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Monday, February 11, 2008
 
Are the Republicans Headed for the Cliff Even With McCain?

One of the arguments that we McCainiacs have used on our friends in the GOP is that Senator McCain is the most electable Republican. But looking at the turnout on the Democratic side of the primaries this year, is it not arguable that no matter which Republican we nominated we'd be heading for disaster?

Not necessarily. Karl at Protein Wisdom looks at the polls both nationally and in a few key states to show that there does not appear to be a landslide imminent. Meanwhile, Willisms looks at past turnouts to show that big participation in the primaries has not always translated into victory in the fall.

I find the Willisms' post interesting, but less convincing. For example, he points to 1980, when the Democrats had 18.7 million voters turn out for their primaries, while the GOP had 12.7 million primary ballots turned in, even as the Democrats were headed towards a historic defeat.

This overlooks a key dynamic in that race. Initially Carter did not face any intra-party challenge in 1980, but as it became obvious that he was headed towards defeat in the fall, Ted Kennedy threw his hat in the ring and drove interest in the race to new levels, even as Reagan was wrapping up his easy win in the GOP field.

Here's another way to look at those numbers. The "higher turnout in the primaries results in a win in the general" theory was wrong in 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1996 and 2004. But it was right in 1976, 1992 and 2000. And what do those years have in common? They were all years in which the party out of power won the White House. Of course this still doesn't tell us whether this is one of the former years, or one of the latter.

And the complicating factor is the absolutely unique quality of this race, which we have remarked on quite often. This is the first time in at least my lifetime that there has been no heir apparent on either side. In every other election since 1952, either a sitting president or a sitting vice president was running on one side or the other. It's not terribly surprising that in 1972 or 1984 or 1996 or 2004, that turnout was higher for the party out of power (since they actually had a contest, not a coronation), and yet these did not presage victory in the general because incumbent presidents tend to win.

Now that the Republican contest seems largely settled, the Democrats will no doubt increase their turnout advantage. Indeed, some friends of mine in Virginia called me the other day to say that they were going to vote in the Democratic primary rather than the Republican because the race is settled on our side and they want to monkey-wrench the Democrats by helping Hillary.

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