What We Learned This Primary Season

The primaries are over, the votes have been counted, and the nominees have all but officially been crowned. This year's general election will be between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. Both are senators, but have vastly different personal histories. These histories and their unique personal dynamics will be scrutinized heavily from here on out. So before diving into assessing the general election campaign over the next few weeks, it is prudent to take stock of what has happened so far and what we have learned. Lessons from January may very well help better predict what happens in October.

1. This is a change election. Experience does not matter. In the Democratic primaries, the most experienced candidates were Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and Bill Richardson. Biden and Dodd dropped out after being rewarded with fifth and seventh place in the Iowa caucuses. Bill Richardson tried to trumpet his experience in the four-person debate before the New Hampshire primary only to finish fourth and drop out shortly thereafter. John Edwards tried to position himself as an experienced statesman by criticizing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for their negative attacks. He was subsequently drubbed in Nevada and embarrassed in South Carolina. Inexplicably, Hillary Clinton decided to adopt the "experience" mantle and tried to frame Obama as "too risky" and "too inexperienced." And she lost too. Obama might be "inexperienced," but he won the nomination and raised the most money. The "experienced" candidates didn't. John McCain is the latest politician who is trying to take advantage of the "experience" argument against Barack Obama, but he should do so at his own peril. After all, voters may look at the current state of the nation's economy, Iraq, and gas prices and conclude that "experience" is overrated.

2. If you work the media hard enough, they will believe your spin. Hillary Clinton has made it a point to remind voters, pundits, and journalists that "she won more primary votes" than Barack Obama. Average voters don't really know much about primaries, caucuses, and delegates, so Clinton's statement somehow morphed to "she won the popular vote" and makes Obama look like George Bush in 2000 while Clinton is Al Gore. By the letter of the law, Clinton's "popular vote victory" is true. More people actually did vote for her than Obama. The spirit of the law, however, suggests otherwise. It is important to note that Clinton is able to claim this only by including her votes in Michigan, not giving Obama any votes in Michigan whatsoever, and not including votes in some caucus states that Obama actually won. If you say something enough times, people will eventually begin to think it's true. A second example of this concerns the whisper campaign about Obama's religion.

3. A candidate who is at least moderately acceptable on all levels has a better chance of political survival than a candidate who has several big strengths and at least one big weakness. For months, the Republican race was the more compelling one because there was no clear frontrunner:

Mitt Romney was the competent executive and looked presidential. But he was seen as an emotionless flip flopper and had to deal with unfair suspicions about his religion. He also had to deal with concerns about his true commitment to conservatism because of his moderate record.

Rudy Giuliani had the ability to appeal to moderates and had proven his leadership credentials in the minds of voters because of his performance on September 11. But the Republican base consists of conservatives, not moderates. And this base viewed him as out of touch on the social issues that were important to them.

Mike Huckabee seemed more authentic than the other candidates and was clearly the favorite of the Christian right. His populist message also connected with rural voters. However, his foreign policy and anti-terrorism credentials were weak and he had trouble appealing to voters outside of his base.

Fred Thompson had the name recognition, buzz, twang, and proven conservative record. But he was a terrible debater and did not seem to want to campaign.

John McCain was a credible conservative on spending, terrorism, and social issues. He was criticized for his impurity on some of these issues (e.g., the Bush tax cuts, immigration), but by and large, he was at least moderately acceptable to the most people. As a result, he won the nomination by staving off elimination the longest. McCain's victory showed that a candidate who rates as a 7, 7, and 7 on three issues is politically stronger than someone who rates as a 9, 9, and 3 on the same three issues.

4. All states matter. Hillary Clinton lost the nomination in February. She matched Obama step for step before Super Tuesday, on Super Tuesday, and from March and beyond. But from Super Tuesday to the end of the month, Obama racked up 11 consecutive victories and put Clinton in a hole that was too large for her dig herself out of. Not having a timely campaign apparatus set up in states like Nebraska, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Idaho cost her far more than her victories in Ohio and Pennsylvania could compensate for.

