So Maybe That Long Primary Race Wasn't So Bad

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THE PLANK JUNE 30, 2008

So Maybe That Long Primary Race Wasn't So Bad

As the primaries dragged on--and on and on and on--many pundits worried that it was damaging Barack Obama's chances to win the presidency. (And, just to be clear, by the last few primaries I was agreeing with them.)

As the theory went, Hillary Clinton was giving the Republicans arguments they would use against Obama in the general election. In addition, it was widely said, she was forcing him to fight what was, in effect, a two-front war, fending off attacks from Clinton and John McCain simultaneously. Yes, Obama was still going to become the nominee; that much was clear after the Indiana contest, if not sooner. But he'd emerge from these contests politically weak--and McCain would have emerged from this extended period so strong--that Obama's prospects for election would be significantly diminished.

Well, here we are, basically one month after the Democratic nomination campaign ended, and Obama is sitting on what looks like a pretty steady lead in the polls--anywhere from four to fifteen points, depending on which survey you want to believe. (Gallup has been the lone exception, but its latest poll also has Obama ahead by a few points.) It's been more than a month since anybody's survey showed McCain ahead. And while McCain has his moments now and then, most pundits agree that Obama looks stronger--and that it is, increasigly, his race to lose.

Meanwhile, Clinton--widely rumored to be planning all kinds of nefarious acts for Denver--appeared on stage with Obama, offered her wholehearted endorsement, and gave the campaign a terrific day of media coverage.

Of course, it is very, very early. The polls could be overstating Obama's support and, even if they're not, there are a million things that could go wrong for him between now and November.

But, looking back, would an easier race really have left him in a stronger position? As Obama himself has said, the long primary probably gave his campaign more opportunities to organize and raise money. (Just look at how his fundraising tapered off once the contest was over.) It also forced him to hone his message--and to confront issues like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy, which would have bedeviled him in the general election.

And one more thing: It looks like most of Clinton's supporters will, indeed, come around and support Obama (as they should!). But imagine if party elders and the pundits had somehow brought the race to a premature close. My bet is that a lot of her backers would be far more bitter now--and Obama would find himself with a more lasting, and more serious, problem among these voters.  

History does not allow us to run counter-factuals, so there is no way to know for certain whether a quicker, less torturous primary might have been better for Obama and the Democrats. But given the state of the race today, you can count me as skeptical. 

--Jonathan Cohn 

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