A Long Primary Could Be a Good Thing

Kevin Drum doesn’t think diminishing Bernie Sanders as an ineffectual “community advocate” rates high on the “Atwater scale” of nasty politics. I suppose that’s true. If Stabenow accused Sanders of being responsible for rape, I think we’d all be a little more alarmed. I still don’t think it’s a smart strategy to ape Sarah Palin’s criticisms of Barack Obama to go after Bernie Sanders. Disagree if you want.

On another subject, there was a point during the 2008 primaries when Clinton was all but mathematically eliminated and really was only hanging onto the hope that the DNC would seat delegates from Florida and Michigan in a highly advantageous (and unlikely) way. Then, as now, Democrats were tearing each other apart and fighting like cats and dogs. I thought it was doing damage to the party’s prospects in the fall for a variety of reasons.

But I had to reassess that later on when I saw how much better Obama had become as a debater. I also reevaluated the worth of having the country focused on the Democrats and Democratic priorities for months on end. But, most of all, when I saw how Obama narrowly won Indiana and North Carolina, I realized that that may only have become possible because Clinton’s refusal to throw in the towel early forced him to aggressively organize for both of those state’s primaries. In other words, it’s quite likely that Obama actually got a bigger Electoral College victory because the primaries went on so long.

I have to remind myself of this history because it’s really unpleasant to see the infighting that’s going on. And I think we’re going to have another long campaign, mainly because the proportional allocation of delegates will prevent either candidate from sewing up the nomination anytime soon. Even if Clinton rips off a bunch of big victories in a row and seems like the inevitable nominee, it’s pretty unlikely that Sanders will concede because he’ll have all the money he needs to keep campaigning. And I don’t think he really set out to win this thing at the beginning, so he’s not quitting just because he realizes that he won’t be nominated. He’ll want to keep hammering home his points and gathering delegates for the convention.

A long campaign will be painful, but 2008 showed there can be important upsides. The more states the two campaigns organize, the more work they’ll have done in advance of the general election. The more the country is focused on the differences between Clinton and Sanders, the more they’ll be focused on their messaging and values and the less they’ll be focused on the messaging and values of the Republicans.

It’s true that some feelings will get hurt and some bitterness will result. It’s not cost-free to have an extended contested nomination, and the eventual nominee will get wounded. But, even here, some of Obama’s worst vulnerabilities were old news by November precisely because they’d been hashed out in the winter and spring.

As long as the process doesn’t leave the nominee underfunded, it’s probably not a problem to have a long primary season.

At least, that’s what I’ll keep telling myself.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.