ANALYSIS: What The Primaries Can Tell Us About The Last Month Of The General Election

Don’t count McCain out yet.  That’s the refrain I continue to hear from some of the die hards.  He’s tough, don’t count him out yet.  Even in a time of abject panic among Republicans, there are still a few that are willing to stand up and say that McCain has proven in the past that he can rise from the dead.

When you hear someone trot out this line that you should never count John McCain out, they’ll usually refer you to his performance in the primaries, and how back then he had gone from being an also ran, to the Republican party’s nominee.  It is for this reason I think it could be useful to actually look at what happened in the primaries for both presidential candidates and use that information to see who will be the big closer in this presidential election.

It feels like an eternity ago when the presidential election began.  If it feels like that, it’s probably because this has been one of the longest presidential campaigns ever; it was in early 2007, before the snow even began to fall off the trees, that the players would throw their hats into the ring.

On the Republican side, the field eventually swelled to ten candidates, all men, all eager to claim the mantel of Ronald Reagan reborn.  The Democratic stage was only slightly less crouded with eight candidates, each of which eager to prove that they were not the reincarnation of John Kerry who was still alive and kicking.

On both sides of the aisle the primary contests would become a roller coaster ride.  Early supporters would make enemies of former allies, and all would be subjected to the ups and downs that the prolonged primary season would be.  In the end two men would rise to claim the title of their party’s standardbearer.


Long before the Republican field was clearly defined, John McCain was thought to be the prohibitive favorite to win the nomination.  It was the unspoken deal; George Bush slimed him to gain the presidency in 2000, but in return for McCain’s loyalty, the conductor of the Straight Talk Express would inherit Bush’s legacy, and possibly his political team.

But something happened in between 2004 and 2008 that could have possibly foretold the trials and tribulations that McCain would ultimately face; Bush entered a long and steady decline in public approval.  As the 2006 midterms showed, the Republican brand was in serious trouble, and as GOP strategists looked at trying to hold onto the White House for another term, one thing was clear; they could not do so on the back of the sitting president.

It was in one particular agreement with the current president that John McCain would find his first major obstacle to the White House; immigration.  Contrary to the Republican party, both John McCain and George W. Bush had a less xenophobic and conservative approach to the illegal immigration issue.  While arch conservatives wanted walls built and illegal immigrants punished and deported, McCain supported the president on a policy that some in conservatives would mockingly characterize as “shamnesty.”

It was perhaps this issue more than any other that drove McCain down to the cellar in national polls, and turned the one time prohibitive favorite into a lower tiered candidate in perpetual danger of being dubbed an also-ran.


In the Democratic pool, there was one, and only one clear favorite for the nomination; former First Lady, and the junior senator from New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton.  In the beginning, Mrs. Clinton had just about every advantage one could hope to have going into a presidential election; she had a warchest that was amazing, a fundraising operation that was legendary, high name recognition, and irrevocable ties to a president that was infinitely more popular than the current president.

Indeed, Clinton’s advantages in the Democratic primaries were so overwhelming that her nomination was often dubbed as “inevitable,” and her campaign quickly adopted the air of incumbency.  She had a political team at her disposal that was famed for its prowess, and in the early months they at least put forth the impression of supreme competence.

What they didn’t see coming was a new player, one who had sky rocketed to national prominence thanks to a speech he delivered at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.  Barack Obama was charismatic, intelligent, and intriguing, but there was no way he could knock off the woman whom many expected to be not just the nominee but the president could he?


When we look at the Republican presidential field, retrospect grants us the clarity of vision that many analysts and pundits didn’t have the luxury of during the primaries; many of the candidates were fatally flawed.

As the debates proceeded and eventually gave way to voting, we would see some of these candidates who at one point in time look like they had a real shot at the nomination fizzle out into obscurity.  Likewise, we would see some non-contenders rise up out of nowhere to surprise the punditry.

As the primary season was beginning in earnest in the summer of last year, it was looking as though former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani was the clear favorite to be the Republican nominee.  But though “America’s Mayor” was enjoying massive leads in the national polls, there were three aspects to the tough talking Republican any of which could have sunk his presidential aspirations, and ultimately did.