5. Due to campaign finance laws, breadth of support is more important than depth of support. Clinton was able to raise a lot of money out of the gates by racking up $2300 contributions from her most loyal supporters. Unfortunately for Clinton, once a supporter put up $2300, he was not allowed to contribute any further. So she had a lot of money, but from far fewer people. Obama, on the other hand, was pulling in $20, $50, and $100 donations from far more people. So he was able to overcome Clinton financially and eventually dwarf her because one $1000 donation from one person is worth far less than ten $100 donations from ten people. Appealing to regular people who think a thousand dollars is the same as a million dollars is how Obama was able to crush Clinton. Now he has an extensive donor base that he can take advantage of in the general election. John McCain would be wise to copy this approach to fundraising.

6. Iowa and New Hampshire must loosen their stranglehold on the nomination process. Michigan and Florida were penalized for what the other 46 states were privately thinking but couldn't say publicly. I've criticized these states' "me first" mentality many times before. The primary season may be over, but these criticisms are not going away. A more equitable primary system needs to be developed sooner rather than later.

7. Republicans might wish to consider proportional delegate allocation. Mitt Romney and John McCain could have had an epic fight like Obama and Clinton had the "winner take all" system not existed. Romney won several "silver medals" in the early contests and was clearly McCain's strongest rival. Florida was essentially a tie between the two candidates, but it was absolutely devastating for Romney's campaign. Conservatives began rallying behind Romney in their attempt to stop McCain, but it was too late. A proportional allocation of delegates would have given him a fighting chance at a comeback.

8. Democrats might wish to consider eliminating caucuses. Even though they came across as whining and sour grapes, Clinton's criticisms of the caucus system have merit. In a caucus, voting is done publicly and candidates who don't meet the minimum threshold of support can negotiate with other candidates' supporters. Caucuses are held at set times and at set locations that may prevent certain types of voters from participating. For example, voters may have to work, find babysitters, or take care of their parents at the same time the caucus is being held. What kind of system is this?

9. Identity politics may make various demographics feel good, but they are ultimately problematic. Democrats were priding themselves on the prospect of "the first Black president" or "the first female president." And now the party is divided. Superdelegates who really want to support Clinton fear the reaction among Blacks if they take the nomination away from Obama. And now that Obama won, he has to win over the legions of female Clinton supporters who are threatening to support McCain out of protest. The problem with identity politics is that it narrows one's political identity. The more Obama is identified as "the first Black president," the more it trivializes his actual legislative record and political platform.

The Republican Party would presumably care less about identity politics, but until a credible woman or person of color rises high enough in the party and decides to run for president, it is unknown how much resistance such a candidate would face from other Republican voters.

Recommended reading

  • The Republican Rorschach Test
  • The McCain McCalculus
  • Rethinking 2012
  • The Problem with Identity Politics
  • The Problem with the Clinton Brand
  • A Warning to Republicans
  • About Barack Hussein Obama
  • Calling the Democrats' Bluff

  • 11 comment(s):

    Brett said...

    One thing to keep in mind, Anthony, is that we don't know how well a "9,9,3" conservative would have done against McCain's "7,7,7" in terms of a stand-alone contest. Mitt Romney didn't compete in a vaccuum; he had to compete with other "9,9,3" candidates. In such an environment, where all the devoted "base" voters are divided, a person like McCain with mixed moderate and conservative support could win.

    Of course, it is difficult to know, since we don't really have a good benchmark to measure it against. Would Bush in 2000, for example, have counted as a "9,9,9"?

    Thomas said...

    I am insulted when advocates of Iowa and New Hampshire going first rely on the argument that residents of those states are "just so darned informed about politics and that they the presidential race seriously."

    I don't know people in every state of the union but I am pretty sure from just my cursory reading of politic blogs that such people exist in every state.

    I don't know why the presidential primaries and caucuses can't operate on some kind of lottery system which would allow any state to go first. The lottery can be held in the November two years before a presidential election so as to force prospective candidates to focus on the whole country instead of camping out in Iowa and caving on the ethanol issue.

    Freadom said...

