Many Democratic party loyalists fret that an ongoing battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will tear party unity and delay vital fundraising. But Republicans shouldn't start cheering yet. Below are three hidden benefits of an extended intramural fight for Democratic Party at the national and at the local levels in 2008 and beyond.
1. BUILDING THE BASE
So far 2008 has seen unprecedented voter turnout for Democratic party primaries and caucuses. Not only has voter turnout for the Democratic contest often swamped Republican turnout, but the Democratic:Republican turnout ratio has consistently exceeded the 2004 Kerry:Bush vote ratio in every state (with the glaring exceptions of Florida and Michigan). The likelihood that voter turnout will remain high while the Democratic contest remains contested has certain benefits for Democrats on the local and national levels. First, more voters will end up in the campaigns', and often the Party's, databases, either from outreach efforts or the state's Board of Elections. In several states, such as Pennsylvania, participation in the primaries or caucuses requires actual registration in the Party, so both campaigns are busy re-registering voters as Democrats -- a registration that just might stick
Second, Democrats will continue to get massive, free media attention that normalizes their general platform. The continuing coverage of the differences between the Obama and Clinton health care plans sets universal health care as a goal while relatively little is being broadcast against that goal. (In negotiations, injecting a position early into the process is called "anchoring," and evidence suggests that it works). And record-breaking turnout so far suggests that "voter fatigue" is a figment of bored pundits' imagination.
Third, independent or Republican voters who cast their ballots for a Democrat may engage in post-decision rationalization that leads them to confirm their decision as a good one, even if they might otherwise have been on the fence or GOP-leaning. (Salesmen exploit this psychological bias to resolve cognitive dissonance by getting potential customers to make small purchases that pave the way to bigger ones later.) Admittedly, while this effect has been demonstrated for specific candidates, it's questionable whether it might also apply to the entire party.
2. BUILDING THE ORGANIZATION
Vernelle Graham, whom I described in my earlier coverage of the South Carolina primaries, is another reason why continuing the contest may benefit the Democratic Party in November and beyond. Ms. Graham had never before run an electoral operation, but for the week leading up to primary day, she pulled together a team and had a direct hand in organizing a winning GOTV effort. With that experience now on her resume, Ms. Graham will be that much more valuable to the November general election field operation to turn that red state blue, or at least purple. Perhaps more importantly for the long-term health of the Democratic Party, she has also picked up valuable skills that she'll be able to use to help elect local leaders, the lifeblood of the party. It's even conceivable that she and others like her might run for office themselves.
Every time a campaign rolls into a contested state and uses old-fashioned, grassroots strategies, more individuals like Vernelle Graham become involved, learn new skills, and expand local grassroots potential.
What's true at the grassroots is also true inside each of the campaigns, which function as "incubators" of skilled organizers. Continuing the contest through more states will give staff organizers the chance to continue to rack up real field experience and iron out operational kinks. And while the top ranks of either campaign will likely not join the other's, many at the lower and middle levels will, bringing with them a wealth of electoral experience. Several Obama campaign staffers I spoke with in South Carolina underlined their commitment to the party, not just the candidate; it will be up to the eventual nominee to recruit and make best use of the other team's human resources.
3. BUILDING LEGITIMACY
Finally, letting the contest continue can deepen both parties' legitimacy and accountability to regular voters. Years ago I conducted research on the politics of Boston's Chinatown, at the time a rather small urban community where two factions -- traditional business organizations and progressive social service organizations -- were claiming to stand for the community's interests. I found that when these organizations were in conflict, they were forced to prove their legitimacy by actually consulting the grassroots; when they were in harmony, the community was at risk of being cut out of the process.
Thus, the Republican party's preference for a coup d'etat may yet come back to haunt them. Huckabee's lingering strength in the polls, despite McCain's inevitability, indicate that the Arizona senator has yet to win over a substantial plurality of the party's base. A longer electoral process resulting from would have given McCain more time to refine his outreach and message to secure the religious flank.
Meanwhile, in my own phonebanking to Vermont in advance of the March 4 primary, I'm still surprised that there are still voters who are only just now paying attention to the election. And those who have been following the campaign avidly are delighted to have their voices heard.
Democratic activists have good reason to worry as the nomination drags on. Each of the above benefits also has a negative side. If either campaign goes very negative, all of the free media attention will start hurting November prospects. Let the campaign staff and organizers incubate for too long, and they risk burning out. Resort to superdelegate shenanigans, and the party will lose precious legitimacy for years. There's a point of diminishing returns to an extended nomination process. But I'm not convinced that we've hit the point of negative returns -- yet.