With John Kerrys near-sweep of the March 2 “Super Tuesday” primaries and caucuses, and John Edwards altogether prudent decision to end his candidacy, the Democratic presidential race has come to a close eight months before election day and before 21 states have even voted. There are two ways of thinking about the newly-clarified picture.
First, substantively, a Kerry nomination means that Democrats have opted for a candidate who will spend the next eight months attempting to cover over his record with his biography (or the most flattering portion of it). Kerry won because he was broadly acceptable to most Democrats, because he was in the best position to benefit from the Dean-Gephardt meltdown in Iowa, and because he offered a promise of “electability” due to his military service in Vietnam, which Democrats hope will inoculate him against the charge of softness on defense.
While Kerry and George W. Bush are running neck-and-neck in national polls, and while no one should expect a blowout by whichever candidate is the ultimate victor, it is hard to see the national issue environment working in favor of the Democrats. The economy seems to be steadily improving; Americas enemies, while far from defeated, are clearly on the defensive almost everywhere; and social issues, like the death penalty and gay marriage, will likely continue to tie Kerry in knots. On the other side of the ledger, Democrats will have working for them job losses since 2000, the ballooning federal deficit, and questions about the Iraq war and its justification by the administration. However, if the economy continues growing, it is difficult to imagine that job growth will lag forever; in any event, the unemployment rate today is lower than it averaged during the first Clinton administration. Bushs proactive tax cuts protect him from one of the charges made with great effect against his father, that the elder Bush simply did not take economic problems seriously enough to do anything about them. As for the deficit, if it was a decisive issue for most voters, Alf Landon would have won in 1936; furthermore, the deficit issue can be turned into a “tax raising” issue against Kerry. And, despite the questions about U.S. intelligence and weapons of mass destruction, a substantial majority of Americans still support the Iraq war. Imponderables will include the actual condition and trend of the economy, the degree of success of the transition in Iraq, the status of Osama bin Laden, and the question of whether Bush just wants to hold on or whether he wants to take the risks necessary to win a putative “mandate” for an active policy course, perhaps on Social Security reform.
Of course, issues and the condition of the country are not the only factors that voters will assess, and evaluations of leadership and character are likely to work to the favor of Bush, who has always benefited from a sense by voters that he is sincere, principled, and decenta “regular guy” with common sense and steady resolve. It is here that the WMD issue hurts Bush most, not by changing peoples opinion of the war itself. But Kerry may well be hurt more by perceptions that he is too clever by half. He has already produced positions on Iraq and gay marriage that are incoherent to the point of parody in a transparent attempt to finesse difficult questions. In the 1990s, Americans could entertain the illusion that such unserious thinking could be indulged without consequence. In the post 9-11 world, voters are more likely to make candidates pay a price for dilettantism. If, eight months before election day, the issues environment would seem to favor Bush modestly, the question of leadership would seem to favor him more significantly.
Second, in a more procedural vein, the outcome of Super Tuesdayultimately, the end of the Democratic nominating raceshows in sharp relief the flaws of the current nominating system. The nominee is now determined when 21 states have yet to vote, including large states like Texas, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, making a mockery of the McGovern-Fraser Commissions post-1968 promise of “full, meaningful, and timely participation” for party voters. A nominee was determined only six weeks after Iowa, giving precious little time for voters in later states to assess or reassess the candidates and giving little time for candidates who lost early to regain their footing and make it a race. For all practical purposes, it has not been a really competitive contest since February 10, when Kerrys momentum carried him to wins in Tennessee and Virginia and it became obvious that neither Howard Dean nor John Edwards had the strength to stop him. By comparison, in 1976, five weeks elapsed between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Finally, a nominee was determined eight months before election day and five to six months before the party conventions, leaving an awkward and absurdly long “interregnum” between the moment of effective nomination and the moment of formal nomination. It may be impossible to predict the winner of the Bush-Kerry contest with certainty, but it is not at all difficult to predict that Americans will be sick to death of presidential politics by November.
Andrew E. Busch is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.