TOPICS > Politics

Marathon 2008 Primary Season Makes History

May 20, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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For Democrats, the 2008 primary season has been the longest in recent memory, with no shortage of upsets, talk of momentum, and states defying parties to hold primaries earlier than ever. Three historians discuss the significance of 2008's lengthy primaries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With today’s Kentucky and Oregon primaries and less than a handful more to go, some historical perspective.

When dozens of states decided to move their primary dates to early in the year, who could have predicted the long, drawn-out nominating process that followed? What impact has the new calendar had on the candidates? And how might it affect them heading into the general election?

Well, for that, and more, we turn to presidential historian Michael Beschloss; Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University; and also joining us is Kathryn Pearson, she’s professor of political science at the University of Minnesota.

Thank you, all three.

And before we turn to this election, the news today that Senator Edward Kennedy’s diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. We don’t know the prognosis in any detail. Of course, everyone is wishing him well.

But what I want to ask the two of you, Michael and Richard, because you both know him and you’ve written about him, why do you think there’s been such a huge outpouring of concern and emotion, Michael, from both Democrats and Republicans? What does Ted Kennedy represent? What is it about him?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: You know, he has enormous friendships across the aisle in a way that, unfortunately, is largely of the past in Washington these days. You don’t see that very often. He’s been in the Senate for 46 years.

You know, in the late 1950s, his brother, Jack, when he was still a senator, was assigned to a committee to select the great senators in American history and put them on a wall of the Capitol. I think, whatever your politics today, you would say that Ted Kennedy, if that were done today, would be on that wall.

He once said, “I define liberalism in this country,” and that’s been pretty much true since his brother, Robert, was assassinated almost exactly 40 years ago next month, in 1968. This is a senator who, in certain ways, has had more influence on American history over more than four decades than some American presidents.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard Norton Smith, you sat down and talked with him not very long ago.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Yes, it was actually in January. It was a week before the Obama endorsement. And things were said that day that led me to believe to not be totally surprised when it came.

And here’s the poignancy of this lion of liberalism, this man who really, for 50 years, has represented the Great New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier tradition, in many ways handing the baton off to the man who he sees as his heir.

But, you know, another thing, he really is a happy warrior. He loved the fray. He loved the battle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to put it in present sense. He’s still with us.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, you know, I’ll give you a personal recollection of a side of him that not many people saw. Seven years ago, at the Kennedy Library, President Ford received the Profiles in Courage Award for the Nixon pardon.

And Senator Kennedy hosted, got up there and said, “You know, I was wrong. President Ford was right.” But it was behind the scenes. Seeing the interaction between these two and everyone else is extraordinary.

You know, he may have lots of adversaries in the Senate and ideological opponents, but he doesn’t have a single enemy.

Front-loaded primary calendar

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let's turn to that election you just mentioned. Now that this process is winding down, Kathryn Pearson, when it's all over on June the 3rd, it will have been five months. If you look back in history, modern political history, how is this primary process different in tone and substance?

KATHRYN PEARSON, University of Minnesota: Well, as it often happens, party leaders and candidates look back to the most recent cycle, and that is reflected in some of the decisions they make.

So thinking back four years ago, the nomination on the Democratic side was wrapped up in the first week of March. And as a result, during this cycle, we saw all the front-loading, whereby states moved up their primaries and caucuses, and, you know, half the voting was done by February 5th. Yet, assuming voters still have their say on June 3rd, it won't wrap up until then.

And so what I think what will happen four years from now is people will look back on this cycle and assume that it will be another long cycle. But if we look back in history, some have been short, some have been long, and so it's really hard to predict the length simply based on a historical perspective.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael, how is this one -- when you think back over those presidential elections that you've studied, how is this one set apart, stand apart from the others?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, for most of history, it took a long time. But if you and I were talking let's say last December -- and I think we did, off air and on -- I would have said this is an atrocious process. It's going to happen much too fast, it's going to be front-loaded, and probably be over by the end of January of '08...

JUDY WOODRUFF: That's what everybody was saying.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: ... and dominated. And the person who's likely to win is probably going to be the candidate who raised the most money from rich donors, which I think is not necessarily a good thing for all sorts of reasons. And I would have been wrong.

But I would have been wrong not because the process was that much better than I thought, but basically because sort of a fluke, which was that Barack Obama decided to challenge Hillary Clinton -- and these comments are made without regard to who turned out to be the nominee -- but he was probably the only one who was able to raise the amount of money on the Internet that could allow him to be a serious rival.

And, plus, the process allowed this to go on long enough so that I think, by this evening, we know a lot more about these two candidates than we ever would have known, had it been over by the end of January. So, in the end, in terms of just learning about candidates, I think it's been a good process.

