Tuesday, May 13, 2008

giving thanks for a long primary season (for at least one of the major parties)

From Fred Barnes in the WSJ...

Democratic strategists think the fight for the presidential nomination between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton has dragged on too long. Mr. Obama's supporters certainly agree. And a significant chunk of the mainstream media – the chunk with Obama sympathies – believes the race should have ended weeks ago with an unconditional surrender by Sen. Clinton. Now, according to a recent Fox News poll, even the voters – Democrats (67%), Republicans (58%), Independents (56%) – "think the Democratic primary has gone on too long."

Too bad. The Obama-Clinton face-off is the most exciting, interesting and informative race for a party's presidential nomination in more than two decades. And because it has lasted four months, from the Iowa caucuses in early January to today's primaries in North Carolina and Indiana, voters have learned far more about Sens. Obama and Clinton than they ever could in a quickly resolved campaign.

Presidential elections are unique. Voters choose a person, not just the leading member of a political party. So what matters, in addition to the position of the candidates on policy issues, are their personal traits – character, judgment, temperament and basic honesty.

Voters don't learn much about these characteristics in a truncated primary season. It takes a longer campaign, one in which the surviving candidates respond to victory and defeat, and to moments of strain or surprise or embarrassment. Candidates may not relish a primary marathon, but voters benefit enormously from it.

The 2008 schedule was structured to crown a nominee on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, when more than 20 primaries were held. That meant the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination would be over in one month (as the Republican race indeed was). At that stage, Democratic voters had seen Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton among a crowd of candidates in TV debates. But only a small fraction had seen the candidates in person. No one had seen them together, just the two of them, discussing their strengths and weaknesses.

What would voters have missed had it all ended then? A lot. They'd never have seen Hillary Clinton emerge from the ordeal of losing 11 consecutive primaries as a far different and more appealing candidate – tougher, more resilient and seemingly less stressed. Her plastic smile became, as often as not, a real smile.

Also well after Super Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton relegated her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to a less visible role in her campaign after he committed repeated gaffes. This step suggested her dependence on him, for the time being at least, had diminished. And in a television debate with Mr. Obama in April, Mrs. Clinton was forced to admit she'd fabricated a story about confronting sniper fire in a 1995 visit to Bosnia.

In the early primaries, Mr. Obama was a likeable candidate who delivered an inspiring speech and waged a disciplined, mistake-free campaign. Beyond that, he was largely an unknown figure to most voters outside his home state of Illinois. Now voters know much more. They've seen his unruffled reaction after winning primaries and after losing them. They've watched his cool response to Mrs. Clinton's criticism of him in debates and his none-too-subtle efforts to deflect questions about personal matters.

The controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Mr. Obama's pastor at a Chicago church, brought out both his eloquence and a question about his judgment. Having touted his good judgment as more important than Mrs. Clinton's experience, he was hard pressed to explain why he remained for 20 years in the church of a minister with outrageous views.

It can be argued, of course, that all these things would come out at some point in the general election campaign. That may be true. But it's no excuse for keeping voters in the caucuses and primaries in the dark simply because the race is scheduled to wind up quickly. Voters are notorious for ignoring political campaigns. The cue for them has always been the approach of Election Day, or at least the start of actual voting somewhere. That's when they begin to pay attention.

Presidential candidates understand this. So the campaign that was in full swing for most of 2007 wasn't aimed at voters. As Jay Cost of Real Clear Politics has noted, the target of this "perpetual" campaign was the media, political activists and interest groups.

The "real" campaign to woo voters didn't begin until late fall, only weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Appearances by the presidential candidates were limited almost exclusively to states with contests in the first few weeks of actual voting. As luck would have it, the struggle for the Democratic nomination didn't conclude as early as planned. This gave voters in states with later caucuses or primaries a chance to watch the candidates evolve.

This is what happened routinely under the old primary system, which lasted from late January or early February until the first Tuesday in June, when California, New Jersey and Ohio held their presidential primaries. It worked well and can again, but only if informing voters, rather than assuring a quick end to the primary campaign, is paramount.


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