Wednesday, April 11, 2007

US Primaries

The new conventional wisdom on the American presidential election, which still a little over a year and a half away (only 500-odd polling days til Election Day, kids), is that the nominations will be neatly locked up early, owing to a clot of early primaries next year. I’d like to take a moment to debunk thisI just don’t buy it. My reasoning isn’t that the early primaries are themselves inclined to shake things up—indeed, they’ll have the effect they always have, to some degree. The problem is that neither party has anything remotely like a front runner.

On the Democratic side, the more disorderly of the two parties will do what it does best—it’ll divide internally while it’s ahead. Both Obama and Clinton are quite competent candidates, and will probably keep each other in check for some time. Edwards, while a little behind, will logjam the other two, and tie up potential supporters. None of them appear, to me at least, equipped to do anything to put them ahead.

The Republicans, usually a vision of good order, will be divided by a pair of deficiencies. First, they have to deal with the existing mess left by President Bush. Second, none of them has been, or likely will be, embraced by the religious right. They suffer from a problem of self definitiona move to either the left or the right would do them significant harm with a large part of the electorate: either their conservative base or the increasingly anti-war mainstream.

The two situations have different causes, and could be changed in different ways. A new Republican candidate might slide easily ahead of the field. No new Democrat is likely to effectively enter the race (barring Al Gore declaring), but fewer candidates would do the job. If Edwards (or either of the others) quit and endorsed another, that would easily seal the race.

The problem is that none of these is likely to happen. The religious right has, on most accounts, searched extensively for ‘their’ candidate, and found no one. The three Democratic frontrunners are all at least conceivably winners, so none will drop out any time soon. Further, all three can fairly legitimately expect to win the general election, making the stakes all that much higher.

There's a counter argument, to be sure. The first couple of primaries will set out a frontrunner in each party, as they always do, and that will seal the issue. The problem with this is that the rapid fire primaries may well not produce a clear winner. If the winner of one doesn't have time to lock up the othersI'd bet this is likely—then the race will be left open after far more ballots than usual have been cast.

All of which means that the most unpredictable US Presidential election in recent memory remains just that, and might well still be a year from now. If I had to guess (who doesn't want to?), I’d bet on Obama to beat McCain by a comfortable margin. But anyone would be a fool to put money on it.

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