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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Why the Democrats (even Barack) should hope that Hillary Stays in the race

Many Republicans breathed a sigh of relief when Mitt Romney dropped out of the race for the party’s Presidential nomination, paving the way for John McCain to be the nominee. The conventional wisdom suggests that this move afforded McCain the opportunity to consolidate his support among the party faithful, while getting a head start actually running for President. By extension then, one might conclude that the Democratic party would benefit from Hillary Clinton abandoning her bid in favor of Barack Obama. I’m not so sure that this would actually be in the Democratic Party’s best interests.

Consider a lesson from the world of jury trials. Defense attorneys, whose clients face the prospect of punitive damages, often request that their trials be bifurcated, with the jury first hearing all evidence regarding liability and compensatory damages. In the event that the plaintiff prevails and the jury decides that punitive damages might be warranted, there is a second trial concerning how large the punitive award should be. Several studies have explored the extent to which defendants benefit from this bifurcation. The first result that we see is that juries find defendants liable less often and award smaller compensatory awards when the issue of punitive damages is kept out of the initial trial. Somewhat surprisingly, however, when juries do find that punitive damages are warranted, bifurcation increases the average size of such an award. What’s going on here?

Psychologists attribute this result to the avoidance of cognitive dissonance. When a juror is asked to calculate a punitive award in a bifurcated trial, she feels a sense of responsibility for the second phase of the trial having taken place. “I voted to hold this hearing on punitive damages so I must really believe that the defendant behaved very badly. I should really choose an award amount large enough to justify all this effort.” The juror feels uncomfortable if her prior action is in conflict with her current beliefs (cognitive dissonance), That is, as the theory goes, the juror adjusts her internal belief about the reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct to match her decision to move to the punitive damages phase of the trial. As a result, the award goes up.

So, what does this have to do with the Democratic Presidential primaries? Voters have turned out in unprecedented numbers to vote in the democratic primaries this year. Even when the Republican nomination was still very much in doubt, democratic turnout dwarfed that on the Republican side. The main reason seems to be that independents flocked to the Democratic primaries. They did so mostly for reasons that are encouraging to the Democratic hopefuls. These independents actually liked, and wanted to vote for, a particular Democratic candidate.

This is where cognitive dissonance works to the Democrats’ advantage. What will all these primary voters do in the general election? Psychologists would suggest that the very act of voting for a particular candidate in the primary should increase the likelihood of voting for that candidate in the general election. That is, to avoid cognitive dissonance, a person who “voted for Clinton” becomes a “Clinton voter.” All of this, of course, takes place at the subconscious level and most people would vehemently deny that they could be affected in such ways. Such an affect is magnified if a person is called upon to defend her prior act. So, if a man is asked to defend his decision to vote for Obama in the primary, he will come up with reasons why Obama is the best thing since sliced bread. In doing so, he is actually reinforcing his own commitment to Obama’s candidacy.

By this logic, the Democratic Party will gain votes in the general election by securing as many votes as possible for their candidates in the primaries. So, how do the Democrats maximize the number of people voting in their primaries? Keep the race competitive. The longer that Clinton and Obama are both viable candidates, the larger will be turnout in the Democratic primaries. If lots of people turn out to vote for Obama over Clinton, many of them will also turn out to vote for him over McCain. So, Democrats should hope that Hillary wins Texas and Ohio next week.

This theory is hardly airtight. Not all primary voters will stick with the same candidate in the general election. In addition, approximately half of Democratic primary voters will disappointed about who received the nomination. How will those people vote in the general election? Polls this year suggest that Clinton supporters would generally be quite content to vote for Obama in the general election. So, if Obama wins the nomination after a close contest, the Democrats would seem to be in great shape. The landscape is more mixed should Clinton win the nomination. Her recent attacks on Obama’s leadership potential have certainly upset many of his supporters. While Bill Clinton was always well-supported by the African American community, it is not clear that Hillary enjoys similar support. If Obama were to give her a strong endorsement, I think that almost all Democratic voters would vote for her.

On balance, I think that Democrats are very enthusiastic about their choices this year. As such, the greater the number of independents and centrist voters who are brought into the Democratic primaries, the better the chance that a Democrat will be sitting in the Oval Office a year from now.