In the wake of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s 12-point victory in the New Hampshire Democratic primary election Tuesday, three electoral experts analyzed the meaning of the results, the wisdom of the process itself, and what to expect in the general election.
The three — Rockefeller Center Director and government professor Linda Fowler, St. Anselm College political science professor Dean Spiliotes and Emory University political science professor Alan Abramowitz — said that it would be difficult for Kerry to lose the nomination if he does well in the seven states that have their primaries next Tuesday. But unfortunately for Democrats, they also doubted the nominee’s chances against President Bush in November.
Spiliotes analyzed the exit polling from Tuesday’s election that showed a broad base of support for Kerry. Spiliotes said he was surprised at how well Kerry did among veterans compared with former Gen. Wesley Clark and at his level of labor union support, which former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has courted aggressively.
Kerry also had the most support from voters who singled out electability as their primary concern and among voters who decided their candidate in the week before the election.
Dean did well among voters who decided their candidate more than a month ago, voters whose main issue was the war in Iraq and voters who identified themselves as very liberal.
Spiliotes said that former frontrunner Dean’s defeat can be explained by the fact that he did not look presidential enough, which is an especially important factor for undeclared voters who aren’t issue-driven and don’t follow politics as closely. He said that the “I have a scream” speech was an important event for voters deciding against Dean.
Abramowitz, an expert at forecasting elections, said that it depends little on whom the Democrats nominate because Bush presents such a formidable challenge. Bush presents a problem mainly because of his status as a first-term incumbent, his relatively high approval ratings, and the high probability that the economy will continue its rebound.
Abramowitz’s calculations show that for Bush to lose in November his approval rating would have to drop to around 40 percent and the economy would have to once again go into recession. The calculations’ margin of error is 2 to 3 percentage points. Abramowitz discounted the effect of Bush’s fundraising operation, which is targeted to raise $170 to $200 million.
“It’s a little depressing based on your point of view,” Abramowitz said. “The reality is that when you have a first-term incumbent, it’s difficult to be defeated.”
The one piece of reassuring advice Abramowitz offered Democrats was to wait until 2008, pointing to speculation that New York Sen. Hillary Clinton will run for the presidency then.
Whereas Spiliotes and Abramowitz analyzed the current status of the primary and the chances for the general election, Fowler questioned the process itself. She especially criticized the media for relying on polls and focusing on the horserace qualities of the primary process.
She said this year’s primaries are especially difficult for the candidates, as the Democrats compacted their primary schedule following the 2000 election. The shorter process magnifies the effect of momentum and the importance of a national organization. She said that they expected Al Gore, who already has a national organization, to run again, but that they are now are left with candidates without any national organization.
The fact that candidates spend about a year campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire and only a few days in the other states also amplifies the impact of the media, she said.
The primary schedule is so compact and difficult that the nominee will be a “dead man walking” going into the general election, Fowler said.
“The winner of the primary system will then have the wonderful treat of facing George W. Bush and his $200 million,” Fowler said.
Spiliotes and Fowler are co-authors of several papers, including one analyzing the voting patterns of undeclared voters. Spiliotes is also the author of the book “Vicious Cycle,” which discusses how presidents manage the economy. Abramowitz is a renowned forecasting expert, and author of several books.