Polarization 'particularly high'

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Richard, the length has really set this one apart?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, every one of these is a vetting process. If you look at John Kennedy in 1960, if you look at Jimmy Carter in 1976, candidates who were not terribly well-known and who were certainly not looked upon with great favor by the party establishments, who, in effect, went into the primaries and took the nomination away from the party establishment and, in the course of doing that, defined themselves as a credible president.

And, again, who knows what's going to happen either at the convention or in November, but the other thing that has to be, it seems to me, stressed is none of these things happen in a vacuum.

The fact is the Democratic race for the White House was going to play out against this enormous desire for change. And I think, putting aside calendars and everything else, it was Barack Obama's success in portraying himself, presenting himself as a credible vehicle for change, as opposed to Hillary Clinton's argument on experience, that gave him a leg up that, perhaps, none of us had imagined.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kathryn Pearson, what in history do we learn in the primary process that helps us understand the general election campaign, if anything?

KATHRYN PEARSON: Good question. And I want to define "history" here. So this is the 10th primary process or presidential nomination process under the new rules, under the post-McGovern-Fraser rules, whereby candidates have to campaign to get delegates from caucuses and primaries.

And so I think it's those previous nine cycles that we really want to be comparing it to. And I think it's important to realize that we are in an area of particularly high polarization and an era where voters, again, to re-emphasize, really want change. That's been a critical frame.

And so this process certainly, in and of itself, will tell us that in the general election there will be a lot of attention paid to the contests. There will be a lot of negative ads. And there will be a lot of conversations about some of the issues that have already come up in these primaries.

Long nomination can be good or bad

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much have we learned in this process about these candidates?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, let me give you a comparison of the previous two Democratic processes, since we're talking about the Democratic side. In 2000, Al Gore locked up the nomination pretty quickly against one candidate, Bill Bradley.

And I think, if he had run for a longer period of time, people would have seen that he had many good qualities, but being a compelling, effective campaigner, at least that year, wasn't one of them.

Same thing was true of John Kerry in 2004. In a longer process with more competition, Democrats would have seen that.

And the other thing is that these people learn something from the process. Hillary Clinton is a five times better candidate tonight than she was at the beginning of this year, probably the same with Barack Obama. They learn things.

John Kennedy in 1960 ran in the West Virginia primary. He had not met many poor people before. It made a big impact on him, had a lot to do with his presidency. The first thing he did was sign an executive order alleviating poverty in West Virginia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So long primary necessarily makes a stronger candidate?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Not necessarily. Again, it depends on the general political climate, the atmosphere in which you're operating.

Again, to go back to '76, Jimmy Carter emerged a strong candidate who embodied this outsider, you know, the desire, post-Vietnam and Watergate people wanted to run against Washington.

Four years later, he went through a very bitter fight with Senator Kennedy, emerged fatally weakened, and the question that should be asked is, would Senator Kennedy have run against him if he wasn't weakened already?

Party insiders eager for unity

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned the political conditions a minute ago. Can political conditions be so powerful, so overwhelming, that whatever happens in a primary process -- I mean, within certain boundaries -- really can't overcome?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, yes. I mean, there are change elections. There are tidal wave elections.

I mean, 1920, Wilsonism. People just went to the polls not because they thought Warren Harding was another Lincoln, but because they wanted to put Woodrow Wilson behind them. There is a school of thought that says 2008 has the potential to be that kind of election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What other lessons, Kathryn Pearson?

KATHRYN PEARSON: Well, I was just going to jump in there, that political scientists, actually some model presidential election results without even taking the candidates into effect, by looking at things like the economy, whether or not we're at war, what the partisan identification is going into the electorate.

And so these factors are all very important, despite the fact that it has been a long and contentious primary process. And, truly, people are more engaged than they have been in recent cycles.

But if you look at recent polling data, still, only between 30 percent and 40 percent of people are paying very close attention to these primaries. So the general election campaign, when it starts with the conventions after Labor Day, will still be the time that a lot of swing voters in swing states really tune in.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Party hacks hate long primary campaigns. They do this year on the Democratic side. They want this over as quickly as possible, and I would bet that...


MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Because they want to turn to unifying the party. They don't want a divisive battle. They want to start the fall campaign against John McCain.

And I guarantee you, after this election, the Democrats will start, you know, devising ways to frontload this even further. I hope they don't.

Two reasons. One is long campaign has raised Democratic turnout, actually increased the chance for them of a Democratic victory this fall. And the other thing, as I said is, whoever is the nominee, probably Barack Obama, is going to have a better chance to win because he's been through this experience.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what looks like a disadvantage now may turn out to be an advantage?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Happens in life.

KATHRYN PEARSON: And not only...

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're going to have to leave it there. Richard Norton Smith, Kathryn Pearson, Michael Beschloss, thank you, all three.