Wide-Open Race Helps Democrats
Copyright © 2004 by Thomas Gangale
After the Iowa caucuses, suddenly the Democrats have a wide-open race for the presidential nomination. Howard Dean, the former the front-runner anointed by the pundits because he had raised so much money for his campaign, has faltered. Now John Kerry's star is on the rise. Conservative commentators look on with unconcealed glee, expecting the Democratic candidates to tear each other apart over the next few months. In their view, the eventual Democratic nominee will be so bloodied by internecine conflict that he will be easy pickings for George W. Bush in the fall.
Somehow, over the years, political experts have gotten the idea that relatively uncontested nomination races put their parties in a better position for the general election. Even Republicans believe this, which is strange, considering how they are always extolling the virtues of the free market. If open competition is good economics, why isn't it good politics as well?
Not only does the idea that internal party processes ought not to be contentious fly in the face of the democratic ideals upon which this nation was founded, it is also flat out wrong.
Notice that as John Kerry came out of Iowa as the top dog, polls showed that for the first time the Democrats had a candidate who, if the general election had been held immediately, would have beaten the Bush.
Coincidence? Not at all.
Candidates are at their best when they're running for their lives, just as companies are at their best when they're struggling for market share. Whether it's voter choice or consumer choice, the people benefit from open competition.
But do the parties benefit? Let's examine the historical record. Of the eight most recent presidential elections, in all three cases in which the nomination of one of the parties was uncontested, the general election was won by that party. However, of the five elections in which the nomination was contested on both sides, in all four cases in which the nomination race in one party was clearly the more contested, the general election was won by that party (the 1988 nominations were nearly evenly contested in both parties).
History suggests, that from a partisan point of view, the next best thing to an uncontested nomination is a highly contested nomination. Such a contest generates more media attention, more interest in the party’s candidates, more diversity of issues, and in the end, a more fully vetted candidate and political platform. A contested nomination is statistically more likely than an uncontested one, which can only occur in the case of a very popular incumbent. Thus, it behooves the parties to have a more competitive system to better ensure the nomination of the most electable presidential candidate.
So I say, "Go Dems! Party hearty!"
The pity is that it won't last long. The front-loaded presidential primary schedule, in which most of the contests are bunched together in February and March, is designed to produce a clear winner as quickly as possible. This is bad for the parties, even if they don't know it, and it's bad for the people.
To employ a final metaphor, good politics is like good sex: it's better when it lasts a long time. Unfortunately, the political parties' attitude is to "just get it over with." We need to return to a more relaxed primary schedule so that we have time to make thoughtful choices. Parties and candidates ought to woo the public with long courtships. The way it's done now is more like date rape.