The Long Race

You hear the idea batted around that Democrats want this race to be over (perhaps among Obama supporters more than others). Republicans have chosen their man, the thinking goes—it’s time for Dems to wrap this up.

But that doesn’t take into account the extent to which the longest primary in history has energized the Democratic Party. Take this estimate that Texas’ primary turnout is expected to be more than 3.6 million on the Democratic side. Compare that with the 2.8 million Texans who turned out for John Kerry in the 2004 general election . I thought Clinton was delusional when she said in her acceptance speech tonight that she thinks Democrats can win Texas in the general. But look at those numbers.

By that logic, the longer the primary drags on, the more the party benefits. Democrats will probably turn out in record numbers in Wyoming and Mississippi next week, and again in Pennsylvania in April. And in swing states (Pennsylvania, North Carolina), energizing new Democratic voters could make a huge difference in the general.

The question is, how long can the race continue before the candidates really start to bruise each other? Sure, it’s great to get new voters mobilized in South Dakota, but at what cost? Hillary’s victories in Ohio and Texas owe partly to her heightened attacks on Obama (“3 a.m.,” NAFTA, Rezko). The coming months could make the past week look tame by comparison.

It’s a trade-off, no doubt. But it’s a trade-off that some members of the party’s leadership, Howard Dean in particular, would be happy to make. Dean’s 50-state strategy earned him scorn from Democratic establishment types. But it also set the stage for this year’s long primary, in which almost every state in the union may command the candidates’ attention. If anything, Dean himself couldn’t have designed a better primary narrative. It might enrage people concerned with solidifying a nominee. But in terms of party-building, it could be transformational.