With John McCain drawing inexorably closer to locking up the Republican nomination for President of the United States, his ability to unite the party will depend on the proper classification of the struggle he hopes to win.
The morning after Super-Duper Tuesday, the crucial question for McCain strategists and Republicans in general is whether the long battle with Mitt, Huck, Rudy, Fred and the others amounted to an “Issues Primary” or whether it constituted a “Personality Primary.”
In other words, did the intra-party fight represent a struggle of ideas, with the two sides facing an unbridgeable ideological gulf? Or was this contest, like most nomination contests, an argument over which candidate possessed the best combination of ability and experience to represent the party and lead the country.
History shows that nomination struggles fall into one of these two broad categories, and the ability of a divided party to re-unite after a heated struggle depends on which one. In the far more common Personality Primaries, the party often manages to re-unite and win the general election; after Issues Primaries, the party always loses.
The first campaign in which “preference primaries” played a role also represented the first ever Issues Primary—and an unprecedented disaster for the Republican Party. In 1910, Oregon became the first state to establish a presidential primary election to choose delegates to the national convention; two years later, fourteen of the forty-eight states offered such contests and a wildly popular ex-president decided to take advantage of the new system. Theodore Roosevelt, deeply disillusioned with his hand-picked successor William Howard Taft, challenged the sitting president in 1912 in a series of hard-fought primaries and won nearly all of them. While Americans felt great affection for TR’s ebullient personality, the campaign centered on polarizing issues. Roosevelt had moved decisively to the left since leaving the White House, and called for the sort of expanded, muscular, activist government that horrified conservative traditionalists. When the GOP convention in Chicago renominated Taft, and denied Roosevelt the prize he believed he had earned, he launched his famous race with the independent “Bull Moose Party.”
Like all third party efforts, the Bull Moosers failed miserably: drawing only 27% of the popular vote to 42% for Woodrow Wilson and his victorious Democrats. But the hapless President Taft fared even worse – with only 23% of the popular vote in the worst showing ever for a GOP nominee.