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Commentary: Do nomination battles harm presidential candidates?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, two talented, evenly matched candidates, are nearing the end of an epic battle for their party's presidential nomination. It's hard to remember that the Republican contest was even more unpredictable than the Democratic one after three different candidates each had won important contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan.

Do such hard-fought campaigns weaken the winner? There have been 18 presidential nominations, nine for each party, since 1972, when primary elections first dominated the presidential nomination process.

Let's eliminate three elections right away: 1972, 1984 and 1996. In these elections, incumbent presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were running for reelection with relatively strong approval ratings. The incumbents won easy renomination, and it would have been a shock for these incumbents to lose in the fall. Nomination fights could not have weakened challengers George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Robert Dole enough to make a difference. Let's also eliminate the uncontested Republican nomination in 2004, when the Bush administration worked successfully to prevent a primary challenge.

Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H.W. Bush in 1992 faced much less favorable conditions. Contentious nomination battles harmed Carter and Bush by dividing the party and draining money, time and energy that could have been invested in the general election. The record is ambiguous in 1976. Ford had never run for national office and was compelled to learn how to do so by a nomination marathon unmatched until 2008. Ford nearly won, despite Nixon's political baggage.


Five who won


This reasoning leaves eight nomination contests: the Democrats in 1976, 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2004, and the Republicans in 1980, 1988, and 2000. The eventual nominees won the presidency in five of these eight.

*In 1976, Jimmy Carter, a likable state senator and one-term governor of Georgia, defeated better-known candidates such as George Wallace, Mo Udall and Scoop Jackson in a sequence of primaries.

* Ronald Reagan, the 1980 Republican frontrunner, faltered in Iowa but recovered.

*In 1988, Vice-President George H.W. Bush lost the Iowa caucuses but came back to win New Hampshire and sweep through Super Tuesday.

*Bill Clinton overcame hair-raising moments to win the 1992 Democratic nomination over Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown.

*In 2000, frontrunner George W. Bush turned back John McCain in the South Carolina primaries.

In these five cases, the nomination fight vetted and educated the candidates and improved their fall campaigns. These nomination battles also brought out some weaknesses that were predictable (lack of foreign policy experience) and some that were not known. Nomination fights certainly did not weaken these candidates enough to lose the general election.


Three who lost


Only three of the 18 nomination contests involved serious fights for a meaningful nomination, followed by the nominee's loss in the general election. In each case, it is impossible to argue that vicious nomination battles made the decisive difference.

* In 1988, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis emerged as the Democratic frontrunner by winning six contests on Super Tuesday, including Texas and Florida. By late May, Dukakis was leading Republican Bush by double digits. It is true that, in a 1988 Democratic primary debate, Al Gore first raised the issue of weekend prison furloughs in Massachusetts; but it is very unlikely that Dukakis' opponents would have ignored this issue in the fall campaign; the Bush campaign added a racial twist by using Willie Horton to represent the program.

* It is impossible to see how Bill Bradley did enough damage to Gore to make a meaningful difference in the 2000 election, when Gore won the popular vote. Bradley questioned Gore on his fundraising during the 1996 election, but the Republicans were certain to use this issue anyway (recall the Buddhist temple ads).

* In 2004, Howard Dean's criticism of John Kerry's inconsistency on Iraq inflicted little damage compared to Kerry's own complex efforts to explain himself.

Tough fights usually help

Though the 2008 nomination contests have been more bruising than usual, there's no reason to think that these battles fatally damaged the nominees. Nomination fights usually damage incumbent presidents, but they don't place a distinct, additional burden on a non-incumbent nominee. Instead, these fights expose weaknesses and lines of attacks that the opposing party is destined to use whether the nominee wins narrowly or by an overwhelming margin.

These nomination battles are a gift and a challenge: They offer candidates a chance to see their own weaknesses as others see them, and a challenge to face up to their weaknesses with absolute, brutal honesty. This observation applies equally to John McCain and Obama, the likely Democratic nominee -- and a candidate with some interesting similarities to his supporter, one-term president Jimmy Carter.

Dave Robertson is a professor of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. 

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