The first was Giuliani’s curious tendancy to over-use 9/11, leading to the now immortal quip by then Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, “A verb, a noun, and 9/11.”  Long before voters headed to the polls, Giuliani had already become a matter of self parody; virtually every answer delivered in a debate, or given to a reporter at a presser, included some mention of 9/11.

Second, Rudy Giuliani’s history of social liberalism did not make him very popular among heartland Republicans.  One of the curious aspects of the Republican primaries is how conservative each candidate attempted to paint themselves as, and given Rudy’s past, he just couldn’t make a convincing argument towards traditional social conservatism.

This would ultimately dovetail with the third and final flaw that would ultimately end Giuliani’s aspirations for the White House; a lack of effective electoral strategy.  National polls were kind to Rudy, but local polls told a different story, and if you were hoping to one day call Giuliani Mr. President, that story was a gruesome one.  Giuliani’s failure to connect with the socially conservative base greatly crippled his chances in the early voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.  Because of this, Giuliani had to put all of his eggs in one basket, Florida, but by the time Florida had its chance, the momentum and the party’s mood, had already shifted away from Rudy.


In a strange way, the two party’s primary contests had something of a role reversal somewhere through the process.  While the early portion of the Republican primaries were heavily contentious, the Democratic primaries were relatively calm, and seemed predictable.  All through the summer of last year, Hillary Clinton remained the heavy favorite.  Behind her, Barack Obama and former Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards were fighting just for second place.

Two obstacles would appear.  The first was a debate that occurred in the fall where Clinton was asked a question about issuing driver’s licenses to illegal aliens.  Clinton waffled on the answer hard, and for perhaps the first time in the campaign, the once invincible looking candidate had shown vulnerability.

Barack Obama in that debate would capitalize on the botched answer, using the statement to hit Clinton for her perceived tendancy to triangulate which was already a common cricticism of the New York Senator.

This exchange would ultimately result in Clinton changing the tone of her campaign.  Up to that point, Clinton had excelled at appearing above the fray, allowing her competition to attack each other while she wisely stood in as the consensus builder, the one person in the room that could take all the ideas and say, “You see, we Democrats are better than Republicans because of this, this, and this.”  But after she took that hit, Clinton found herself from that point on down in the weeds with everyone else.

The second obstacle was Iowa.  Clinton had double digits on virtually the rest of the field in almost every state.  Despite there being a black candidate in the race, Clinton even managed to enjoy a majority of African American support in the race.  But there was Iowa.

When her husband ran in 92, Bill Clinton didn’t really campaign in Iowa, focusing instead on New Hampshire, and thus while Hillary had excellent roots up in the Granite State, she was out of her breadth in the first primary contest of the nation.  To make matters worse, John Edwards had been campaigning in Iowa non stop since 2004, giving him what one would think was a clear advantage.

Neither Clinton nor Edwards knew what it took to win Iowa, however.


As it was becoming clearer and clearer that Giuliani’s hopes in Florida would result in a fool’s errand, another Republican’s stock began to rise.  Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachusetts, may not have had the national lead, but he had two other things going for him.

One, he had an electoral strategy that could work.  Romney had no delusions about winning South Carolina, but Romney had been working hard to establish himself in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan.  If he could sweep those three contests, that would not only give him a remarkable delegate lead, but it would give him the kind of momentum he needed to blow the rest of the competition off the map.  The second was that Mitt’s experience as a successful businessman and executive experience as a governor had endeared him to the fiscal right, and thus the conservative movement’s intelligentsia.  The opinion peddlers from the right that normally hold so much sway over the foot soldiers had their guy.

But like Giuliani, Romney had a fatal flaw as well; he is a Mormon.  Mormons are essentially the red headed step children of the Religious Right.  For their part, they are among the most conservative voters you’ll ever find (just dig up Utah’s voting data for 2004, or even current polls in this election), but other sects of Christianity view the religion as a cult.  In the Republican primaries, this sentiment would manifest itself greatly, and while some of the leaders of the Religious Right joined other conservative thinkers in endorsing Romney, the voters were rejecting Mitt considerably.

In the end, of Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan, all three states vital to Mitt’s election strategy, he would only come away with Michigan.  The backlash to Romney would also propel Governor Mike Huckabee up to the top tier.

