Thursday, March 27, 2008


At The New York Observer, Steve Kornacki reminds us that even Democrats have been known to win presidential elections after tough nomination fights. Remember 1992?

... That year, Bill Clinton limped to the primary finish line with influential members of his party openly questioning the wisdom of nominating him.

... Instead of rallying around Clinton, large numbers of Democrats, many of them [Paul] Tsongas and [Jerry] Brown supporters, defected to Ross Perot, the billionaire Texan who was ramping up for a full-fledged independent campaign. In general-election match-ups, Clinton fell hopelessly behind both Perot and Bush -- a mid-May poll found him registering just 25 percent, to Bush's and Perot's 35 percent. And in the late Democratic primaries, Perot racked up write-in votes by the tens of thousands, finishing with around 15 percent in the late-May Oregon and Washington primaries (both estimated figures, since write-in votes weren't officially recorded). Nationally, Clinton's favorable/unfavorable rating stood at a poisonous 42/48 percent.

... As Clinton prepared to cross the magical delegate threshold in the final contests of June 2,
The New York Times framed his as a Pyrrhic victory: "The man about to win the Democratic nomination, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, is struggling to repair the damage he sustained in the getting of it." ...

Things weren't much better as Carter tried to wrap up the nomination in 1976:

... In the spring, two new candidates -- Idaho's Frank Church and California's Brown -- suddenly jumped in the race. And they started winning. Church took Nebraska in early May, then Montana, Idaho and Oregon. Brown grabbed Maryland, then Nevada, California, New Jersey and Rhode Island ("uncommitted" slates aligned with Brown actually won the latter two). When the primary process concluded in early June, it was obvious that there were widespread concerns with Carter among Democrats.

You recall how those elections turned out.

Yes, but what about the Democrats' primary-season slugfests in 1980 and 1984? Kornacki's answer: When "the fundamental ingredients for a Democratic victory are in place," an ugly nomination fight doesn't deal a mortal blow. When Democrats are in trouble anyway (as in those years), a loss can follow an intraparty slugfest, but the slugfest wasn't the cause.

The question, though, is: Which kind of year is this?

Kornacki assumes it's another '76 or '92. In each of those years we had "a feeble economy, a politically clumsy incumbent, and widespread fatigue with the Republican label"; for the Democrats, this year is like both '92 and '76 because "the likely Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, possesses the natural skills to capitalize on" GOP weakness.

I hope Kornacki's analysis is right -- but one way this year differs from '92 is that the Republican everyone blames for the current mess isn't the Republican on the ballot. McCain is more like Gerald Ford in that way -- he's not George W. Bush just as Ford wasn't Richard Nixon, and Ford almost won.

And I continue to worry, as I have all along, that with the demonization of the Democrats as dirty hippie gay abortionist tree-hugging multiculti tax-and-spend America-haters now in its third (fourth?) decade, the acceptability bar for a Democratic nominee is higher than it was for Clinton or Carter.

But I just don't know. And I think Kornacki's main point is right -- a big nomination fight is not going to be what sabotages Democrats this year, if anything does.

No comments: