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February 19, 2015

Matthew Yglesias believes that the experience of a competitive nomination contest would help steel Hillary Clinton for a bruising fall campaign in 2016. Robert Borosage thinks a primary challenge from her left could help heal what he sees as a rift between economic populists and centrists in the Democratic Party by moving Clinton to the left on economic policy. In the debate about whether, as a general proposition, primary contests help or hurt general election candidates I tend to think they help. Competitive primaries definitely can provide valuable proving grounds for presidential candidates, though I’m not sure they are reliable cures for intra-party rifts. Either way, I think that Democratic prospects for holding the White House next year would not be diminished, and may well be advanced, by avoiding a competitive nomination contest. In fact, the 2016 election may well breathe new life into what political scientists call the “divisive primary hypothesis.”

If the Democrats coalesce early around Clinton and use the head start to frame the election in party and policy-centric terms; as a referendum on Republican Party control of all three branches of the federal government (a frame that will almost certainly be abetted by both the performance of the Republican-controlled 114th Congress and the ongoing GOP nomination circus), then the danger to Democratic chances of giving Clinton a “free ride” to the November ballot should be minimal.

The institutional and rhetorical contexts of the 2016 presidential election should prove very advantageous for the Democratic nominee. Never in modern history have voters in a presidential election faced the prospect of giving Republicans meaningful control of all three branches of the federal government. George W. Bush enjoyed four years of unified Republican control of the legislative and executive branches during the last two years of his first term and the first two years of his second term. In the latter period, upon the retirement of Justice O’Connor and the death of Chief Justice Rehnquist, Bush was able to put John Roberts and Samuel Alito onto the Supreme Court. Barring untimely death, Bush’s appointments established and secured firm conservative Republican control of the Court well past the term of the next president. The misadventures of a Republican Congress forced to put their money where their mouth is, the output of the Roberts Court, and the policy record and agenda of Republicans in Washington (as well as in red states across the country over the last eight years) will provide the 2016 Democratic nominee with an embarrassment of riches with which to convince “swing voters” that the consequences of electing a Republican president are clear and would be catastrophic.

The relative significance of candidate quality and performance in presidential elections is a matter of some debate among political scientists. While no one seriously argues that candidates and campaigns are irrelevant, many political scientists believe that the party identity of voters is more determinative of choices at the polls than either assessment of candidates, or policy preferences. Furthermore, there is considerable evidence that average voters’ assessments of candidates as people, as leaders, is inextricably (though not necessarily consciously) bound up with their own socio-cultural identity, and that this identity overlaps considerably with voters’ party identity. Voters’ policy preferences are also connected with their party leanings and become more significant to voter choices when policy differences between the candidates and parties are more apparent.

I believe that party matters to voters most when the consequences of party choice are most clear. Though recent polling data seems to suggest that voters aren’t particularly worried about whether the government is controlled by one party or divided between two, this will most certainly change as voters begin to focus on the task at hand in 2016. The 2016 election will happen in the context of a hyper-polarized national political narrative. Partisan polarization over the past eight years has been demonstrably “asymmetrical” with Republicans moving much farther to the right than Democrats have moved to the left.

The combination of this asymmetric polarized political environment and the indisputable likelihood of Republican Party control of all three branches of government if a Republican wins the White House make me confident that Hillary Clinton is both well vetted and well versed enough to frame the 2016 election as a fight between parties, between ideologies, between very transparent and very different policy agendas and preferences. America’s checks and balances system usually clouds accountability, but with institutional power stakes as indisputable and clear as they will be next year, the Republican nominee (no matter who it is) will have a very hard time trying to frame the race in candidate-centric terms, especially if Hillary Clinton and the Democrats get a six month head start.

When you combine the contextual advantages discussed here to expected Democratic electoral college and turnout advantages in 2016, it starts getting very difficult to watch the ongoing jockeying for position among GOP hopefuls without sensing that it’s going to be an expensive and ugly (though certainly entertaining) battle for second place.

Divisive Primary Hypothesis, 2016 Election, Hillary Clinton

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