The Third Estate
What Is The Third Estate?
What Has It Been Until Now In The Political Order?
What Does It Want To Be?

Should Democrats Be Fighting Democrats?

Saturday, November 10, 2007
Hillary, Barack, and John have really been going at each other lately. Should I be worried?

There's an idea in political science called the "Divisive Primaries Hypothesis." Basically it argues that hard-fought primaries weaken a party's eventual nominee in the general election because it consumes resources, makes the party look fractious to voters, alienates key internal party constituencies, and develops damaging narratives about a candidate than can used about another party.

The evidence for this hypothesis is mixed, but party leaders and other political types tend to believe it, which is why parties generally try to limit the degree of internal political conflict by reducing the number of candidates. There are some (like Kos) who think that the divisive primary hypothesis is just wrong, that candidates are toughened up by the fighting, that they are prepared for inevitable negative campaigns, and that exciting races can draw more attention and participation. It can also be argued that in-fighting is inevitable, since if you're behind in a race you'll do almost anything to close the gap - worry about the general election tomorrow!

I've generally fallen into the first camp, which is why early on I stated that I would view negative attacks by Democratic Presidential candidates on each other very dimly. But upon reflection I wonder if I was mistaken. Obviously saying things that are untrue or just nasty about one's own party members is stupid (not to mention morally wrong), but what if what you say about your rivals is true? What if it's an obvious vulnerability that the other party is bound to try and exploit? Fair are not, there are concerns in the minds of voters that Hillary is too calculating, that Barack is too inexperienced, that John is a phony. These are all lines of attack that the Republicans are going to make use of, and wouldn't it be better to get ready for them now? Do we really want a nominee who can't take a punch?

I haven't really made up my mind about this question, but it's worth thinking about. Hmmm. All of a sudden I wonder if there isn't a good research project in here somewhere.....
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:51 AM
  • I fall with the trial by fire as a good thing crowd. I guess it depends on your world view. Is harmony always a good thing? Can something positive come out of chaos and conflict? I think it also says much about a candidate's willingness to learn.

    You are right, these candidates should have been vetted, and these are weaknesses that the Republicans will exploit. I say let them battle at each other, it brings life to the debate and energizes the people. (except for those that say politics are too bitter...i don't like to talk about that.) Better to be battered but prepared than have an untested glass jaw when the punches count.

    By Blogger Weezy, at 10:00 AM  
  • The "Divisive Primaries Hypothesis" is highly suspect, both in terms of the available data to corroborate it, and in terms of the conceptual flaws. First, the hypothesis assumes open primaries in both parties, i.e. no heir apparent. That my be true for the Democratic Party, but not for the Republican Party. Second, there have been only 5 elections in the past 40 years when the primaries actually mattered in terms of the general election outcome. 1968, where the NH primary caused Johnson to withdraw from the race and the convention was chaotic compared to the stable Republican primary and convention. 1976 when the Republican Primary pitted Ford against Reagan, causing Ford's eventual defeat. Every primary since then has strengthened the challenged against the incumbent. 1980 primary pitted Reagan against Bush, but they joined forces and won a landslide against Carter. 1992 primary featured a bruised Bill Clinton who defeated Bush. 1988 and 2000 are exceptions: open seats in both parties, but an heir apparent in at least one party with significant primary competition that lead to each incumbent winning the election (yes, Gore won 2000). The only election where the primary seems to hurt the challenger is 2004, but again, massive evidence of fraud by the Republicans demonstrates that Kerry won that election too.

    So, the evidence largely disproves the hypothesis on the rare occasions that there is no heir apparent. Otherwise, the idea that primaries are always open is easily disproven. And even when they are open, nearly all voters tune out until the general election campaign starts. 2008 is the exception: voters were very engaged a year before the first primary, mainly because of disgust with the incumbent.

    This hypothesis is generated from the idea that politics is a game, and a primary is merely a field test for candidates who are competitors. The media develop stories to describe the horse-race, and a primary provides the media with more copy. A very negative campaign receives more media coverage because it gives the media something to do, and this coverage is then used by the opposition party.

    If I have learned anything in the past decade, it is that media coverage is irrelevant to the voters. Voters don't play the game of politics, and they largely ignore it as spectators until there are giant issues at stake (war, recession in 2008). The hypothesis is a fiction generated by people are don't know the first thing about how voters actually behave. Therefore, no matter what evidence is used, the results don't matter.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 12:28 AM  
  • Actually there's quite a bit of evidence for the divisive primaries hypothesis at the aggregate level, particular in US Senate and Governor's races. The presidency is sort of a special case - I was focused on the general question of divisive primaries.

    It also doesn't matter much to the D.V. theory if voters are paying attention, if the party activists are turned against one another.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 12:21 AM  
Post a Comment
<< Home

:: permalink