Tough Primary Season Helped Campaigns Shake Out Bugs

Posted May 23, 2008 at 1:56pm

With Congress away, I thought of writing about the continuing farce known as the Congressional ethics process, underscored last week by the House ethics panel’s decision to drop its investigation of Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) because of the Justice Department’s involvement. That has been the typical pattern: The committee drags its feet and doesn’t do the job before an ethics issue mushrooms into a legal one, and then shrugs its collective shoulders. Or the farce of House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) calling for an ethics committee investigation of the enrolling clerk for the boneheaded error of dropping a portion of the farm bill before it went on to the president for his veto. What is the nefarious intent or element here? Most of all, it would be about the ridiculous delay by both parties’ House leaders in naming members for the new independent ethics arm.

[IMGCAP(1)]But I decided instead to use the recess to make a couple of observations about the presidential campaign; I don’t want to leave the field entirely to Stuart Rothenberg. The first observation is about money. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) will almost certainly eschew public funding for the fall campaign (much as it pains me to see yet another lapse in the presidential funding system, Obama would be sued for political malpractice if he took the federal money). He will be able to raise $250 million or more for the fall campaign from his list of more than 1.7 million individual donors, with the help no doubt of other candidate lists once the nomination is secure.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has two choices: Take the public money, about a third of what Obama will have, and give up raising more while relying on the uncoordinated and clumsy intervention of party entities and outside groups, or raise his own while abandoning the public funds. I am sure he can raise $125 million or more — but he lacks the sleek and sophisticated Internet-driven fundraising apparatus of Obama, who will be able to raise his cash with minimal costs. McCain will have to spend a bundle to raise a bundle, and he may fall just as far behind. Money isn’t everything, but it means a lot. With money, you can compete in more states, and force the other side to spend in places it does not want to; and you can find multiple venues to counter attacks made on you. (No wonder Mitt Romney has moved up to the short list for running mates — McCain has 450 million reasons to put him there.)

Democrats have one other plus from this long and tumultuous nomination struggle. In every primary so far, with the interest level at fever pitch, voters old and new have turned out in record numbers. And in doing so, they have helped iron out kinks in the election process, giving new voters a high comfort level with voting and choosing the right precinct, and giving a much larger group of voters immunity against a challenge to their voting status in November (their primary votes are prima facie evidence of their voting legitimacy).

Consider Indiana. Its presidential primary election on May 6 was its first election under a controversial new voter identification law that was just ratified by the Supreme Court. Not surprisingly, there were some problems, including 12 nuns turned away from the polls because they had either failed to bring photo IDs or brought the wrong ones — the news was that they were rejected by one of their own sisters who was acting as a poll worker. Other glitches were reported as well, including students turned away because they used college IDs or out-of-state driver’s licenses (only specific government-issued photo IDs, such as an Indiana driver’s license or passport are allowed in the state). Some poll workers reportedly were mistakenly refusing to accept military IDs. The heavy turnout in Indiana also resulted in ballot shortages in many counties.

The dozen nuns all vowed to get their IDs in order long before November; other voters turned away will no doubt also get their acts together in the next six months, while poll workers will be trained to accept military IDs and election officials will be sure to print enough ballots for the fall. Without the primary, the nuns, and many other voters uncertain about the provisions of the law, would have been turned away when it counts.

In state after state, many jurisdictions tried out new voting machines for the first time — in many cases their third straight election with new kinds of machines — and brought in new poll workers with no experience in the real world of elections. So the primaries have been an opportunity for a trial run for election officials to work through problems and for voters to gain a comfort level with voting. And in nearly every state, the turnout has been at record levels — driven in part by the ability of the Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) campaigns to ramp up their sophisticated voter registration and turnout efforts while identifying and testing out volunteers who will be tanned, rested and ready for November.

If the Democrats had settled their nomination right after Super Tuesday, the turnout in states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas would have been minimal. Instead, we had stunning turnouts. In Indiana, North Carolina and Texas, astonishingly, more Democrats voted in the primaries than voted for the Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), in the general election in 2004. In Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, primary turnout this year was more than 75 percent of the turnout in the fall of 2004.

Every Broadway show has a dress rehearsal before it makes its debut, enabling cast members to get comfortable in a real world setting and producers and set designers to make last-minute adjustments to make the show work. Rarely does a political party have a chance to have full-fledged dress rehearsals in a range of key battleground states under full battlefield conditions. Whatever the costs of this tough and prolonged nomination struggle, the fact is that Democrats will be dramatically better prepared for November. Shorter is not necessarily sweeter or better.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.