Janesville66°

Withdrawals make lengthy primary less likely

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Peter A. Brown
February 2, 2008

The withdrawal of Rudy Giuliani and John Edwards from the presidential race increases the likelihood that “Super Duper Tuesday” will produce the Republican and Democratic nominees, or at least avoid contested conventions.


That is good news for both the Democrats and the Republicans because the party that settles on a nominee early avoids the kind of lengthy and perhaps debilitating primary campaign that becomes a clear disadvantage heading into the November election.


The withdrawal of the former New York mayor from the GOP race and the former North Carolina senator’s departure from the Democratic contest won’t affect the identity of the major-party presidential candidates.


Giuliani’s and Edwards’ chances of victory were roughly equal to those of a snowball in Florida.


But their decisions to get out of the race could have a major impact on how long the two contests continue.


That’s because the magic number for a lengthy campaign is three—the number of candidates who are winning significant numbers of delegates for a primary race to remain in play after Tuesday’s vote in 22 states.


On the Democratic side, that means Edwards’ withdrawal eliminates the possibility that a candidate other than Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama will receive delegates from the coming orgy of primaries.


Edwards had been getting the more than 15 percent threshold needed for a share of a state’s delegates in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. If he had stayed in and crossed that threshold, Edwards might have done well enough to prevent either Clinton or Obama from winning enough delegates on Feb. 5 to effectively end the Democratic nomination fight.


In fact, had Edwards continued, it is conceivable he might have been able to deprive Obama or Clinton of the majority needed for the nomination.


In the GOP contest, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has to break through in enough states to prevent either the front-runner, Sen. John McCain, or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney from wrapping things up. But given McCain’s momentum, although that is theoretically possible, it seems unlikely.


Actually, even now, a drawn-out nomination fight seems more likely on the Democratic side. That’s because of the differences in the rules governing delegate allocation between the two parties. Democrats divide delegates proportionally based on the percentage of the popular vote each candidate gets in a primary, as long as a candidate gets 15 percent. This prevents the winning candidate in a primary from cleaning up, making it more difficult to obtain the delegates needed for the nomination.


The Republicans, however, effectively offer bonuses to winners.


Most states allocate GOP delegates by some form of winner-take-all system. That means in a contested three-way race (not counting Rep. Ron Paul, who also is staying in the race), a GOP candidate can win all of a state’s delegates with, say, 40 percent or so of the popular vote. That’s what happened in Florida, where McCain won only 36 percent of the popular vote but corralled 100 percent of the state’s 57 delegates.


If Huckabee, a regional favorite in Dixie, can win significant numbers of delegates in some of the Southern contests—such as Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Missouri, not to mention his home state of Arkansas—that might deprive either McCain or Romney of enough delegates to end the process.


But even in many of those states, McCain was competitive, or ahead, before his victory in Florida, which should just add to his momentum and delegate count.


The reality is that neither party wants a drawn-out nomination fight. The quicker a nominee is known, the sooner disparate elements of the party can be brought together and the focus can be put on winning the general election. The Democratic convention is Aug. 24-28, and the GOP confab is Sept. 1-4.


It has been a half-century since either party’s convention has convened with the identity of the nominee seriously in doubt. If it had turned out that was the case this year, or even if one party had to go into the late spring or summer to settle on a nominee while the other had done it Feb. 5, it would have changed the odds of the November election.


Imagine one party united, getting its message out for the fall election and focusing on swing voters, while the other is still catering to party activists. That’s the kind of edge that could help decide an election.


But with Edwards and Giuliani on the sidelines, that seems a lot less likely.


Peter A. Brown is the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute; his e-mail address is peter.brown@quinnipiac.edu. This article first appeared on Politico.com.

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