, a tough pri­mary chal­lenge doesn’t tell you any­thing about a can­di­date’s chances in Novem­ber. Yes, nasty con­tests can leave the losers’ sup­port­ers em­bit­tered and less likely to turn out in the gen­eral elec­tion. (They can also ex­pose vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties that are later ex­ploited by the other side.) But heated pri­mary bat­tles also mo­bi­lize vot­ers, some of whom stay mo­bi­lized even if their party nom­i­nates some­one else. Many of the peo­ple who got in­volved in Demo­cratic pol­i­tics be­cause of Howard Dean in 2004, for in­stance, worked to elect John Kerry in the fall.

It’s quite pos­si­ble, there­fore, that Obama and Clin­ton would ac­tu­ally be stronger gen­eral-elec­tion can­di­dates than if their path through the pri­maries had been a cake­walk. Both are bring­ing new vot­ers into the Demo­cratic Party in droves. In Iowa, for in­stance, a key gen­eral elec­tion swing state, 62 per­cent of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s sup­port­ers and 68 per­cent of Obama’s had never at­tended a cau­cus be­fore. Some of those new vot­ers will be alien­ated if their can­di­date loses, of course, but it’s a good bet that most of them will be like the Dea­ni­acs and stick with the party’s nom­i­nee come fall.

The rea­son is sim­ple: Obama and Clin­ton are much closer to each other ide­o­log­i­cally than ei­ther is to any po­ten­tial Repub­li­can. When pri­mary vot­ers stay home or de­fect across party lines in the gen­eral elec­tion, it’s usu­ally be­cause they think their party’s nom­i­nee is no bet­ter than the other side’s. And that’s most likely to oc­cur when the pri­mary fight pits can­di­dates who have fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent views on press­ing is­sues. That was true in 1976, when neo­con­ser­va­tive Demo­crat Henry “Scoop” Jack­son ran way to the right of the party’s even­tual nom­i­nee, Jimmy Carter. It was true on the Repub­li­can side, when Ron­ald Rea­gan ran way to the right of Ger­ald Ford. It was true in 1992, when Pat Buchanan took on Ge­orge H.W. Bush. But it’s not true to­day.

One of the big­gest trends in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics in re­cent years has been a kind of ide­o­log­i­cal sort­ing out be­tween the par­ties, with the Democrats over­whelm­ingly lib­eral and the GOP over­whelm­ingly con­ser­va­tive. In such an en­vi­ron­ment, pri­maries may get heated, but the ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences are pretty small. When that’s the case — as it was when Dean bat­tled Kerry in 2004, or to­day with Clin­ton and Obama — the losers’ sup­port­ers are un­likely to aban­don ship in the fall. The early ev­i­dence al­ready sug­gests that. Asked by NBC how they would feel if Clin­ton won the nom­i­na­tion, 77 per­cent of Obama sup­port­ers in South Carolina said they would be sat­is­fied. When Clin­ton sup­port­ers were asked how they would feel if Obama won, it was 83 per­cent.

The Clin­ton-Obama race is close, fierce and at times petty. But it’s nowhere near the nas­ti­est in re­cent me­mory. And far from dam­ag­ing the even­tual nom­i­nee, it could ac­tu­ally help him or her. The pun­dits should worry about some­thing else.


Hil­lary Clin­ton and Barack Obama spar dur­ing the Jan. 21 de­bate in South Carolina.

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