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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Buyer’s Remorse

Via Steve Benen, today’s big thought experiment in the blogosphere comes from Ross Douthat’s observation (which crystallizes a very common feeling) that none of the Republican presidential candidates can win the nomination, since all of them have “near-disqualifying weaknesses.”
If anything, this phenomenon has intensified of late. Giuliani’s social-issues problems and marital record have been massively compounded by a sex-corruption scandal that is not going to go away. The disrespect establishment conservatives had for Mike Huckabee has turned into virulent hostility, and you best believe his own scandal, involving rapist/murderer Wayne DuMond, is going to get pushed into the faces of every GOP voter in IA and NH. The immigration issue keeps getting bigger in GOP circles, making John McCain not just an unacceptable nominee, but an arch-villain. And all the scuttlebutt about Fred Thompson’s lazy streak has been abundantly confirmed by his behavior on the campaign trail; he’s emphatically flunked his candidate audition.
I don’t buy Douthat’s assertion that Romney’s ideological background is as disqualifying a problem as those suffered by his rivals, but do think Romney’s poorly positioned himself for the long haul by building expectations for an early-state sweep. Ironically, the major GOP candidate with the fewest weaknesses could be the first knocked out if he loses both IA and NH.
In any event, the GOP candidate landscape is one that might well invite a strong sense of buyer’s remorse after someone inevitably moves into a strong overall lead. But there are two obstacles to that kind of development. The first, quite obviously, is the compressed primary schedule, which provides relatively few late opportunities for effective guerilla warfare against a prohibitive favorite. And the second is that historically, Republicans don’t seem prone to buyer’s remorse, even if second thoughts might have been completely justified.
In this respect, the two parties have been starkly different. On the Democratic side, the ultimate nominee has undergone a terrible losing streak late in the primary season on several occasions (most clearly in 1976, 1980 and 1984). In other years–1972, 1988, and 1992–the all-but-acknowledged nominee had some late struggles against one surviving rival. And even in 2004, John Edwards threw a scare into John Kerry after the latter had supposedly all but wrapped up the nomination. Indeed, 2000 was the one year in which the Democratic front-runner in a genuinely contested nomination fight just didn’t lose much of anywhere.
Among Republicans, the only serious late challenge occurred in 1976, when Ronald Reagan made it all the way to the Convention, but in the unique circumstance of an appointed president facing the maximum hero of the conservative movement (ironically, the only other modern–i.e., primary era–example of any sort of delayed GOP challenge was in 1980, when George H.W. Bush won a couple of late primaries against Reagan). But by and large, and even in cases of front-runners who looked increasingly weak as general-election candidates, such as Bush 41 in 1992 and Dole in 1996, once the deal went down, GOPers stayed in line. And that was in the old, stretched out primary calendar that made quick kills more difficult.
So what will happen if a candidate emerges from February 5 with a giant delegate lead and a lot of baggage? Given the history, and the fact that any late challenger would probably be similarly handicapped, it’s a recipe for a weak nominee and a discouraged party.

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