A Fight the Democrats Can Afford

At first glance, it’s an ominous, perhaps even damning development for Democrats: The protracted battle for their party’s nomination has grown so bitter that giant chunks of Obama and Clinton loyalists are ready to move to John McCain if their candidate doesn’t win the Democratic nomination.

According to a new Gallup poll, 28 percent of Hillary Clinton’s backers will bail on Barack Obama if he’s the nominee, while 19 percent of Obama’s partisans will do the same if Clinton somehow wrests the Democratic nod.

And so, a new story line is taking hold in the media—the Democrats, once again, shooting themselves in the foot with suicidal infighting.

“Six more weeks of attacks and counterattacks between the Clinton and Obama campaigns,” party operative Bob Beckel warned in a column this week, “will move them perilously close to accomplishing the otherwise unimaginable job of giving the Republicans another term in the White House.”

The reality is somewhat less dramatic, though.

There’s no reason to doubt the legitimacy of the Gallup numbers, or other similar findings—like a Rasmussen poll that found that 22 percent of Democrats believe that Clinton should drop out, while another 22 percent feel the same about Obama—that point to a deeply and evenly divided Democratic electorate. But some context might be helpful, because this is not exactly a new phenomenon.

There was, for instance, 1992, the last time the Democrats won an open-seat election. That year, Bill Clinton limped to the primary finish line with influential members of his party openly questioning the wisdom of nominating him.

Clinton emerged as the presumptive nominee in early April ’92, when he beat Jerry Brown and the inactive (but still formidable) Paul Tsongas in New York’s primary. Faced then with only nominal opposition from Brown, Clinton hoped to use the remaining two months of primaries to heal the divisions within his party and to reframe the debate as one between him and President George H. W. Bush. But his party showed no interest in playing along.

Instead of rallying around Clinton, large numbers of Democrats, many of them Tsongas and 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.

From the sidelines, the vanquished Tsongas told a reporter that since dropping out the race, “I’ve had not one person say to me, ‘I’m going to vote for Bill Clinton or George Bush.’ They ask, ‘What do you know about Ross Perot?’”

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.”

The paper’s somber analysis continued: “‘Gennifer Flowers’ and ‘but I didn’t inhale’ have entered the popular culture, woven in night after night in a succession of comedy monologues. Mr. Clinton has a wary, hurt look to his eyes that he did not have six months ago.”

Clinton, as you may have heard, ended up winning the fall election with 370 electoral votes, holding Bush to the lowest vote total for any incumbent president since William Howard Taft in 1912.

And it’s easy to understand how it happened. The raw ingredients—a feeble economy, a politically clumsy incumbent, and widespread fatigue with the Republican label after 12 years—were in place all along for a Democratic win. Under the spotlight of the fall campaign, Clinton, with his sunny personality and mastery of the art of public presentation, shined, erasing most of the doubts that had plagued him in the spring, when he was mostly a caricature in voters’ eyes.

Something similar happened in 1976 to Jimmy Carter, the only other Democrat to win the White House over the past 40 years. Carter was the first Democrat to recognize and exploit the opportunities inherent in the proliferation of primaries and caucuses. In ’76, a record 30 of them were scheduled, and Carter competed in nearly all of them, winning early and often and emerging as the likely nominee.

But his worst moments of the ’76 primary campaign came not at the beginning, when he was largely unknown, but toward the end, when the likelihood of his nomination became apparent. 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.

And yet Carter won in the fall, too. His race with Gerald Ford turned into a squeaker, but that had more to do with Carter’s general-election miscues than with lingering bitterness from the primary season. After the Democratic convention in New York, Carter opened a 33-point lead over Ford. There weren’t many people talking about Frank Church and Jerry Brown then.

This year’s alarmists about the implications of the current Obama-Clinton contest tend to point to the 1984 and 1980 elections, when, supposedly, contentious one-on-one primary fights that lasted well into the spring—and even the summer—irreparably fractured the party and led directly to Republicans wins.

Actually, both of those protracted primary campaign were symptoms of more dire problems afflicting the party, which essentially made victory in the fall impossible, no matter how early the races were settled. Does anyone believe that Walter Mondale would have fared measurably better against Ronald Reagan if only Gary Hart has dropped out in April, and not taken his campaign all the way to the ’84 convention? Or that what really kept Jimmy Carter from a second term in 1980 wasn’t staggering inflation, unemployment and interest rates and a sagging sense of national pride, but rather Ted Kennedy’s willingness to spend the spring pointing out all of these problems?

As in ’92 and ’76, the fundamental ingredients for a Democratic victory are in place this year. And, like Clinton and Carter, the likely Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, possesses the natural skills to capitalize on them.

There was really never any question that, by the end of the primary process, there’d be hurt feelings on both sides and threats of mass defections in the fall. That those threats are registering in polls in March should surprise no one. Just as it should surprise no one when most of the threat makers think twice this fall and decide not to follow through on them.

A Fight the Democrats Can Afford