Mellman: Is killing Soleimani a game changer for Democrats?

Mellman: Is killing Soleimani a game changer for Democrats?
© Getty Images

I know how it happens.

A major news story breaks and editors rapidly assign pieces covering every angle.

Gen. Qassem Soleimani is killed. Does it mean war? What’s the effect on U.S. relations with our allies? What’s the effect on the economy and, these days, on the Democratic primary?


A story saying, we have no idea what the effect on the race will be, and it’s likely there will be none, isn’t much of a news story.

So begins “game changer” journalism.

Maybe it will advantage former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenPerry delegation talking points stressed pushing Ukraine to deal with 'corruption' GOP senator airs anti-Biden ad in Iowa amid impeachment trial Biden photobombs live national news broadcast at one of his rallies MORE, once chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who knows the world, and world leaders, well.

Maybe it will help former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegBiden on whether Sanders can unify party as nominee: 'It depends' Biden lines up high-profile surrogates to campaign in Iowa Hill.TV's Krystal Ball: Failure to embrace Sanders as nominee would 'destroy' Democratic Party MORE, the only serious former soldier in the field.

Maybe Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersNew campaign ad goes after Sanders by mentioning heart attack Biden on whether Sanders can unify party as nominee: 'It depends' Steyer rebukes Biden for arguing with supporter he thought was Sanders voter MORE (I-Vt.) or Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden on whether Sanders can unify party as nominee: 'It depends' Overnight Health Care — Presented by Philip Morris International — HHS has no plans to declare emergency over coronavirus | GOP senator calls for travel ban to stop outbreak | Warren releases plan to contain infectious diseases Biden lines up high-profile surrogates to campaign in Iowa MORE (D-Mass.) will get the edge as opponents of Middle East military entanglements.

Speculating in so many different directions is simply another way of saying
we have no idea how, or whether, the attack on Soleimani will affect the Democratic contest.


Hard as it may be to believe in the white heat of the moment, when D.C. is consumed with the story, history suggests the greatest likelihood is that it won’t have any discernable impact.

Political scientists Lynn Vavreck and John Sides identified 68 events labeled “game changers” in 2012, only to find that none of them had a meaningful effect.

In this case, voters’ natural tendency is to focus on domestic matters unless large numbers of Americans are actually dying.

“But this is important news with far reaching consequences,” you say.

So was the Iraq War.

Yes, in surprise to some, the 2004 Iowa winner was John KerryJohn Forbes KerryBiden lines up high-profile surrogates to campaign in Iowa The Iowa Democratic caucuses, mapped Hill.TV's Krystal Ball: Biden campaign has 'big' Hillary Clinton energy MORE, a Vietnam veteran who served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But why shouldn’t those world events have helped General Wesley Clark, who placed 7th in Iowa?

Because Iraq had little to do with Kerry’s victory or Clark’s loss.

Pollsters asked caucus goers which issue was most important in their decision. Only 14 percent selected the war in Iraq and that 14 percent gave former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean an 8-point margin.

The overwhelming majority of caucus participants disapproved of the war, but Kerry came in first among those who
approved of it and first among those
who disapproved.

Kerry’s background was important, and ads communicated it, but as an illustration of his leadership and character. 

Republican’s 2008 primary is another race some say was “reshaped” by foreign affairs. Specifically, the claim is the Afghanistan troop surge and the assassination of Pakistani President Benazir Bhutto pushed foreign affairs the top of the agenda, benefitting John McCainJohn Sidney McCainJames Taylor to perform at awards ceremony for Ruth Bader Ginsburg this week Conservative activist wins contest to represent New Hampshire at Republican National Convention Schiff shows clip of McCain in Trump impeachment trial MORE.

The troop surge was announced a year before McCain’s surge in the Granite State, which itself began before Bhutto was killed. And the troop surge didn’t help McCain in Iowa where he came in fourth, with just over a third of the votes garnered by Mike Huckabee, no one’s example of a foreign affairs candidate.

Exit pollsters didn’t think either Bhutto or the troop surge merited a question, but McCain’s biggest margin came among the plurality who prioritized  the economy.

Of course, if real war, or even serious attacks on Americans, result from the Soleimani killing, things could change, though the distribution of the political costs and benefits of such horrific outcomes is equally murky.

In foreign policy crises, or when troops are first committed, Americans tend to rally around their president, boosting incumbents’ approval ratings. That may not happen this time because so many Americans have such strong antipathy for Trump and because responsibility for the proximate cause (killing Soleimani) will be so clear. We don’t know.

In the long run, it would depend very much on how things go. Wars that seem endless and pointless hurt almost every incumbent who was sucked into one.

But for now, don’t bet on a Soleimani effect in this year’s race for the Democratic nomination.

Mellman is President of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic Leaders for more than 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.