Old Shoe v. Reformer: a Grand Unified Theory of Dem Nomination Contests

Blogger Chris Bowers (now at OpenLeft, formerly of MyDD) has been repeatedly comparing the 2008 Dem nomination contest with that of 2004, expecting this year to ultimately behave like 2004, and (as of yesterday) asking why it’s not behaving much like 2004 so far.

My answer, which I’ve shared there, is that the Dems’ 2004 race for the nomination was an anomaly, one that, if they’re lucky, they won’t see a repeat of again for quite some time. But I thought my reasoning might be of interest over here as well, because it constitutes an overarching theory of Democratic nominating contests in the post-Watergate era.

Our text today is from yesterday’s Meet the Press:

The basic idea here is that a Dem nomination contest in the current era has two main players, which we’ll call the Old-Shoe Democrat and the Good-Government Reformer.

The former does well amongst blacks and working-class whites, who are reasonably comfortable with him and trust him not to shaft them. The latter does well amongst college-educated voters. The Old-Shoe candidate has all the advantages, because there are lots of blacks and working-class whites, but college-educated voters are a minority.

As Brownstein says, Obama’s in the Reformer tradition, the heir to Hart, Tsongas, and Bradley, which almost automatically makes him the underdog. The classic instance of an Old-Shoe v. Reformer campaign would be Mondale-Hart in 1984. If Jesse Jackson hadn’t been running as well, siphoning off large quantities of African-American votes that would have normally gone to Mondale, it wouldn’t have even been close.

We see this division again with Clinton-Tsongas in 1992 and Gore-Bradley in 2000. Clinton, only having marginally been a national figure before 1992, needed to audition for the Old-Shoe role, but he won the role, and the nomination.

In 1988, I’m not sure if anyone quite managed to grab the Old-Shoe role. Between that role’s getting fragmented, plus Jesse Jackson’s having his best Presidential run, not only grabbing black votes but making inroads amongst working-class whites, the leading Reformer, Dukakis, was able to pull off a win.

In 2004, this structure collapsed: the contenders for the Old-Shoe role either didn’t stir any confidence in anyone (Lieberman, Gephardt) or were all wrong for the role (Kerry). And the Reformer role was fragmented as well, amongst Dean, Clark, and to some extent Edwards. Eventually Kerry won because somebody had to, and Kerry cleans up well.

This time around, we’re back to normal. Hillary’s the Old-Shoe Dem. Obama’s got the inside track on the Reformer role. I don’t expect this year to look anything like 2004. If they’re lucky, the Dems will never see another Dem primary season like 2004; 2004 was a complete anomaly. IMHO, it wouldn’t have happened like it did if the party hadn’t been in such bad shape, and if the field hadn’t been so weak.

If you want a model for 2008, it’s not 2004 but 1984.

The one advantage Obama has over the traditional Reformer is that, as Todd points out in the MtP transcript, Obama has a much better chance to pick up a serious chunk of the black vote than the traditional Reformer candidate does. The problem, of course, is that while he’s made inroads, they’re still limited: Hillary’s still doing better amongst blacks than Obama is.

How about Edwards? He may be a reformer, but not of the good-government type. His campaign is not about budget-balancing, campaign finance reform, or any of the traditional ‘above politics’ fodder. (Except for some stands on telecom issues that few political non-junkies will notice.) He’s running as an updated version of a traditional Democrat: universal health care, a more progressive tax code, continuing to raise the minimum wage. Unless he can knock Hillary off her perch as the heir apparent to the Old-Shoe role in the race, he’s got nowhere to go.

But this is why the volatility in the 2003-04 polls isn’t repeating itself this year: 2004 was the anomaly. As long as Hillary is wearing the old shoes, so to speak, she’s going to have the biggest single chunk of the primary votes. And Obama’s got a firm hold on the Reformer niche. There’s no reason for a lot of movement.

If anyone’s wondering why I limit this to the post-Watergate era, the reason is this: up through 1968, most states’ convention delegates weren’t determined by actual voters. (That’s how Humphrey walked off with the 1968 nomination, despite having essentially skipped the primaries.) And while the rules had changed by 1972, my sense is that the McGovern campaign was the only major campaign that had really adapted to them yet. Call it a transition year.

How does 1976 fit your theory?

Glad you asked.

1976 was the most interesting campaign from this perspective. I’d love to see the polling from that primary season, but my impression is that Carter managed to snag both roles. He was a classic good-government reformer, but as a moderate rural white Southerner, he was able to do well with blacks and blue-collar whites, defeating George Wallace in Florida and Scoop Jackson in Pennsylvania that spring.

I’d like to hear a little bit more about how Clinton circa 1992 could plausibly be considered an Old-Shoe candidate.

This seems to be one of those self-fulfilling theories: if you win, you’re automatically Old Shoe. Clinton worked pretty hard in 1992 to rebrand the Democratic Party as being more centrist. That doesn’t strike me as something an Old Shoe would do.

And perhaps I’m grossly misunderstanding, but I’m not seeing 2004 as any kind of anomaly to the theory that Old Shoes tend to get the nomination. If one sticks with the theory, one has to admit that Kerry was the Old Shoe or that the dichotomy between Old Shoes and Reformers isn’t accurate – one can’t just say that Kerry defaulted to the Old Shoe role because “somebody had to win.” That means the theory is meaningless.

