Politics & Policy

Overestimating Sharpton

Republicans should curb their enthusiasm.

Republicans have been delighted to see Al Sharpton in the Democratic presidential primaries. They hope that he will pull the eventual nominee to the left, and toward unelectability; that he will constantly zing the other candidates, make them look boring, say outrageous things that tarnish the whole party. I don’t share this hope myself: I think Sharpton’s prominence, and the Democrats’ leftward swerve, are both bad for the country (and for conservatism). I also think that the Republicans are making a mistake purely as a political calculation. Sharpton may not end up doing much damage to the Democrats, and he may even help them.

It’s possible to imagine a scenario where Sharpton could have a large effect on the Democratic field. Let’s say you have a bunch of white Democratic candidates with no strong connection to black voters. The rest of the candidates are desperate for their votes, and have to be careful not to criticize Sharpton too sharply for fear of offending them. Sharpton could even become a broker for a large Democratic constituency.

But the primary and caucus calendar — “The Hotline” published a handy schedule yesterday — make it unlikely that this scenario will happen. The Iowa caucuses take place on January 19, the New Hampshire primary on the 27th. Then Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and South Carolina go on Feb. 3. Four days later, Michigan and Washington, then Maine, then D.C. and Virginia.

I’m not sure Sharpton is going to get a lot of votes from black Democrats. But it’s fairly clear that he will be getting even fewer from white Democrats. And it’s white Democrats who will be doing most of the early voting. Iowa and New Hampshire have small black populations. Three of the six states that vote on Feb. 3 also lack many black voters (although South Carolina, which is 30 percent black, will be one of the more important races that day). Black voters will have a major impact in Michigan, but not in Washington or Maine. February 10, when D.C. and Virginia vote, will be the first day that blacks, if they cluster around one candidate, could dominate all the elections. And it’s not until March 2 — very late in the process — that Georgia, Maryland, and New York vote.

By the time black Democrats can vote in the primaries, then, the Democratic field will have been winnowed. Iowa and New Hampshire will probably knock out some candidates before any states with large black populations vote. You could even see a situation where a candidate essentially wraps up the nomination before going south to take on Sharpton. Finishing the primaries by beating Sharpton would be a very nice transition for that candidate between the primary and general elections. He won’t have to go find a Sister Souljah. In 2004, Sister Souljah is coming to the Democrats.


Republicans may be disappointed by the Democratic primaries in another respect. This is a Democratic field with an unusually large set of primary vulnerabilities. Edwards, Kerry, Gephardt, and Lieberman are all, of course, vulnerable because of their support for the war. But Gephardt and Kucinich are also vulnerable on abortion, Kerry is on trade, Dean is on guns and the death penalty, and Lieberman is on, well, you name it. But none of the attacks you might have expected are being made — the debate over the war being the great exception.

After months of abuse from Dean over the war, Kerry has finally hit back. Dean made a remark about a day coming when America would no longer enjoy the military dominance it does today, and Kerry’s campaign has been all over him, questioning whether a man who is willing to contemplate the loss of America’s military edge is fit to be commander-in-chief. It’s significant that Kerry is hitting Dean from the right, not the left. The pressure of the primaries may yet lead Edwards, Gephardt, Kerry, or Lieberman to compromise their ability to win the general election. But it’s not happening yet.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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