January 30, 2008

Does the First Nominee Have the Advantage?

After the American Century

There is a myth floating around in conversations I have heard in the US, that the party which decides on its candidate first has a decisive advantage. In other words, the party that unifies first behind one candidate can then consolidates its troops, while the other side is still fighting amongst themselves. It seems plausible. If true, then the Republicans might have an advantage, because their primaries are often winner-take-all contests, like Florida, where Romney got 31% of the votes but no delegates.

In contrast, the Democrats divide up the delegates from a primary roughly in proportion to the votes each candidate received. I say roughly, because the division is made at the local level, and can lead to small anomalies. For example, Clinton got the most personal votes in Nevada, but Obama got one more delegate (13) than she did (12), because of the way the vote broke down in particular districts. In other words, McCain (or conceivably Romney) might assemble the needed delegates in the next few weeks much more quickly than Clinton or Obama can. The Democratic race could easily take several months after Super Tuesday. If it is really close, then the decision might be made in balloting at the Democratic national convention in the summer. In other words, possibly neither Hillary nor Obama will get a majority, even when the primaries are over. In that case, the delegates who are pledged to Edwards would become crucial. He could be the power broker, deciding who gets to be the nominee, in exchange for something he wants - such as being the Vice Presidential nominee (again).

With that sort of scenario a possibility, the myth of early consolidation sounds appealing, but it is simplistic. The myth may be true if a party's candidates broadly agree on policy and are only fighting for the right to be the nominee. But what if the candidates fundamentally disagree about policy, as they do in the Republican Party right now? McCain is the front-runner, but I have met people who are furious at him, for example because he has a liberal approach to immigration policy. One angry woman told me that all the illegal immigrants should be thrown out, that they should have gotten in line for a green card and not entered the country before then. In her view, and that of millions of other conservative Republicans, McCain is completely unacceptable on that point. They will not much feel like rallying behind him, even if he does sew up the nomination. The question asked on a CNN Poll today was, "Can McCain Bring the Republicans Together"? Three out of four did not think so. There are too many fundamental issues that divide them. In addition to immigration, they disagree on what for them are fundamental moral questions: the theory of evolution, abortion, and gay marriage. Nor do they agree on how to deal with Iraq. Ron Paul's vocal minority wants withdrawal, but McCain will stay as long as it takes. I do not expect to see Huckabee or Paul supporters put much energy into a McCain candidacy. Or, if the candidate is Romney, many McCain supporters will sit on their hands, because he is too conservative for them.

In short, either Romney, or more likely McCain, might get the nomination early, only to find that party support is lukewarm. Weak enthusiasm from the Republican base would not stand up well to either the Clinton machine or the Obama wave. Moreover, the media are not going to give as much attention to an already-selected Republican as they will to a dramatic battle between the two exciting candidates on the Democratic side. And note that Obama and Hillary do not have radically different policy statements. Supporters of either one could in good conscience go out and work for the other.

An interesting historical comparison makes the same point. In 1960, Richard Nixon was the clear, early front-runner and early got the Republican nomination. On the Democratic side a fierce battle for the nomination went all the way to the convention and was only decided on the third ballot. In other words, the Republicans had unified early and, according to the myth, should have won, because the Democrats were fighting each other all summer. Moreover, Nixon could claim far more experience than his younger but less well-known rival. The winner? Jack Kennedy, a charismatic candidate demanding change. His vice-presidentail running mate? Lyndon Johnson, a Southern Senator who had the delegates needed for a majority. It might be "deja-vu all over again."