Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Will Democrats Really Defect if Their Candidate Loses the Nomination?

One of the stories attracting attention today is a Gallup finding that a significant percentage of Democrats would vote for McCain if their candidate was not the nominee. But how much do these numbers really reflect what might happen in the general election campaign?

The last somewhat divisive primary campaign was in 2000, between Bush and McCain. In March of that year, the Pew Center for the People & the Press released a report titled "Bush Pays Price for Primary Victory." Following Bush's victory in the 2000 primaries and McCain's exit from the race, the Pew survey found that 51% of those who backed McCain during the primary campaign would vote for Gore in the general election. Only 44% of his supporters said that they would be casting their votes for Bush. Furthermore, a significant share of Bradley supporters also said that they would be supporting Bush in the general election, including 39% of his independent backers. (The figure below comes from the Pew report).

What is notable is not that Gallup finds that some Clinton and Obama supporters currently say that they may vote for McCain if their candidate loses, but that the number is so low compared to what it was for McCain and Bradley supporters in 2000. Only 28% of Clinton supporters (and 19% of Obama supporters) say they'd defect if their candidate lost, whereas half of McCain supporters were saying the same thing after he lost his bid for the 2000 Republican nomination.

Eventually, many of those McCain backers likely returned to vote for Bush and most of the Bradley backers likely returned to vote for Gore. The hard feelings that existed shortly after the end of the primary eventually subsided as the party unified for the general election. It is likely the case that Obama and Clinton supporters would eventually return to the fold and support the Democratic nominee in the Fall as well. However, the key difference between 2000 and 2008 will be the timing. When McCain lost the nomination, Bush had between 7-8 months to court McCain's old supporters. The Democratic nominee will have less time to do the courting this year. The critical question is how much time will he or she have?

UPDATE: I've posted some additional context on this question here.
UPDATE 2: I've now also looked at survey data from fall 2000 to see how common defectors were once the general election came around.


Anonymous said...

It's also worth noting that both Bush and Gore won fairly overwhelmingly, so there wasn't quite the "my candidate should have won!" feelings that will exist here. And the # of Bradley and McCain supporters were much smaller, so 50% of them is probably much less than 30% of Clinton or Obama supporters today.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Schaffner...I posted this on I would bring it to the source...

The above analysis just shows the percentage of McCain supporters who said they would defect vote for Gore instead of Bush. It does not, however, show what percent of the overall Republican primary voters the McCain defectors represented. I do not recall the contest between McCain and Bush, but I do not believe it was as close as Clinton and Obama. In other words, Clinton's share of Democratic primary voters is just about as large as Obama's. Thus, even a small RATE of defection might pose a more serious threat than in the past, because it would drain off a significant amount of voters. The fact that participation in the Dem primaries is so high -- including among Independents -- just compounds this. Bradley barely made a showing in the primaries. How did McCain do?

Also, under that Pew Study, all Bush needed to do was shift 3% for a tie (that's not even counting the margin of error!), and he had a long time to do it. The election ended in a tie statistically. So this is not saying much to me.

Also, identity politics and vitriol are just making it worse for the Dems. Chosing between the two conservative, heterosexual white dudes may not have established so much unmoving loyalty for Republican voters. Women and white voters who support Clinton and black voters who support Obama might actually lay it on the line if they feel slighted.

I would add that the internet has fundamentally changed things as well. The level of vitriol is exacerbated by daily venomous exchanges between both candidates' supporters online. This is a larger issue than in 2000. Not sure how that factors in to the drama, but online exchanges have certainly impacted my own sensibilities.