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The US Democrats: As the dust settles, time to wash-up

By Phil Senior and Peter Van Onselen - posted Thursday, 2 December 2004

As the dust settles on the recent US election, the prospect of four more years of George W. Bush has been the subject of much discussion. Analysts have focused on what a re-invigorated ideologically driven administration will do now that it believes it has a strong mandate (note that had Ohio gone the other way we would be discussing president-elect Kerry).

Little attention however has been given to the legacy of Republican victory this time around. Democrat candidates capable of carrying enough Electoral College votes to win the presidency struggle to win their own primaries. In contrast the Republicans have a ready made contender for 2008 in John McCain.

The Senator from Arizona is a respected war hero, and a revered figure on both sides of the political spectrum. He ran against Bush in the 2000 primaries, and was the early leader, before a vicious smear campaign helped turn the tables in Bush's favour. Throughout the Bush administration's first term, McCain's popularity has remained very strong. The broadness of his appeal is best demonstrated by the fact that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry openly flirted with the idea of asking McCain to join his ticket as the Vice President. Had this marriage of convenience ever been consummated the US may have a different President right now.


McCain will do very well among independent voters and moderate democrats alike, making it tough for the Democrats to gain ground. He would also poll well in mid-west states - an area that the Democrats must make inroads into in order to prevent their electoral chances coming down to an all or nothing bid for Florida or Ohio. Simply put, if McCain wins the nomination, the Democrats are in trouble.

The frontrunner for the Democratic nomination is Hillary Clinton. In the weeks leading up to the 2004 election there was much speculation that the Clintons secretly wanted Bush to win, as this would pave the way for Hillary to run in 2008.

In recent weeks John Kerry has mused that he may wish to take another run at the White House, but he is now a spent political force. No doubt other candidates will emerge, including in all likelihood, 2004 Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards. Like Kerry, he will struggle to overcome the tarnish of this year’s unsuccessful tilt. Hillary Clinton is the front-runner, with Al Gore perhaps the dark horse.

The trouble for the democrats is that while Hillary Clinton is a good bet to win the nomination, she is a long shot to take back the White House. Consider this. No liberal democrat from the north has won the White House since JFK in 1960. While Hillary may not technically hail from the north, she is a Senator for New York, regarded as perhaps the most liberal state in the country, and her views clearly place her in this paradigm. The Republicans will throw the L word around with reckless abandon. The last three northern liberal Democrats to run for President - Mondale, Dukakis and Kerry - failed. When Kennedy won, he did so with the assistance of the old Democrat south. However, ever since the onset of the civil rights revolution - ironically a movement that he supported - these areas have turned more and more solidly Republican.

In today's environment, Kennedy wouldn't win. In fact the only three Democrats to take the White House since Kennedy and the civil rights revolution have all been from the South - Johnson, Carter, and Bill Clinton.
As unfair as it may seem, Hillary’s prominence as a strong woman and feminist advocate will also make her less electable. Traditionally Democrats do better than the Republicans among female voters. However, the Republicans have the edge among male voters, and the gap widened in 2004. To reclaim the White House the Democrats need to find a candidate that will poll better with men, particularly independents and moderate-would-be republican voters. It seems unlikely that Hillary Clinton can do this.
Finally, as a Senator her voting record waits there for Republican spin doctors to manipulate in order to create the charge that she does not share America's true values (whatever that may be). Using wedge politics, they will exploit her votes on issues like gay marriage and abortion - the 2004 campaign showed how powerful this can be, with 20 per cent of voters saying they cast their vote based on the respective candidate's values.

If the Democrats hope to win back the White House in 2008 they need to choose a candidate that the country will vote for, not just the Democrats.

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About the Authors

Philip Senior is completing a PhD in Political Science at University of Sydney.

Dr Peter van Onselen is Associate Professor of Politics and Government School of Communications and Arts at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Phil Senior
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