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Is It Bad If Demography Is Destiny?

In linking to this insightful Patrick Ruffini post about the irrelevance of polling in Democratic primaries this year, Ezra Klein says, "In this race, demography really has been destiny, and that doesn't strike me as an encouraging conclusion."

I'm of two minds on this. Insofar as politics ought to be about ideas and not personalities, it certainly is discouraging when demography determines election outcomes, since it implies that factors other than impartial judgments of policy proposals are at work. But frankly, this year's Democratic primary couldn't hinge on issues for the simple reason that there are almost no substantive ideological differences between the two candidates. And yet, the election still had to be decided one way or the other, so in this instance I'm inclined to say it's not that ominous if cleavages like race, gender, age, class, and region end up deciding the winner. Indeed, demography often ends up looming large in primary elections, at all levels, because, as in this year's presidential race, there's often little else (besides nebulous ideas like "experience" and "judgment") to base one's vote on.

What is both surprising and a little disconcerting to me is the ferocity of the sentiment the campaign has generated. (See, for instance, Eve's wonderful dispatch from the Rules and Bylaws Committee brouhaha.) Even if it's somewhat reasonable to expect demography to predict voting patterns in a contest like this one, it's also reasonable to expect people to be fairly indifferent about the ultimate outcome. But, in fact, we've seen the exact opposite: The raw emotion of the campaign reached a crescendo just as the ideological stakes reached a nadir, and the number of Clinton and Obama supporters who say they'd be unwilling to support the other candidate in a general election seems to have grown over the course of the past three months.

In his column defending Mitt Romney's transparent phoniness, Jon Chait referred to the "essentially transactional nature of the presidency." I don't quite agree with this description--in the context of the presidency, things like personal character, political style, judgment, integrity, and sincerity matter more than they do in the context of, say, a House election. So that provides at least some basis for caring about the outcome of a primary. But there's no question the office is, or should be, largely transactional: You elect in order to enact your preferences into law. It simply makes no sense to care so deeply about the outcome of a race between two candidates who believe in the same things.

The fervor this campaign has unleased is a grim reminder of how far removed this textbook conception of the political process often is from reality. Politics can easily end up being tribal, not rational; there's a natural urge to pick a side and defend it, regardless of the ideological stakes involved. The longer the fight goes on and the closer the race appears, the deeper the divide becomes--it takes on a life of its own and before you know it you have irate activists traveling thousands of miles to Washington in passionate opposition to the fair and legitimate nomination of a candidate whose views they agree with. In short, the problem is not that demography determined the outcome of the Democratic race--it's that people (journalists included!) became so emotionally invested in such a superficial contest.

--Josh Patashnik