Put me in the camp that says every election is a test of different circumstances, but there is a common theme that candidates tend to describe themselves as either fresh outsiders or experienced insiders. But the image that candidates seek to portray isn’t the defining factor as who will win: otherwise, all Dem candidates would argue over which of them is the best insider, since, under this theory, insiders are much more likely to win. Factors like likability, ability to fundraise, communication skills, stances on key issues on the voters minds, whether an opponent is an incumbent President or not, and a candidate’s experience are all, in my mind, much more important factors on who will win the nomination rather than looking only at a false dichotomy of Old Shoe vs. Reformer.

And I think that Brownstein’s point isn’t exactly on point to what the OP is arguing. What Brownstein is saying is perhaps better boiled down to the unprofound though, “If Obama is going to win he needs broader appeal and more votes,” rather than “Obama probably won’t win if he doesn’t become the Old Shoe.”

By (a) having been in the game for awhile, and (b) appealing to blacks and working-class whites.

I disagree. It’s pretty clear that Clinton tried to disassociate the Democrats from their more extreme elements in order to accomplish more basic aims of ensuring economic security for those who “work hard and play by the rules.”

Here’s the deal, as far as my theory is concerned: unless you can say of a candidate, “this guy got the lion’s share of the votes of blacks and working-class whites,” then you don’t have a single Old-Shoe candidate. If you can say that, then you do.

I don’t have 2004 primary polling data on hand, but if you know where we can get it, we can see how well Kerry did amongst those groups in the primaries.

The primary distinction I’m drawing is between candidates that appeal to blacks and working-class whites, and those whose strongest appeal is to people with college degrees. And styles of campaigns and candidates tend to break one way or the other, because it’s hard to play to both.

I’m still not so sure what’s false about the dichotomy.

The factors you list are all important - but still, it’s hard to straddle these two niches in the Democratic political ecology. These things will help you dominate one niche or the other, but if you’re in what one of the MtP gang aptly (IMHO) described as the “Starbucks ghetto,” then you’ve either got to have some way of reaching beyond that niche, or you’ve got to hope nobody winds up dominating the other niche, or the best you can do is second place.

To dilute all horse-race commentary to, “In order to win, Candidate X needs most of the votes,” pretty much does in the genre, doesn’t it?

Not that that would be a bad thing. :slight_smile:

But I’m not saying, “Obama probably won’t win if he doesn’t become the Old Shoe.” I’m saying that, by dint of his skin color, Obama has an unusual ‘in’ with a big chunk of Old Shoe voters for a Reformer. That doesn’t make him any less of a Reformer, but it could still even the odds.

I have some primary polling data on 2004, but before I reveal the numbers, I want to make sure that we’re not skewing definitions to fit the data. Are you saying that if someone has a clear lead in the black and working class white votes, then they are an Old Shoe. And if they have a substantial lead in highly educated or high income earners, then they are reformers. What about if preferences of those groups are split among candidates, or mixed, or unified behind one candidate? (Obviously if one candidate unites support, then he wins, so I’m not sure how instructive that is for the theory… but commenting on the other matters would be helpful.)

I’m saying it takes not just a clear lead, but a majority, of the black and working class votes to be the Old Shoe. If you’ve got 30% of the black and working class votes, and four other candidates have 15% each, then there is no Old Shoe; the vote is fractured. Similarly for the Reformer side of the equation.

Does that make sense? Let me know if you’d like further clarification before we go to the numbers.

For exit polls on the 2004 race, go here. Click on the date of the primary, and most races have breakdowns of who voted for whom. The bottom line that I have found skimming through the results is that if someone does well in a primary, they tend to have more support across the board - more support from educated, non-educated, black, white, women, rich, poor, etc. - not isolated to certain demographics. While there are some differences apparent – African-Americans tended to support Sharpton in far different proportion to Sharpton’s share of the vote – for the most part I walk away from these exit polls thinking, “the winner won.” Where Edwards won, he ran well pretty much across the board, and where Kerry won, he generally won pretty big with support from just about everyone.

Same thing for 2000. Gore basically crushed Bradley. Bradley wasn’t the Reformer, because the educated voted for Gore. In fact, I couldn’t find a single category in which Bradley showed a consistent lead among ANY demographic once all of the states were reviewed. Here’s that link.

So having put probably far too much time into researching this, unless you can point out some trends in this data, there doesn’t seem to be a trend visible in the last two primary elections, other than that winners get more support from pretty much every corner. And if we have two consecutive elections in which the trend does not appear, then I question whether the theory is of any use.

For 2004, of course, that would not contradict my claim that it was an anomaly where the usual distinctions didn’t apply.

For 2000, I went to New Hampshire, since it was the only state I knew had a primary while the result was in doubt. For college-educated v. not college educated, there was a nontrivial swing: Bradley won the college grads, 54-45, and Gore won the non-grads, 55-42. (CNN sliced and diced the demographics every which way - gender, age, income, education, religion, party ID, for/against Internet sales tax - but no race, which made it hard to say much about the old-shoe part. Maybe NH is too white for them to ask about race.)

There are two reasons why it makes no sense to look at the results of primaries that happen after the race is effectively over: first, the distinctions tend to blur. If Gore beats Bradley in Maryland by nearly 70-30, he’s probably won across the board. The other reason is that the question you’re trying to answer is, “How can Candidate X win?” Once he’s already won or lost, it’s immaterial.

For instance, if Hillary Clinton wraps up the nomination by mid-February, then Obama’s support among college grads in April primaries won’t tell you anything; he’s lost, and his support will go with his losing.

Now, the results of a national poll taken shortly before NH in 2000, broken down by demographics, would be very interesting indeed.

First, you haven’t established that there’s any general trend for which an exception would demonstrate an anomaly.

Second, I think you should look for the poll. You’re the one making the claim, you should find some evidence to prove it.