    I realize the Fed would not have Constitutional rights to do this, but would it benefit the candidates to have all the primaries on the same day.

    The reason I say this, is because, for example, Howard Dean and Guliani all were leading in the national polls, yet eventually had to bow out just because the first few states didn't vote for them. If all the states voted at the same time, would the outcome thus have been different in these respective election?

    Buck Naked Politics said...

    About #2: Florida Democrats did not break the rules by moving the primary date. Florida Republicans did.

    Our State House has 76 Rs to 42 Ds. Our Senate has 26 Rs to 14 Ds. We have a Republican Governor.

    The numbers have been roughly the same since 2001.

    Those are extenuating circumstances. That and Florida's state Dem leaders tried to persuade Rs (and proposed amendments) to get the primary date moved to Feb 5 or after.

    The state Republican's weren't having it. Naturally. They moved the state primary in the first place.

    The DNC's delegate-selection rules (particularly 21-c-7) allowed the Rules and Bylaws Committee to NOT punish Florida at all if it found that Florida Dems acted in good faith. They did.

    The only reason that Florida's Dem leaders voted for the primary-moving provision is that Republicans cleverly placed that provision in the same bill that the provision requiring our very troublesome voting machines to have paper trails.

    The State Rs BLOCKED every Dem effort for a paper trail since 2002. Seriously. And given the numbers the Rs never did need to pass a paper trail and could have moved the primary date without a single D vote.

    I can't read my legislators' minds, but why do you think they Rs were finally willing to give the Ds a paper trail? And why do you supposed they attached it to the primary-moving provision?

    Florida Dem leader Karen Thurman explained all of this to the DNC RB Committee in August. It fell on deaf ears.

    In short, Florida's and Michigan's situations were different, though many TV pundits lumped them together.

    My point is that Florida's vote could have counted fully according to the rules.

    I don't know why the DNC was dead set on not counting Florida, but it was.

    Buck Naked Politics said...

    I just finished reading your list.

    About #8, I agree with what you said but would like to add.

    TalkLeft gave these statistics, based on a someone's else report:

    - 35.6 million people have voted

    -The 37 primary states account for 97% of the vote.

    - The 13 caucus states account for 3% of the vote.

    I did a table in a blog post (links are here: http://bucknakedpolitics.typepad.com/buck_naked_politics/2008/05/changing-argume.html).

    I chose 3 primary states and 3 caucus states to get roughly the same number of combined delegates.

    The Caucuses: about 285,000 people decided who got Wyoming's, Hawaii's and Rhode Island's combined 74 delegates.

    The Primaries: more than 1.6 million people decided who got Georgia's, Rhode Island's and Oklahoma's combined 68 delegates.

    In short, nearly 6 times as many people voted in primaries for 68 delegates than had voted in caucuses for 74 delegates.

    That said, I agree with you about getting rid of caucuses for next time -- for your reasons and for the differing strength of each voter's vote.

    Anthony Palmer said...


    Yes, McCain's conservative opposition divided the conservative vote and allowed McCain to sneak through. But after Florida, Romney was McCain's final rival. (Huckabee was fading.) McCain's lead wasn't insurmountable, but Romney decided to call it quits anyway. You do make a valid point though that because there wasn't a real head to head matchup against a 993 and a 777, so I guess we'll never know...



    I'm "fortunate" in that I live in South Carolina, an early voting state. But I'd imagine that the people in Georgia and North Carolina were seething behind the scenes because it really isn't equitable. When Florida tried to move their primary up, South Carolina was threatening to move its primary up to keep its "first in the South" status. I encourage you to read "Primarily Stupid" and "Primarily Stupid, Part 2" in the archives. It's really quite childish and unfair. My preferred candidates had either dropped out or been branded as also-rans by the time South Carolina came up to vote.



    The problem with a national primary is that it would unfairly advantage the candidates who had the best name recognition and the most money. Also, having all the primaries on the same day would take away the advantage of time in that nobody would know if the candidate they annointed in January is still as attractive as in March. I will agree with you on one fact though--the system is broken and needs to be changed.



