Friday, November 28, 2008

Changing my mind on primaries

Eight or nine months ago I would have told you that contentious primaries were a bad thing. In mid-March we did a set of general election match up polls in Florida and Ohio. Hillary Clinton was getting only 47% of the black vote in Ohio and just 51% in Florida. Obama was doing poorly with white Democrats, leading him overall to be earning only 59% of the Democratic vote in Ohio and 53% in Florida. There was most definitely a PUMA effect at that early point in the race, and I was eager for the nomination fight to be wrapped up as quick as possible because I thought we were killing our chances in the fall.

Well I was wrong. No way does Barack Obama win his improbable victories in North Carolina and Indiana during the general election if he doesn't compete there and start building up an infrastructure in the primary. He may not have won Pennsylvania in quite the blowout he did, and the state was one of Obama's key firewalls. In this case at least, the extended primary was crucial to the extent of the electoral college victory.

Now it was not necessarily inevitable that this party unification occurred. Obama and Clinton both did exactly what they needed to do to bring her supporters on board. We wrote a report in mid-October about the declining PUMA's and looked at some of the other factors that helped to get folks on the same page.

I think the competitive primary in North Carolina's Senate race ended up being a good thing for Kay Hagan's ultimate prospects as well. It forced her to go on the air during the primary, which built up her name recognition. The polls tightened up enough that the Elizabeth Dole campaign felt the need to blow a bunch of money going on the air in June and getting their numbers back to where they wanted. It worked, but then they seemed hesitant to strike back immediately when they started getting whacked by the DSCC in August and the rest is history. Hagan having to compete with Jim Neal helped set that process in motion.

Brutal primaries certainly can be very damaging to a nominee's ultimate prospects. But as we saw this year, if folks get on the same page quickly enough it can be a good thing too.


Anonymous said...

Looking over those polls just remind me of how different a Clinton/McCain battle would have been. It probably would have been extremely civil given their long-standing friendship but the real difference may have been the states where they would have been battling.

The "hot" states would have been West Virginia and Arkansas pre-economic crisis while post-economic crisis, Kentucky and Tennessee would have been in the fold. Iowa and Colorado would have been close between Hillary and McCain. Clinton was probably a better fit for Missouri than Obama, though Indiana probably wouldn't have seen any action from Hillary.

If Hillary was up by one in Ohio with fewer than 50% support from blacks, that's pretty impressive; McCain may have given up on Florida and Ohio and focused on peeling off blue states such as Wisconsin, Oregon, and Minnesota to make up for the lost electoral college votes that he would have sustained from losing either Ohio or Florida.

The South would have been in play with Clinton; just different Southern states. Ironically, Palin may have been a better fit as VP for McCain against Hillary given that the battle that McCain would have had to keep West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee against Clinton.

Interesting hypothetical to ponder....

Anonymous said...

I don't think Hillary would have actually won Tennessee post economic crisis; it would have been the equivalent of what Georgia was for Obama. Kentucky for Hillary would have been the equivalent of what North Carolina was for Obama.

Did your polls show Hillary to be stronger than Obama in Missouri? It's kind of weird to think that Hillary would be stronger than Obama in Missouri even though he won the state in the primaries while he would be stronger than her in Indiana though she won the state in the primaries.

Would Hillary have been stronger against McCain in Arizona? Mac picked up over 40% of support from Hispanics, which is why he "outperformed" the polls in his home state. Perhaps Clinton could have won 70%+ support from Hispanics in Arizona and forced McCain to spend time there earlier in the season.

Anonymous said...

I must admit, I've never quite bought the idea that Sen. Clinton would have been that competitive in KY. True, she did very well in the primary, but KY has closed primaries and, given that most of the offices in Frankfort are decided in the Democratic primary, most people register as Democrats. While I have little trouble believing they favored Clinton over Obama in the primary, I suspect a lot of those same voters would have voted for McCain the general. I wouldn't be surprised if 1/4 to 1/3 of the primary voters would have deserted her.

I lived in KY for over 14 years, including most of the Clinton administration. Pres. Clinton was popular enough to sqeak out two wins there, but his wife was not as well liked. I knew a lot of folks who voted for Pres. Clinton who would never have voted for the Senator.

That said, I think she would have won if nominated, but I think the only state Obama lost that she would have won is Arkansas, and I think there's no way she would have won NC or IN. I'm also not sure she would have run as strongly in NV, NM, and CO. So, I think it would have been a lot closer election.

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