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Lincoln Mitchell Headshot

Is a Non-Competitive Primary Really What the Democrats Need?

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As the 2016 election approaches and the question of whether or not Hillary Clinton runs becomes an even bigger topic of discussion among the punditry, it is likely that we will also be told that having a clear nominee early in the process, rather than a hard-fought, and potentially nasty, campaign for the nomination will be good for the party. This idea is intuitively appealing, as contested primaries can make it hard to unite behind one candidate in the general election and can damage the eventual nominee. It is additionally something that we frequently hear from front-runners hoping to avoid a tough primary. This idea is intuitive and attractive, but it should be noted that it also completely false.

In the modern presidential era, dating back to 1960, the Democrats have won the presidency in only four elections when there was no Democratic incumbent running for reelection. Those elections were 1960, 1976, 1992 and 2008. In all four of those elections, the primary was hotly contested; and in at least three, 1960, 1976 and 2008, the early front-runner did not win the nomination. During that same period, there have been two elections where the early front-runner and heavy favorite for the nomination, went on to win the nomination relatively easily. Walter Mondale in 1984 and Al Gore in 2000 both went on to lose the general election, in Mondale's case the race was probably unwinnable, but the same was not true of Gore in 2000. There are, of course, several cases where Democrats lost in November after very competitive primaries, notably 1972 and 1968, so there is no perfect correlation. Nonetheless, the argument that uncontested primaries help Democrats remains one that looks better on paper than in reality.

Clinton, if she runs, will be another test for the notion that competition in the spring hurts the party's chances in the fall. In this regard, the best comparison for Clinton is Gore. Gore's campaign would have, in some respects, been like a third term for the Clinton administration, just as Clinton's campaign will be viewed by many as an attempt to continue the Obama administration. Gore had an opponent in Senator Bill Bradley, but the outcome of the nominating contest was never in doubt. It is possible Clinton will face similarly nominal opposition, and likely her path to the nomination will be even easier should she run.

Regardless of whether one supports Clinton or not, Democrats should be asking whether these likely events will make Clinton a stronger candidate. Two other related pieces of information about Clinton are relevant here. Clinton has never won a competitive election; and, by 2016, it will be fully 10 years since she last won an election. Going into a tough general election campaign against a Republican who will be prepared to do anything to win, this is hardly an asset.

Similarly, there are many questions that candidate Clinton will face. Her time as secretary of state will come under greater scrutiny, and not just about Benghazi. Clinton's record as senator, her work in the private sector in the 1980s and since leaving government, and yes, her husband's conduct during and after his presidency will also be issues in a general election. None of these are serious enough to preclude her winning the presidency, but taken together it is probably better that she not have to confront them for the first time in a general election campaign when there is little room for error.

People who want Clinton to win do her no favors by working to ensure these issues do not come up until the general election, but that is what will happen if she has no opponent. Obama, Bill Clinton and Kennedy all became stronger candidates through a primary season that tested them and helped prevent major surprises in the general election. It is likely that Hillary Clinton would benefit from a similar process, but that is very unlikely to happen.

Because of Clinton's formidable chances in a contested primary, most mainstream Democrats will forego the race if she runs. However, it is possible that a candidate without the strong ties to the party's establishment that Clinton, and those likely to get in the race if she does not run, such as Vice President Joseph Biden, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo or Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, all have, will challenge Clinton. A non-establishment candidate will be attacked by the party leadership, accused of being driven by ego or worse, and of damaging the Democrats' chances in November. These accusations should be understood for what they are, an effort to clear the field for Clinton. Ironically, that candidate would probably be helping Clinton and making her a stronger November candidate.

Clinton will be a very strong candidate and is probably more likely to be our next president than anybody else. Moreover, a non-competitive primary may be unavoidable, but a sober analysis tells us that is probably not good for Clinton, her party, or for our democracy more generally.