Huck was affable, funny, and no one could question his socially conservative credibility, and it was in this context that Huckabee would ultimately end up winning Iowa, but he would prove just as flawed as Romney and Giuliani.  For Huckabee’s part, his problem was that while he had garnered the adoration and support of the foot soldiers in the Religious Right, no other portion of the Republican coalition seemed to have much faith in him.

The intelligentsia specifically were outright angry.  Their guy was Mitt Romney, and now the Religious Right, in their push to get their man, had sunk the person that fiscal conservatives, columnists, and pundits felt would best represent the party in the General Election.

As a footnote to failed presidential bids, former Senator and Law & Order star, Fred Thompson also qualifies.  He had stirred up great excitement at the beginning of summer of last year when whispers were floating that he would run.  The GOP, largely uninspired by its current field of candidates, were anxious to see the actor join the field.  But Thompson ended up botching his own roll out with numerous postponements.  When he did finally anounce in early fall of last year, it was largely an anti-climatic event.

The only thing that could be even more uninspiring were Thompson’s debate performances and his campaigning ethic, both of which lacked significant energy.

In the end, those with the best hopes of winning the Republican nomination would each stumble in his own way.  Meanwhile, John McCain who had been counted out by so many, had pared down his campaign, and kept pushing like an Energizer Bunny.  Mitt Romney dropped out early in the process after he failed to sweep the early states he needed, and after Thompson failed to even hold on to South Carolina, the contest was narrowed down to McCain and Huckabee by Super Tuesday (note: Ron Paul had been in the race too, but not in the hunt).

Huckabee only barely managed to survive Super Tuesday, but he couldn’t avoid getting railroaded shortly thereafter.  Months before the Democratic nomination fight had ended, John McCain had his party’s nomination sewn up.


What neither Clinton nor Edwards saw coming was that Barack Obama was fundamentally changing the game.  Traditionally, primary contests are supposed to follow a trajectory similar to that seen in the Republican primaries.  Candidates battle it out in the early state contests, each hoping to build up significant momentum so that on Super Tuesday they can effectively clinch the nomination.

Obama’s prime strategy was to do just that, but what he did that no one else did was he built contingency plans.  Part of that contingency plan got its first trial run in Iowa.

Integral to Obama’s success was the most impressive ground game and GOTV machine in the history of politics, and where you saw that machine the most at work was in caucus performances much like the one in Iowa.  Polls in Iowa were tight leading up to the first Democratic primary contest, but when the dust settled, Obama would ultimately come out the clear winner.

Next stop New Hampshire.

Going into New Hampshire, Obama was looking good to win his second consecutive contest, and engage in the more traditional path to a nomination.  But New Hampshire was Clinton territory, and they never forgot that they were the state that made President Clinton the “come back kid.”

It was in South Carolina, though, that we would see one of the key demographic shifts that to this day have a serious impact on the presidential election.  While African American voters were leading towards Hillary, after the win in Iowa, that seemed to open the floodgates and African Americans were now in Obama’s column by astonishing margins.  The Palmetto state would ultimately become a blow out.

But what got less attention was Nevada.  Hillary Clinton would nominally “win” the state, but again attesting to the Obama campaign’s understanding of the Democratic primary mechanics, and how caucuses work, Obama would actually manage to come out of the state with more delegates that Clinton.

This set the stage for Super Tuesday.  Obama didn’t have the momentum he needed to knock Clinton out of the game, but by now his team had launched into the contingency plan; keep the delegate count close.  Clinton would win the big states like California and New York, but what was important was that Obama’s strategy was to minimize the delegate impact of those losses while running up the numbers in states that the Clinton team just wasn’t paying attention to.

What would become clear in the month that followed was that Clinton simply didn’t have a post Super Tuesday game plan, and Obama did.  At this point, Obama was playing chess, and Clinton was playing checkers.  The Clinton team was scrambling to fully internalize the concept of delegate math while the Obama team had already had their route to Denver clearly mapped out.

For the rest of February of this year, Mrs. Clinton would not win a single primary contest, and at the end of the month, Obama had mathematically sewn up the competition.

