Thursday, January 10, 2008
That which does not end the competition will make the candidates stronger.
The problem with the "electability" test as applied to Kerry was that it was applied shoddily and hastily. Kerry had spent most of the primary proving himself unelectable and unappealing. He had begun as the frontrunner and proven entirely unable to sustain that support. The voters, it appeared, did not like being exposed to him for long periods of time. But as doubts about Dean blossomed, and Clark decided to skip Iowa, and Gephardt went overwhelmingly negative, and Edwards generated a lot of elite buzz but little popular support, Kerry was basically the last man standing. And that powered him through the primary. The fact that everyone named "electability" as their primary reason for supporting Kerry proved how unelectable he really was. When voters like a candidate, they can think of a better reason to support them than that other voters will also like this candidate.
But this election will actually be an interesting test of electability. Clinton is running against a charismatic, well-funded, media-loved, anti-war newcomer and an appealing Southern populist. To beat both of them will require pretty formidable political skills. And Obama, for his part, gets to test out his theories of electability. He keeps arguing that he'll bring a wave of young voters into the process, attract hordes of independents, and generally expand the Democratic coalition. He'll now have plenty of chances to do so, including in California, where independents can vote in the Democratic primary, but not in the Republican one. That appeal will either manifest or prove illusory -- and it's good to find out either way in advance of the general election.
Had Iowa propelled either to the nomination, that would have largely been proof that they could best organize a tiny Midwestern state. Now they'll actually have to out-campaign one another, prove that their political styles are most attractive to the voters. The Democrats can now look forward to a test of electability, rather than simply an assumption of it.
I'm for Obama, but I can live with Clinton or Edwards, and I think the candidate who prevails will be the stronger for the experience. (The same will be true on the GOP side, even Romney.) You would think that the media would prefer a long, uncertain primary season to a short one with a simple narrative, so perhaps they'll come around too.
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