Playing Out the String, Sloppily

Even the most avid sports fans tend to pay less attention to the regular season scores after their team has clinched a playoff spot, and even the most dedicated political buffs often stop checking the primary results after the nominations are locked up. In both cases they might be missing something important, because a late slump by a complacent team can carry over into the post-season and a relatively weak showing in the late primaries can reveal weaknesses that might harm a candidate in a general election.

Tuesday night’s largely ignored primaries in Kentucky and Arkansas illustrate the point. Presumptive nominees Mitt Romney and Barack Obama won their respective parties’ contests, as expected, but a closer examination of the box scores reveals some interesting problems for both men.

In the Kentucky primary Romney finished more than 54 points ahead of his closest competitor, the famously stubborn Ron Paul, but only garnered about 67 percent of the total votes in a four-way race. The results were similar in Arkansas, where Romney took about 69 percent of all the votes, with Paul and fellow also-ran Rick Santorum picking up about 13 percent each. Given that all of Romney’s competitors have stopped campaigning, and even offered mild and begrudging endorsements of Romney, the numbers suggest that the all-but-certain Republican nominee still needs to arouse some enthusiasm among the party’s hard-core conservative base, especially in the South.

More notable, though, were the scores on the Democratic side. In Arkansas, Obama lost about 40 percent of the vote to a quadrennial crank candidate named John Wolfe, and in Kentucky he lost 42 percent of the vote to “uncommitted.” Coming just two weeks after an embarrassing showing in the West Virginia primary, where Obama lost 37 percent of the vote to a candidate currently serving time in a federal prison, the results suggest that a sizeable minority of Democrats are not satisfied with their party’s nominee.

The Obama campaign and its allies in the news media will do their part to ensure that the primaries remain largely ignored, and for those who do take notice they’ll downplay the results as peculiar to small redneck states that aren’t going to vote for the president’s re-election anyway, but it’s impossible to argue convincingly that such large numbers of defectors don’t represent a problem. There are Democratic rednecks in every state, after all, and even in such respectable jurisdictions as New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Maryland the president hasn’t topped the 90 percent threshold that is to be expected for an incumbent president running against nominal or even non-existent competition.

After all the talk about the hard-fought Republican primary, the Democrats suddenly seem the less united party.

Those die-hard Republicans who continue to insist on voting for Paul, Santorum, Newt Gingrich, or any of the other conservative also-rans aren’t going to cast a vote for Obama. A few of them will stay home on election day, but we expect that the looming possibility of a second Obama term will be sufficient to get most of them to the polls to vote for Romney. Those Democrats who voted for a felon, a crank candidate, and “uncommitted,” on the other hand, might very well be persuaded to vote Romney.

— Bud Norman

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