How do voters deal with an apparently bitter campaign?
It turns out that voters have handled the sniping and the charges among Democratic candidates pretty well - maybe even better than the candidates. This campaign is still exciting voters. And despite media coverage of a racial undercurrent - and the racial vote divide -- in last Saturday's South Carolina Democratic primary, more than three in four voters there -- 77 percent - still said they would be satisfied ifwon their party's nomination, while only a few percent more -- 83 percent -- said they would be satisfied if won.
Obama won 54 percent of the vote in South Carolina, and Clinton only 27 percent. That makes the high degree of "satisfaction" striking. Even when each candidate's voters looked at the other front-runner, most -- about seven in ten -- saw someone they probably could support if he or she became the nominee. Only 28 percent of Obama's voters said they would be dissatisfied if Clinton became the nominee, and only 31 percent of Clinton's voters would be dissatisfied with an Obama nomination. (' voters were also generally positive -- six in ten of them said they would be satisfied if Clinton or Obama were the nominee).
This was the case even though majorities of South Carolina voters thought each candidate had engaged in unfair attacks on the other candidates: 56 percent said this about Obama, and 70 percent said this about Clinton. Voters were capable of criticizing candidate behavior while still looking ahead to the general election and some could even vote for a candidate whose behavior they disliked. Forty-four percent of those who voted for Obama admitted he had attacked other candidates unfairly. White and black Obama supporters did not differ much on this.
Fifty-two percent of black Obama voters said Bill Clinton's campaigning had a great effect on their vote -- but more of those voters than other voters actually thought both candidates had played fair. And eight in ten of them still would be satisfied with a Hillary Clinton nomination.
This tolerance of both major candidates continued with the voters in Tuesday's Florida primary. Eighty percent of all Democratic primary voters in Florida, and 70 percent of Obama voters, would be satisfied with a Clinton nomination. Seventy-one percent of all voters, and 60 percent of Clinton voters, would be satisfied if Obama won. (Edwards voters were the most likely to be dissatisfied -- just over 50 percent -- if either of the other two candidates won.).
Of course, this general Democratic voter acceptance of both Clinton and Obama may not last. There have been hard-fought primaries before when many more of one candidate's supporters find the other candidate unacceptable. Some of the most memorable of those were Democratic primaries. In 1984, just after Gary Hart's defeat of former Vice President Walter Mondale in the New Hampshire primary, he (briefly) became the Democratic front-runner. Thirty-eight percent in a national CBS News Poll favored Hart, with Mondale the choice of 31 percent. Before that primary, Mondale had led Hart 57 percent to 7 percent. A few weeks after that, in the Illinois primary, barely half of Hart and Mondale voters were saying that they would vote for the other candidate in a race against Ronald Reagan.
In 1980, Ted Kennedy challenged President Jimmy Carter for the nomination. Their battle continued until the Democratic convention -- one of the longest nominating battles in recent years. Nationally, Carter consistently led Kennedy by about two to one. But those feelings were strongly held. In the New York primary that year, fewer than half the supporters of Kennedy and Carter said the other was acceptable as the party's nominee in November. In a March national poll, when Carter led Kennedy by nearly two to one, half of all Democrats had unfavorable views of Kennedy, and a third had unfavorable views of Carter.
The Hart-Mondale contest divided Democratic voters by age and by commitment to the party, much like the Clinton-Obama divide today. Younger voters, better educated voters, and voters who thought of themselves as independents were more likely to support Hart (as they do Obama this year), while older voters, less educated white voters and those who identify as Democrats were more likely to support Mondale (and now Clinton).
The Kennedy-Carter fight continued to the Democratic convention, and became ever more rancorous. While Carter clearly had enough committed delegates to win the nomination, the Kennedy forces campaigned to overturn the party's rules, and let committed delegates change their minds (hopefully in Kennedy's direction). They were unsuccessful.
In both years, the negative aspects of the campaigns carried over into the fall, as the Democratic nominee lost the election, and by wide margins. That makes what happened in South Carolina on Saturday all the more unusual and positive for the Democratic Party. Although black and white voters disagreed on which candidates to support, they agreed in principle that both front-runners would be acceptable to them.