How the Primaries Rewrote the Script: Lessons for the Campaign Ahead

A key question, one that's been heavily debated, is whether Clinton's supporters would rally to Obama as the nominee, defect to McCain or, perhaps more likely, sit it out. The question's a fair one, but it's too soon to answer. As we've reported previously, a look at polling data since 1988 shows that, in the heat of their primary battles, supporters of a losing nominee routinely have been loathe to say they'd vote for the winner in November. Whether those wounds heal relies on time, and the nature of the endgame.

The potential effect of racism is another wildcard. In the last national ABC/Post poll, 12 percent of Americans said they were uncomfortable with the idea of an African-American president, 6 percent, "very uncomfortable." (Far more, 39 percent, were uncomfortable with the idea of a 72-year-old first-time president.) In another measure, in the eight Democratic primaries for which we have data, 12 percent of voters were whites who described race as an important factor in their vote, and half of them said they would not support Obama as the nominee in November. Whether and where that holds, and whether he compensates with other voters, also need monitoring.

What should matter most in the general election is the red meat of issues. They count for less in the primaries because candidates in the same party tend not to be deeply differentiated on basic issues (Giuliani was an exception). With the primaries done, watch for issues -- the economy and the war in Iraq chief among them -- to come to the fore.

With the war (which McCain supports) unpopular, and the economy and broader outlook deeply negative, some analysts have been tempted to cast the general election as a slam-dunk for the Democrats. That's not the case; depending on the poll, Obama leads McCain narrowly or not at all, and the two divide public preferences on issues and attributes alike.

There are two fundamental reasons. One is that this is more a center-right than a center-left country. On average this year 34 percent of Americans have described themselves as conservatives, vs. 23 liberals. (What closes the gap is that moderates are more closely aligned with the Democratic Party.) The other is a generation-long trend in political party affiliation, which, despite ups and downs, has been in the Republicans' favor. On average in 1981, when ABC News started polling, Americans were 13 points more apt to call themselves Democrats than Republicans. So far this year, it's been 9 points.

The Republicans did even better -- absolute parity with the Democrats -- in 2003, before public views of the war and then the economy went sour, prompting an exodus from the president and his party. That leaves us with the last wildcard of 2008, George W. Bush. If the Democrats make the election a referendum on his presidency, they gain a vast advantage. If, instead, it's a post-Bush election, all bets are off.

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