Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Presidential Primary Paradoxes

Tim Sherratt


February 15, 2008

Democrats forging unity? Republicans in disarray? By the standards of recent campaigns, that is an unusual state of affairs.

Until the February 12th primaries, Senators Clinton and Obama had captured their respective electorates and no great rift divided them—working class whites, Hispanics, women, and older voters for Clinton; wealthy and college-educated whites, African Americans, and the young for Obama.

After the Potomac primaries, Obama appears poised to pull ahead, perhaps for good, and to make all those electorates his, so the even-handedness of the Democratic race may soon give way to majority preference for the Illinois senator. The proportional allocation of convention delegates has extended the harmony of the Democratic race thus far, tempering victory, softening defeat, allowing consensus to develop around Obama without acrimony.

The Republicans are deeply divided. While Sen. McCain has emerged as the probable nominee, his success has exposed discord instead of advancing harmony. The primary schedule and the winner-take-all rules in several states are partly responsible. The rules have benefited McCain in absolute numbers of delegates won, but they denied to Gov. Romney unambiguous status as McCain’s chief rival and thereby deprived the GOP of a proven chief executive capable of exploiting the experience gap with the Democrats. Caught between Gov. Huckabee’s attraction to Evangelicals and McCain’s resurgence on the strength of better news from Iraq, Romney bowed out after Super Tuesday. The conservative vote may coalesce around Huckabee, but it cannot now propel him to victory; it will only underscore conservatives’ dislike of McCain. Wins in Kansas and Louisiana, even narrow defeats in Washington and Virginia, have confirmed Huckabee’s ongoing appeal and with it the scale of McCain’s task when he secures the nomination.

Republicans may have reason to wish that more of the contests allocated delegates proportionally, checking the progress of McCain while maintaining Romney’s credibility through to the convention.

From this point on, the options for both parties will narrow. So far, the Democratic race has been long on symbolism but short on substance. Obama has managed to cloak inexperience in a message of hope and change, values whose appeal lies precisely in their apolitical subjectivity. Democratic Party leaders may rue their inability to compel Obama and Clinton to join forces on the ticket where they could reap maximum benefit from the demographic distribution of support between the two. That would present the Democrats’ best defense against a Republican campaign in the general election stressing Obama’s liberalism and inexperience.

Will McCain solve his conservative dilemma by placing Huckabee on the ticket? Huckabee has shown himself a deft, even winsome, campaigner, his evangelical Christianity evident in personality and style rather than in rigid rightwing positions, just as he has made his shoestring campaign a virtue rather than a challenge to his credibility. But McCain would have to swallow Huckabee’s populist economic rhetoric of flat taxes and abolition of the IRS, and he can hardly take that risk.

McCain has demonstrated that he can win over voters whose chief concern is the economy. He must remain credible on that front. His only real option is to persuade the GOP that whatever the flaws in his conservatism, it is preferable to the liberal policies the Democrats will advocate. McCain may still choose a governor as his running mate, perhaps the popular Charlie Crist of Florida, who could deliver that state in November, or even Romney, a social conservative to be sure, but one whose resume describes a fiscal conservative who signed the nation’s only universal health insurance law.
—Timothy Sherratt, Professor of Political Studies
    Gordon College

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”