But this is where we see a major difference between McCain’s primary run, and Obama’s.  Huckabee did hang on for a while after Super Tuesday, but he did little to damage McCain’s General Election chances, and when it was becoming blatantly clear that he was little more than a possible spoiler, Huckabee finally conceded the race.

In the Democratic race, though, things were just heating up.

Though the math was heavily against her, Hillary Clinton waged all out war on Obama, and while Obama was ahead, he couldn’t afford to rest on his laurels because if he just coasted from that point on, Hillary could conceivably make up the delegate gap.  Also, Obama had to protect his general election run which would be more difficult if he failed to effectively defend himself against Clinton’s attacks.

On top of this, the McCain campaign and the Republicans were now turning their focus onto the new inevitable Democratic nominee.  Then disaster struck in the guise of one Reverand Jeremiah Wright.

In the week leading up to the Pennsylvania primary, news organizations had become a 24 hour non stop documentary on the absolutely worst things Wright had ever said, and how those comments reflected upon Obama.  If Obama had sewn up the nomination by that point, Wright was the one thing that could unravel everything.

But it didn’t happen.  Obama delivered the speech of the campaign on race relations in the U.S. that greatly repaired some of the damage that was done, and when Wright continued to be a liability, Obama officially threw the minister under the bus.

To the very last primary Clinton did not concede, and when we look at the difference between John McCain and Barack Obama, this makes a world of difference.  Indeed, looking back there are two key things to learn from the primaries that should inform how successful each candidate will be in the next four weeks.

The first is that clearly Obama plays a different game.  His opponents play checkers, he plays chess, and he plays it well.  Just as Obama had mapped out his road to the nomination long before his opponents even understood that road existed (here road is a metaphor for delegate math), we see hints that Obama has several paths to the White House mapped out.  Perhaps the greatest hint is the highly produced Charles Keating documentary that he released earlier this week.  As many have noted, this was not something that the Obama campaign put together over the weekend, they had it ready and waiting for just the moment that they needed it.

The second thing, and this could be the most important, is that McCain didn’t face a dogfight in the final stages of his ascension to the Republican nomination.  As history shows, all of his opponents had fatal flaws that McCain essentially outlasted.  By contrast, Obama had to scrape and fight right down to the very last contest, and then he had to repair a seriously fractured party afterwards.

Both men came from behind to win their nominations, but only one of them had a bruiser of a fight in the final stages, and I think we’re in exactly that moment in the general election process now.  The last few weeks are going to get ugly, but Obama has the battlescars to prove he can handle that.  And for that, he has Hillary Clinton to thank.

5 Responses to “ANALYSIS: What The Primaries Can Tell Us About The Last Month Of The General Election”

  1. icruise says:

    Interesting summary. Some mention of the problems in Michigan and Florida might be warranted, since without them I think Obama might have had more trouble.

    I scoffed when Clinton said that the long primary process would be good for the party and the eventual nominee (and I still think she said that for mostly self-serving reasons), but in the end she was right. If things like Reverand Wright had come out much later in the campaign they could have seriously damaged him, but now they seem like old news. And Obama is unquestionably a better campaigner and debater now than he was nearly two years ago (!) when this whole process began.

  2. Thank you. I considered mentioning Michigan and Florida, but really those two states pick at too many old wounds, and my intent was not to do that. Had Michigan and Florida been sanctioned in some way from the beginning, I think Obama would have played for them, and they wouldn’t necessarily have had much of an impact. Exit polling indicates that Obama could have one Michigan, and I think he could have kept Florida close enough to make whatever lead Hillary won there negligible.

    But, as I said, what really matters was that Obama had to employ some cunning strategy, and he had to weather a serious storm to win his nomination. McCain essentially had to just keep from going under while his opponents sort of collapsed right before him.

  3. ticocats says:

    thanks for the analysis. But I think you inadvertently got your games mixed in the third-to-last paragraph: “His opponents play chess, he plays checkers”

  4. Oh crap, thanks for the catch! Fixing it now!

  5. icruise says:

    Heh, I thought you were trying to be clever with that or something.


  1. Underdog vs. Loser | Comments from Left Field - [...] in the primaries.  I’ve already thoroughly discussed the failings in that line of thought, and you can read that…

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