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March 05, 2008

Dept. of Historical Inaccuracies
Posted by Michael Cohen

Today over Washington Monthly, Kevin Drum has a post arguing that Democrats shouldn't worry too much about the drawn-out Democratic primary between Senators Clinton and Obama. Why you ask? Because we went through this in 1968:

"This was the mother of all ugly, party-destroying campaigns. No other primary campaign in recent memory from either party has come within a million light years of being as fratricidal and ruinous. But what happened? In the end, Humphrey lost the popular vote to Nixon by less than 1%.

This is a pretty good example of reading election results in a vacuum. Drum is right that Humphrey lost by 1%, but what's more instructive is to see what happened to the Democratic Party in a mere four years. In 1964, LBJ won more 61% of the popular vote. In 1968, Humphrey won 43%. An 18 point drop for a political party in four years - that's not only cataclysmic, it's pretty much unprecedented. Granted that wasn't all due to a fractious primary campaign (or even mainly due to it) but it sure as heck didn't help.

Now of course the reason for Humphrey's poor performance was due in large measure to the presence of George Wallace on the ballot, but don't be fooled by that either. A lot of wayward Democrats returned to the fold on Election Day and voted for Humphrey -- especially union members. My guess is that most of those Wallace supporters would have cast a ballot for Nixon on Election Day. Certainly most of them voted for him in 1972 and subsequent GOP candidates.

The Democratic Party got crushed in 1968, torn by racial divisions and a newly aggressive anti-war wing. The party has never truly recovered from that campaign. The divisions between its white working class base and the more liberal progressive wing (not to mention African Americans) did enormous and lasting damage. And just for the record, does this division sound a bit familiar today?

This is not to say that the current primary battle will be as bad. As Josh Patashnik suggests at the Plank: "it just defies belief that a party less ideologically divided that it's been at any time in the past 180 years is going to emerge as anything other than ready and eager for a spirited general-election campaign."

Maybe, but don't underestimate the damage wrought by a fractious primary campaign. Part of the challenge that Humphrey faced after winning the nomination was that he didn't have time to mend fences and reach out to the various wings of the Democratic Party angered by the primary battle. He was simply unable to define himself properly to the electorate, in part because he spent most of the general election campaign trying to pacify the left. This campaign is going to get nasty in the next few months (it already has). Does anyone really think that supporters for the losing campaign will not feel pretty alienated from the nominee? We're already seeing 20-30% of Democratic voters saying they'd be dissatisfied if the candidate they didn't support in the primaries is the nominee. That number has nowhere to go but up.

If Obama or Hilary duke it out until August, they won't have time to properly define their candidacies for the electorate (a process that John McCain and the GOP attack machine are already beginning). What's worse, they won't be able to begin the process of denting McCain's reformist, maverick image and will have squandered the enormous fundraising advantage they currently have over McCain.

In the end, if this race drags out to June or even the convention it could be worse then 1968. Then, Democrats deserved to lose; the historical winds were in their face. They were on the wrong side of the electorate. Today, everything is in the Democrats favor. History is on their side. And they're in the process of blowing it.


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The 1968 analogy is not apt. The divisions in the Democratic Party this year are personal, not bitter clashes over policy or the nature of society. There will be some ill feelings left over when the Obama-Clinton brawl is done -- personally I think there will be more of them if Obama is the one who loses -- but for the most part the bitterest feelings will be right at the top of the losing campaign. I don't expect the Democratic rank and file to share many of these feelings or have them influence their vote this November.

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