Monday, 8 December 2003

Endorse this!

Dan Drezner and Steven Taylor are among those to note the reports that my favorite fake Tennessean, Al Gore, is about to endorse Howard Dean for the Democratic nomination.

Is the primary process now effectively over? The part of me that’s been avoiding rereading Larry Bartels’ Presidential Primaries and the Dynamics of Public Choice hopes so (no insult to Prof. Bartels, who’s a smart guy—I just don’t have the time to reread it now), but as Lee Corso says, “not so fast my friend!” Why?

Well, for starters, nobody’s going to drop out until New Hampshire at least, and—more than likely—everyone will last through South Carolina. By March, the process may be effectively over, but there’s three months in which the unexpected can happen.

One potential response is that this will have a catalyzing effect on the “Anybody But Dean” faction. The ABD crowd is going to have to decide whether their mutual differences are sufficient to let them hand the nomination to Dean. Bear in mind that under the PR rules, candidates have to get 15 percent of the vote in a congressional district to get delegates; for example, if all the ABD guys are hovering at 10% in a district, but Dean gets 25%, Dean gets all of the delegates from that district. A promise that any one candidate’s delegates will support the ABD frontrunner at the convention is insufficient—because they won’t have enough delegates between them to make a difference. Plus, the more clearly Dean is the frontrunner, the more support he’s going to get in later primaries—such is the virtuous cycle that insiders call “the big mo.”

Especially with Sharpton likely to capture the support of a majority of the African-American primary voters, the ABD candidates are effectively screwed unless they get whittled down. Some of the candidates will figure this out on their own. The question is whether the credible ABD faction goes down from being five to two. (One alternative that might be effective is if the ABD faction executed a regional strategy: everyone but the best-positioned alternative to Dean stops campaigning in a particular state.)

The primary also still matters because it will largely decide who gets floor time at the convention. The more the ABD faction divides the vote, the more delegates are going to be gained by Dean and Sharpton under the 15% rule. Karl Rove must be salivating at the thought of Sharpton in primetime or seeing a procession of anti-war activists to the podium. Ironically, the better Dean does in the primaries, the less favorable the convention is going to be for his general election campaign—to be effective, he’s going to have to distance himself from the “anger” that brought him to the nomination, most fundamentally because most Americans are a lot angrier at Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein than they are at George Bush.

So, while Dean may be the presumptive nominee, the primary process is going to be an important factor nonetheless—both in how the convention is structured and, ultimately, how effective a bounce Dean can get from it in the general election.

You guessed it; this is my entry in the Beltway Traffic Jam. And, Matt Stinson thinks it’s payback for Gore’s being shafted by being in Clinton’s shadow.