The conventional wisdom this past December said that by now we would have anointed presidential candidates from both political parties. Super Tuesday was supposed to be a victory lap. Instead, it was a mosh pit.
Both parties’ voters delivered the equivalent of split tickets. Delegate counts suddenly matter, and a brokered convention or two is not out of the question.
What happened? Voter indecision and equivocation — especially when it occurs in both parties — is a signal of voter dissatisfaction. In both parties, voters have strong and divided preferences about their candidates. Voters aren’t saying “either/or.” They’re saying “this one and not the other.”
This presents a significant challenge for all the candidates. Not only do they have to beat their opponents, but they have to do so without permanently alienating their opponents’ supporters. After all, there is another election in November, and as we saw in 2004, even a slight waver in voter intensity is enough to deliver victory to the other side.
So right now, while the focus is on how the candidates stack up in the remaining primaries, let’s look beyond: Which of the four have the best chance of standing strong with their natural voter base in November?
First, let’s consider the position of the Democrats. Many Democrats say they would be happy to vote for either Senator Hillary Clinton or Senator Barack Obama, but that’s not the same as saying they like both equally. The vituperative attacks between the Obama and Clinton camps have all the markings of a political civil war. And, the Democratic Party has a record of self-immolation over relatively modest differences in policy; 1968 and 2000 come to mind.
The differences between Obama and Clinton over matters of policy are small and largely insignificant. But the differences between them in a historical sense are large and gaping. After all, whoever wins the nomination will do so by dashing the hopes and expectations of a significant bloc of the party’s voter base.
Democratic voters believe they will win the White House in November, no matter what. Given that history will be made, the only thing left to decide is which historical marker will be planted first: first female president, or first black president?
Because Democratic Party voters are so tied to identity politics, this is a painful decision to make — and, as it turns out, deeply personal. White older women are heavy for Clinton; their daughters go for Obama. Blacks have come over strong for Obama, so the Latinos are rushing to Clinton.
If you’re a Democratic Party strategist, this is a disaster: The Democrats wanted this election to be a repudiation of eight years of an unpopular George Bush; now, they’re essentially holding a race- and gender-based referendum on whether they want another four years of Bill Clinton. And it’s a close call.
Over in the Republican Party, the divisions are less demographic and more policy-focused. Both Senator John McCain and Mitt Romney are pledging to be more effective in pushing Republican principles than the current president. For McCain, that means more troops in Iraq and less spending at home; for Romney, that means better management of the economy and more problem-solving on a range of domestic issues.
But some Republicans abhor McCain; a great number of them distrust Romney. If McCain wins the nomination, a significant number of conservatives may stay home in November. If Romney wins the nomination, it’s not clear who will champion his candidacy. Polls suggest Republican voters are far less enamored of their choices than are Democratic voters; they also don’t share Democratic optimism about a victory in November. This may be playing into their dissatisfaction; after all, if you see a loss coming, it’s easier to start blaming the Republican candidates than focusing on Republican ideology.
How do these candidates bridge those gaps? To borrow a phrase from the business world, defend the brand. All four candidates can bridge intraparty voter distrust simply by reminding voters who they already are. Conventional wisdom says you run to the party’s extremes during the primary and run to the center during the general, but this year the candidates may be better off running back to wherever they started.
That means recapturing their essential proposition to voters: their brand. For Clinton, it’s sober liberalism. For Obama, it’s dynamic progressivism. For McCain, it’s pugnaciousness. And for Romney, it’s pragmatic competency.
The post-primary landscape for Democrats will be embittered. Clinton’s divisive use of race may be politically astute, but it has shocked Democratic party loyalists. Should Clinton emerge, she will need to reconnect with the Ted Kennedy crowd — the classic governing liberalism bloc that she was presumed to have locked up long ago. That may well hurt her with right-leaning voters, but she will never win them anyway.
Obama’s bridge will be shorter; I don’t know a Democrat who dislikes him. But in a general election where turnout will be critical, he will need to show older Democratic voters in particular that he is worth their trust; this will be particularly important should McCain be the Republican candidate. Luckily for Obama, he will have far more resources — especially surrogates — to help him here.
McCain may never be able to win over movement conservatives. He is remembered for multiple acts of apostasy — he opposed tax cuts, favored restrictions on election-related speech and tends to poke a stick at the party with regularity. That said, his popularity among Republicans and right-leaning independents actually improved once he dropped the “I’m a conservative” act.
Romney would have been expected to do well with the independents normally attracted to “competency candidates” but hasn’t connected with them yet. That could change easily should he win the nomination. The Democratic candidates will both look like neophytes compared with Romney when it comes to running big things. True, the country may not be in the mood for another MBA president. But what if that MBA president trumpeted his intelligence rather than downplayed it?
Ultimately, each candidate will have to remember that after the primaries, voters will want to see something genuine — the inner core of the candidates. They won’t want reinvention. They’ll want the brand they have grown accustomed to — and the candidate who reaffirms that brand first will most likely win in November.
Noam Neusner served as President Bush’s principal economic and domestic policy speechwriter from 2002 to 2004.