Will the Divisive Democratic Primary Hurt the Nominee in November?

Some Democratic elites fear that the answer is yes. For example, the head of the DNC, Howard Dean, has expressed such a concern:

The idea that we can afford to have a big fight at the convention and then win the race in the next eight weeks, I think, is not a good scenario.

Does a divisive primary hurt the general election chances of the nominee who emerges from that primary? In short, the answer is no. Perhaps the most relevant study is by Lonna Rae Atkeson (here, gated). She examines presidential elections from 1936-1996 and finds that the relative divisiveness of the two parties’ primaries is not related to the general election outcome, once other factors, namely the state of the economy and the popularity of the incumbent president, are taken into account. The logic is this: a divisive primary is more likely to arise if an incumbent is unpopular or presiding over a weak economy, simply because this incumbent will attract more challengers. Leaving the economy and presidential popularity out of the equation risks overestimating the effects of divisiveness.

This November’s outcome will depend more on fundamental conditions in the country, especially the economy, than on the tenor of the race between Senators Obama and Clinton.

[Addendum: See also more (and better) discussion of the issue by Josh Putnam over at Frontloading HQ.]

13 Responses to Will the Divisive Democratic Primary Hurt the Nominee in November?

  1. Jacob February 28, 2008 at 11:40 pm #

    On the article: yes, but remember also that the N is 16, which is small. Importantly, just because she is unable to reject the null hypothesis (i.e. no effect of divisiveness) does not mean that the alternative is wrong.

    I would also look at the other direction, that a divisive campaign might actually be beneficial for the party with the division. The fighting candidates and their party get most of the media attention while the real competitor (say McCain) gets little. This is under the (strong) assumption that all news are good news.

  2. Scott McClurg February 29, 2008 at 7:36 am #

    Anand Sohkey has written an interesting paper on divisive primaries where he examines the social networks of voters in a single county where there was a competitive primary. Interestingly, he finds that the losers tend to withdraw from networks that make them predisposed to supporting the candidate from their party.

    Its not exactly evidence that divisive primaries hurt candidates, but it does suggest that the level of acrimony can seap into micro social environments and make the task of the winning candidate more difficult.

  3. Josh Putnam February 29, 2008 at 11:14 pm #

    My comments on divisive primaries ended up growing into a post of their own on my blog. Please feel free to come by Frontloading HQ for my take.

    The main points of contention:
    When does the change from competitiveness to divisiveness take place?

    How has the change in timing of delegate selection events affected the development of divisiveness?

  4. Paul-Henri Gurian March 2, 2008 at 1:11 pm #

    Atkeson’s 1998 research addresses the impact of divisive state primaries, not national party division. (The same is true of virtually all other studies of divisive primaries.)
    Atkeson and I, together with Damon Cann, Nathan Burroughs and Audrey Haynes, have measured the effects of national party division (controlling for 14 other factors). We find that a divided party will lose up to 5% nationally in the general election, as well as losing up to 2% in individal states that had divisive state primaries.

  5. John Sides March 2, 2008 at 2:14 pm #

    Paul-Henri, do you have a paper with these data? If so, could you post a link?

  6. Josh Putnam March 2, 2008 at 5:00 pm #

    John,
    There’s a link to Paul’s article (from APSA 2002) in my post linked above (3rd comment down).

  7. John Sides March 2, 2008 at 5:16 pm #

    Josh, thanks very much. Apologies for the oversight. I’ve appended that link to the original post.

  8. Josh Putnam March 2, 2008 at 7:31 pm #

    Oh sure. No problem. Thanks for putting that up.

    I emailed Paul to ask him if he had an updated version of the paper that includes Damon Cann. He’s been added to the paper since that conference presentation at APSA. So Paul may try to post a link to that later.

    Thanks for a great post. This has been a good discussion.

  9. Jason March 5, 2008 at 6:20 pm #

    Also relevant to the discussion is Jeff Lazarus’s 2005 LSQ article about primary divisiveness in House elections. He argues that it is anticipation of GEs that cause divisive primaries, not that divisive primaries cause close GEs. To at least some extent that seems what is going on in the current Dem primary. If they were competing for the “right” to go on to certain defeat at the hands of McCain, I bet there would be far more enthusiasm for dropping out.

    A colleague today reminded me of a similarly themed SNL sketch about a democratic primary debate in 1992 (when Gulf War halo still covered Bush 41 and most thought he would easily win the GE) and the candidates all seem like they’re trying to get out of running. Cuomo says something like “but I have mob ties!”

  10. David N March 5, 2008 at 10:04 pm #

    In the recent cases where
    the nomination was contested
    until the convention, the
    party with the contest lost,
    and the loss was in part due to the contest.

    Humphrey-McCarthy
    Ford-Reagan
    Carter-Kennedy

  11. Josh Putnam March 6, 2008 at 12:36 pm #

    John,
    Here, finally, is the link to the updated version of Paul Gurian’s (et al.) divisive primaries paper.
    Josh

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] is called the divisive primary hypothesis, and John wrote a post back in early 2008 (see also the comments) that presented some relevant research. John suggested that divisive primaries had little effect on […]

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    […] The logic is this: a divisive primary is more likely to arise if an incumbent is unpopular or residing over a weak economy, simply because this incumbent will attract more challengers. Leaving the economy and presidential popularity out of the equation risks overestimating the effects of divisiveness. John Sides […]