Could it be that it is not the divisive primaries at all but the ability/inability to overcome them in a reasonable amount of time that has an effect on general election vote shares? Well, what does "reasonable amount of time" mean? It's a moving target. In 1980, that meant before the convention was over. Reagan and Bush joined forces on one side after a competitive primary fight, while Carter and Kennedy hardly came across as buddies at the Democratic convention. The result: the GOP ticket moved into general election mode while the Democrats continued to put the pieces together internally. [Paul Gurian gets a tip of the cap for placing this notion in my head. He may even be able to bolster the anecdote a bit if he reads this. He's also done some work in this area.] In other words, divisiveness on the Democratic side gave the Republican party a head start. In 2008, the worry for the Democrats is that the Obama/Clinton battle will cause a real rift in the party that won't be able to be healed enough before the election. Which brings us to...
Time, time, time.
The timing is a lot different now than it was thirty years ago. The prolonged primary seasons of the past gave way, for all intents and purposes, to the Super Tuesday model of presidential nomination by 1988 for the Republicans and 1992 for the Democrats. The time between Iowa and Super Tuesday shrunk during that interim, preventing insurgencies from being mounted effectively. If a challenge cannot gain steam then the likelihood of a divisive series of primaries developing decreases. [What's this, a benefit of frontloading? The drawback, of course, is that voters do not have the opportunity to fully vet the frontrunner/nominee, leaving them to suffer from what has been dubbed "buyer's remorse."]
But there's a tipping point here that fits in with this timing issue. At what point does competitiveness morph into divisiveness? This where the 2008 example could (when the history book is written on it) prove illustrative. Jacob Sohlberg, in the comments section over at TMC, alludes to this:
"The fighting candidates and their party get most of the media attention while the real competitor (say McCain) gets little. This is under the (strong) assumption that all news are good news."And that's the thing: as long as the news is good. At what point does the positive competitiveness of the race for delegates turn into the negative, party-splitting divisiveness? Should Clinton do well in Ohio and Texas on Tuesday, then 2008 may have reached that point for the Democrats. But in the Super Tuesday era (1988/1992-2004), no challenger has been afforded such an opportunity. That era was marked by frontrunners who were able to snuff out insurgencies before competitiveness turned to divisiveness. [And just for the record, this is not an obituary for the Super Tuesday era, as I call it. 2008 may prove to be an anomaly and not a system changing election. Let's revisit this in four years and see.] Mondale quelled Gary Hart before a movement started (No, this isn't within the era I defined above but it is a good example.). George W. Bush kept McCain at bay. And Kerry silenced John Edwards. Competitiveness yielded to reality in all three cases before divisiveness took hold or could attempt to take hold.
What we see then is that the ability to stop competitiveness (My, doesn't that sound democratic. This is, of course, from the frontrunner's and national party's perspectives.) in its tracks is important. The GOP's unwritten strategy of going with an "heir apparent" as its nominee makes sense in this context. It helps avoid divisiveness. The onus is then on the Democratic party to steer clear of protracted nomination battles in their overall more competitive nomination process. Should competitiveness turn to divisiveness, then healing the divisions in a timely fashion (at least in relation to the opposing party) becomes the next obstacle.