Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Democratic Dogfight

Nomination resolution may be a long time coming

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics March 13th, 2008

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When 2008 began, it was impossible to find a nonpartisan analyst who did not project a big year for the Democrats. George W. Bush barely scaled 30 percent in the polls, the Iraq War was deeply unpopular and the economy was weakening. Moreover, both of the top Democrats, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, appeared to have substantial advantages over a deeply divided and often unimpressive Republican presidential field.

The Democrats, we all said, would clearly have to try hard to waste this opportunity. Well, they are trying very hard to do just that, as it turns out. And the party’s history of losing competitive elections in the modern era suggests they have the experience to possibly do it again.

The near-tie that exists between Clinton and Obama in delegates and popular votes is leading to a prolonged brawl that inevitably will become more negative and divisive. The seven-week campaign for Pennsylvania, which votes on April 22nd, will try the patience of Democrats who hope for victory in November.

The lesson of Hillary Clinton’s comeback in Ohio and Texas on March 4th is that negative attacks work. Obama calls it the “kitchen sink” strategy, but the assaults on Obama–for his ties to a corrupt Illinois businessman, Tony Rezko, his alleged double-talk on NAFTA, and his inability to know what to do when a 3 a.m. crisis call comes to the White House–took a measurable toll.

Before the recent contests, Obama was on the edge of securing the nomination. Yet as we have learned repeatedly in this long campaign, Democrats develop “buyer’s remorse” every time Obama or Clinton closes in on the nomination. Obama can’t put Clinton away, and Clinton can’t put Obama away.

Clinton has won almost all the big states, but Obama has won more states and leads in pledged delegates. They each have excellent arguments as to why he or she should be the nominee. This could easily lead to a deadlock that can only be broken by a controversial seating of disputed delegations in Florida and Michigan, or by an “undemocratic” anointment by unelected super-delegates. Now there’s a formula for an unhappy convention and a divided fall campaign.

John McCain won twice on March 4th. He locked up the GOP nomination, and he got his fondest wish, too–a continuing marathon among his Democratic opponents that keeps them warring with one another rather than uniting and turning their money and troops against him. McCain badly needs the extra time to re-group, secure his own reluctant conservative base, and raise money.

If this all sounds too gloomy for the Democrats, it probably is. Third terms are tough to secure for any party in the United States, and most Americans want a change. Bush is still deeply unpopular, the economy is still tanking, and despite the success of the surge, a solid majority of voters want out of Iraq. Both Democrats are leading McCain in early trial heats for November. Equally important, political memories fade quickly, and as long as either Clinton or Obama secures the Democratic nomination with procedures regarded as basically fair and in bounds, the party will likely reunite quickly and could even sweep to victory–especially if a “unity ticket” of the two contenders is crowned in Denver come August.

Still, that unsettling silence you detect is the realization by Democrats that their nomination battle is turning ugly, and its resolution may be a long time coming. How do Democrats deny the first serious African-American presidential contender, who is tantalizingly close to the White House, without angering his black and youthful supporters and producing a low turnout among both groups? How do Democrats deny the first serious woman candidate, when women comprise a solid majority of all the votes casts for Democrats at the national level?

These questions are making Democratic hearts heavy, and keeping the victory party champagne in cold storage.

This article was originally published by BBC News Americas.