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... but divided we fall

I’m starting to worry.

For reasons I’ve rehearsed here before and will no doubt detail again, I believe Democrats are exquisitely positioned to win the White House in 2008. The only thing that could defeat us is us, and it feels like we just might.

Or does it? Do I really have reason to worry?

Most political professionals take it as axiomatic that divisive primaries hurt in November. Pointing to losses for divided parties in years like 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984, they maintain that divisions created in primaries carry over into the general elections as voters who support the losing primary candidate defect or stay home.

The theory is based on robust findings about the psychology of groups. Over time, members of contending groups become more intensely loyal to their own clan while developing more hostile feelings toward members of the out-group. The Clinton vs. Obama battles I’ve witnessed among family and friends in recent days certainly lend credence to the theory.

So do the exit poll data. In South Carolina, 71 percent of Obama voters reported they would be satisfied with Clinton as the nomine, while 69 percent of Clinton voters would have found Obama’s nomination satisfactory. By the time we reached Mississippi, just 42 percent of Obama voters expressed satisfaction with Clinton as nominee, while a mere 27 percent of Clinton voters would be satisfied with Obama heading the ticket.

On closer inspection, though, some of the evidence for impact begins to disintegrate. Did Gerald Ford lose in 1976 because of his heated primary with Ronald Reagan, or because he pardoned Richard Nixon after Watergate? Was Jimmy Carter’s loss in 1980 more a function of Ted Kennedy’s primary challenge or of the worst presidential-year economic performance since the Depression, combined with American hostages taken in Iran and Soviet troops invading Afghanistan?

Indeed, some historians maintain that division only matters in the incumbent party. Dwight Eisenhower barely defeated Robert Taft at the 1952 GOP convention, and only after a bitter but successful credentials challenge to delegations from three states. Despite the intra-party acrimony, Eisenhower went on to win a landslide victory in November. Carter defeated Ford only after a protracted nomination struggle in his own party. George W. Bush and John McCain certainly went at it before the former beat Al Gore.

Moreover, this year’s divisions are not ideological. In decades past, Democrats split over fundamental differences about war and culture. Today, the major debate is whether the candidates’ healthcare plans will cover 100 percent or 98 percent of Americans.

Several other analyses find no support for the proposition that divisive primaries damage a party’s opportunity in the general election. They demonstrate that supporters of losing candidates re-evaluate the winner, finding him or her much more attractive by the time the general election rolls around. By this logic, the Democrats who find Clinton or Obama unacceptable today will be flexible enough to vote for them in November — a comforting thought.

Still other studies suggest that divisive presidential primaries do have a meaningful, if not vast, impact on the results — about half as much as the incumbent fatigue produced by attempts to secure a third or fourth party term.

In short, we can’t be certain, but divisive primaries may have some effect. I for one would rather not take that risk or run that experiment in 2008. The longer this process continues, the deeper the divisions become and the harder they will be to heal — especially if we converge on Denver this August still divided.

Solomonic wisdom would offer the nomination to the first candidate who steps back and leaves the race, renouncing personal ambition in favor of Democratic victory. Solomon, however, was not nominated at a convention.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.