For once, it is all about electability
In a new column for the Financial Times, I look at what the presidential race on the eve of Super Tuesday tells us about what the parties' respective primary electorates appear to want--and, fortunately, it is not what they are usually said to want.
At first sight, the two races seem utterly unalike. The Democrats started with a clear front-runner who was challenged by an inspiring outsider and it became a close fight. The Republicans never had a front-runner - a nominee around whom their awkward coalition of conservatives, evangelicals and libertarians could unite - and alighted instead on a man pleasing to none of the above. Yet before you knew it, Mr McCain was winning, the polls swerved, Rudolph Giuliani was gone and endorsements from all parts of the party piled up, including from Mr Giuliani himself.
Mitt Romney is not finished yet - and he has bottomless pockets - but after Tuesday's voting he might be. The Democrats face a greater chance than the Republicans of failing to settle on their nominee soon, and of watching their intra-party battle drag on damagingly for months. Who would have bet on that?
These weirdly contrasting battles do have one thing in common, though, and it speaks well of the respective electorates of both parties. In both cases, the loudest, most insistent and least compromising voices - of the activists, the netroots, the talk-radio ranters, the militant "progressives", the "movement conservatives" - have been, if not ignored, then at least subordinated to an off-stage cacophony.
What the primary voters of each party appear to want most is to see their side win. And so, despite the evident polarisation of US political debate, each party has been drawn to candidates capable of speaking to, and gathering support from, the centre. Why else Mr Obama's strong showing? Why else the McCain surge? As a corollary, differences over policy have been downgraded and questions of character and electability have moved up.
You might ask, what is so surprising about this - or, for that matter, so admirable? Of course, both parties want to win, you might say; of course, both parties will court independents. And, while it may be inevitable, isn't it nonetheless a pity if superficial considerations of electability are crowding out careful examination of policy?
I argue that it is both surprising and a good thing. You can read the whole column here.