    Yes, I understand the Florida legislature is dominated by the GOP. And it was a shrewd move too because "having voters disenfranchised by the Democrats and Howard Dean" is probably the narrative they want voters to remember when it's time to vote for real in November. My criticism (other than the petty politics aspect of it) is the notion that these states were tripping over each other to be first. It's because Iowa and NH have an unfair monopoly on influence. All that matters is ethanol and taxes. Secondary stuff to those states, like immigration, are not discussed because, well, those two states aren't nearly as impacted by it as a state like Nevada or Virginia. Oh, and I'll check out the link you provided because those are some very interesting statistics.

    Thank you all for your comments.

    Brett said...

    Thanks for the response, Anthony. One more comment though -

    While Huckabee was fading, it is important to remember that he was still winning state primaries, particularly on Super Tuesday. That alone meant that he was drawing conservative voters from making the choice between Mitt Romney and McCain.

    DB said...

    I like your hypothetical question on #7 though I don't think the result would have been the same for the Reps in a proportional delegate system as there were three candidates and the two favorites were splitting the vote. This primary was a perfect storm for the moderate McCain.

    Regarding point 8...yes. Please. omg I can't stand the caucus vote and I am from Nevada. What an embarassing system.

    Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

    old school campaigning is dead

    S.W. Anderson said...

    A few observations on some elements of your excellent, informative and thought-provoking post.

    In analyzing Clinton, you overlooked two extremely important factors.

    The first undoubtedly hurt Al Gore badly in 2000 and Clinton this year: exhibiting a consistent persona, for lack of a better term. Clinton veered from being the queen-in-waiting on the way to coronation to being the gritty stump campaigner. For awhile there she was the mad laugher, then that all but disappeared. One evening she was making nice with Obama and the very next day she went ballistic attacking him. Clinton did everything but endorse John McCain as the only contender beside herself qualified to be commander in chief. Then, after losing the nomination and stalling her exit, she gushed over his being qualified to lead (although to be fair she seemed to still hedge a bit about commander in chief duties).

    All this echoed the terrible unevenness of Gore's 2000 campaign. It gives voters the idea the candidate isn't that sure of her or himself, isn't that comfortable in their own skin and, worst of all, will say whatever they think you want to hear, any way you want to hear it. Oh, and if you're into earth tones or tossing back shots of booze, no problemo.

    The other thing haunting Clinton — far more troublesome than anything Bill did — was her support for the Iraq war and unwillingness to say right at the beginning that she gave Bush the benefit of the doubt when he was still a relatively new president, and that she had learned better than to ever do that again.

    The primaries are about winning Democrats' votes, and supporting the war was a deal breaker for a very large segment of Democrats.

    While I'm on an analytical roll here, I'll toss in that Clinton did a lousy job of picking campaign leaders. Mark Penn, IMO, was a flipping disaster, with Howard Wolfson running a very close second in hurting her chances.

    I now very little about Obama's campaign leaders, except that they are very, very good.

    S.W. Anderson said...

    Re: your items 6 and 8. You are absolutely right on both.

    I live in a state where Democrats hold caucuses. I was at a Democratic function last year where the local chairman asked for a show of hands on continuing to hold caucuses. A majority wanted to. I cringed.

    Caucuses are perfect setups for hustlers and other overbearing types to roll over ordinary folks who are interested enough in politics to participate but not up to dealing with political hustlers.

    These things are held on a Saturday afternoon, when many people are at work or running errands they can't take care of during the week, so participation is less than it ought to be. Older folks tend to be overrepresented.

    The process is unwieldy. Many people aren't comfortable getting in a stranger's face, promoting their favored candidate, and many more aren't comfortable with having someone get in their face pushing another candidate. It doesn't take long before most participants just want it to be over with.

    It would be better if they would let "pro" representatives of the candidates speak to those who show up, then give ordinary caucusgoers who want to their chance to speak on behalf of their favorites candidate. Then, hold a secret ballot, with the counting to be done then and there, in full view of everyone who attends.

    I think that approach provides the best of both systems, without the hustling and herd mentality taking over.

    Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.