Nomination Fights Could Turn on Candidate Exits

Posted November 30, 2007 at 3:21pm

Shrinkage, though not the type that threw George Costanza into a frenzy in one memorable “Seinfeld” episode, could be a significant factor in the races for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Rudy Giuliani (R) probably having the most to fear from it.

[IMGCAP(1)]While we often portray campaigns as foot races, where each candidate’s “speed” (appeal) is measured against other contestants, the metaphor breaks down in presidential nominating contests. That’s because voters choose among the active candidates, and as the field thins, so do voters’ options.

When a candidate exits a race, his or her supporters often pick a new candidate to support (sometimes even in a different party), changing the dynamics of the next primary contests.

This dynamic could apply even in the first contest, Iowa. That’s because the Democratic caucuses involve an initial test vote of candidate preference in each local caucus, followed by a realigning by supporters of candidates who don’t meet a minimum threshold.

Since a number of Democratic hopefuls are likely to fall under the 15 percent threshold in individual caucuses, their supporters will have to make interesting decisions about whom to support when they realign. Will they try to “stop” Clinton? Or will personal decisions affect their actions?

If the Democratic contest primarily is a referendum on Clinton — and not all savvy observers buy into that characterization of the race — then she is by far the Democratic hopeful most vulnerable to quick shrinkage of the Democratic field.

According to that scenario, since the New York Senator has nearly complete name recognition and began the contest as the party establishment’s choice, anyone who isn’t for Clinton now probably is unlikely to back her as long as there are alternatives.

Moreover, since both Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) have been running as “change candidates,” and implicitly as alternatives to Clinton, the exit of one of them would largely benefit the other.

Obama and Edwards employ different rhetoric, but they have appeal to Democrats who have resisted the early Clinton bandwagon. If these “change” voters coalesce behind a single alternative, whether as early as New Hampshire or even in early February, it certainly could impact Clinton’s prospects.

And then there are the supporters of Sens. Joseph Biden (Del.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.). Backers of those two Senators apparently aren’t looking primarily for a “change” candidate and place a greater value on experience.

If and when those two veteran Senators drop out of the race (or fail to meet the threshold in individual Iowa caucuses), where will their supporters go? Are they more likely to line up behind Clinton rather than one of the “change” candidates, or do they, as one smart Democratic insider wondered aloud in a recent conversation, constitute the true anti-Hillary vote, since they picked two long-shot, establishment hopefuls over Clinton?

Those observers who doubt that the Clinton referendum model accurately reflects the way Iowa and New Hampshire participants will make their decisions suggest that voters in both states will ultimately choose on the basis of qualifications and readiness for the job, which strongly favors Clinton.

“Some may have questions about her electability. Others may be tired of the Clintons. But I don’t think that [Democrats] have a real problem with her,” said one astute Democrat. “And when you get down to it, it’s old white women who are the Iowa caucuses attendees.”

To these observers, it doesn’t matter whether there are two or 10 “change” candidates in the Democratic contest. These observers view Iowa 2008 as merely a repeat of Iowa 2004, Iowa 2000 and Iowa 1984: a minority of Democrats look for authenticity and reform, while most caucus-goers ultimately look for someone who is ready to be president.

While differences between the top five or six Democrats primarily are stylistic, that’s not the case on the GOP side. And it’s the reason the makeup of the field at any particular point is likely to be absolutely crucial in the GOP race.

Giuliani clearly benefits from the large field. As the single most liberal candidate in his party’s field (at least on cultural issues from guns to abortion), the former New York mayor would be at a distinct disadvantage in a one-on-one contest against a conservative alternative.

While the party’s social conservative vote currently is fractured and Giuliani draws some conservative support, his vulnerability grows when Republican voters are faced with a stark conservative versus moderate choice, boosting the salience of ideology in the race and forcing social conservatives to confront the former mayor’s positions on hot-button issues.

Giuliani’s fundamental assumption appears to be that the early GOP contests will play out in a way that will leave the Republican field largely intact into late January and possibly even early February. If that happens, the conservative vote would continue to be divided and conservative candidates would end up spending much of their time jostling with each other, while Giuliani could finish first with a plurality in key, winner-take-all states.

If he is correct, he could end up as the de facto nominee before conservatives realize what has happened. That’s surely the ideal scenario for the former mayor.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.