A Good Fight

By Peter Beinart
Thursday, January 31, 2008

The tone of the Obama-Clinton race has pundits worried. "The concern is this bitter campaign could end up hurting whoever the nominee is," CNN's Jack Cafferty warned last week. The contest, Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal, is "tearing the party apart." On MSNBC, Newsweek's Howard Fineman dubbed it a "civil war."

Huh? For starters, the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama isn't all that nasty. To be sure, it has had its low moments: Clinton surrogates raising Obama's past drug use, for instance. But by recent historical standards, it's nothing out of the ordinary. In 1992, Jerry Brown accused Bill Clinton of funneling business to Hillary's law firm. In 2000, supporters of President Bush accused rivals of spreading rumors that he had used cocaine. That same year, Al Gore insinuated that Bill Bradley's health-care plan was racist, and Bradley bashed Gore for holding a fundraiser at a Buddhist temple. For better or worse, this is what American presidential politics is like.

What's more, bitter primary contests don't necessarily hurt candidates in the general election. In a 1998 study, the University of New Mexico's Lonna Rae Atkeson found that when you control for other factors, divisive presidential primaries have a "marginal or even nonexistent effect in understanding general election outcomes." To be sure, when an incumbent president faces a tough primary challenge, it's usually a sign that he's in trouble. Think of Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 or George H.W. Bush in 1992. But it's important to distinguish cause from effect. Ford, Carter and Bush were all politically weak, which is why they ultimately lost. Their primary challengers didn't cause that weakness; the weakness caused those challengers to run.

But when there's no incumbent, a tough primary challenge doesn't tell you anything about a candidate's chances in November. Yes, nasty contests can leave the losers' supporters embittered and less likely to turn out in the general election. (They can also expose vulnerabilities that are later exploited by the other side.) But heated primary battles also mobilize voters, some of whom stay mobilized even if their party nominates someone else. Many of the people who got involved in Democratic politics because of Howard Dean in 2004, for instance, worked to elect John Kerry in the fall.

It's quite possible, therefore, that Obama and Clinton would actually be stronger general-election candidates than if their path through the primaries had been a cakewalk. Both are bringing new voters into the Democratic Party in droves. In Iowa, for instance, a key general election swing state, 62 percent of Hillary Clinton's supporters and 68 percent of Obama's had never attended a caucus before. Some of those new voters will be alienated if their candidate loses, of course, but it's a good bet that most of them will be like the Deaniacs and stick with the party's nominee come fall.

The reason is simple: Obama and Clinton are much closer to each other ideologically than either is to any potential Republican. When primary voters stay home or defect across party lines in the general election, it's usually because they think their party's nominee is no better than the other side's. And that's most likely to occur when the primary fight pits candidates who have fundamentally different views on pressing issues. That was true in 1976, when neoconservative Democrat Henry "Scoop" Jackson ran way to the right of the party's eventual nominee, Jimmy Carter. It was true on the Republican side, when Ronald Reagan ran way to the right of Gerald Ford. It was true in 1992, when Pat Buchanan took on George H.W. Bush. But it's not true today.

One of the biggest trends in American politics in recent years has been a kind of ideological sorting out between the parties, with the Democrats overwhelmingly liberal and the GOP overwhelmingly conservative. In such an environment, primaries may get heated, but the ideological differences are pretty small. When that's the case -- as it was when Dean battled Kerry in 2004, or today with Clinton and Obama -- the losers' supporters are unlikely to abandon ship in the fall. The early evidence already suggests that. Asked by NBC how they would feel if Clinton won the nomination, 77 percent of Obama supporters in South Carolina said they would be satisfied. When Clinton supporters were asked how they would feel if Obama won, it was 83 percent.

The Clinton-Obama race is close, fierce and at times petty. But it's nowhere near the nastiest in recent memory. And far from damaging the eventual nominee, it could actually help him or her. The pundits should worry about something else.

Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes a monthly column for The Post. His book, "The Good Fight: Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again," has just come out in paperback.

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