In his victory speech in North Carolina last night, Senator Barack Obama noted that "this has been one of the longest, most closely fought contests in history." That, he said, was "partly because we have such a formidable opponent in Senator Hillary Clinton." Then he raised the issue that has more than a few Democrats deeply worried: As it heads into the general election campaign against John McCain, just how badly has the Democratic Party been hobbled by the bitter feelings the primary campaign has engendered?
Not to worry, Obama said.
"Tonight, many of the pundits have suggested that this party is inalterably divided - that Senator Clinton's supporters will not support me, and that my supporters will not support her. Well, I'm here tonight to tell you that I don't believe it. Yes, there have been bruised feelings on both sides. Yes, each side desperately wants their candidate to win. But ultimately, this race is not about Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or John McCain."
But of course "Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or John McCain" is precisely what the 2008 election is about, and however pretty it might be for Obama to think otherwise, he and Clinton have left their party more polarized than it has been in many years.
Exit polls in North Carolina and Indiana yesterday suggest the scope of the damage. "Among Clinton voters in both states," CBS News reported, "64 percent said they would be dissatisfied with Obama as the nominee." Similarly, a majority of Obama voters (58 percent in Indiana, 55 percent in North Carolina) told exit pollsters that they would be dissatisfied if their party nominates Clinton. Whatever the outcome of this contest (assuming North Carolina and Indiana are not atypical), there are going to be an awful lot of unhappy Democrats, and at least some of them will refuse to vote Democratic in November. About one-fifth of Obama voters said yesterday that they will vote for McCain if Clinton gets the nomination, while one-third of Clinton voters are threatening to back McCain if Obama is nominated.
To be sure, peacemaking efforts will go into overdrive once the nomination is finally settled. Democratic leaders will strive mightily to close ranks for the fight in November. But healing those "bruised feelings on both sides" is going to take time - more time, perhaps, than the Democrats have left.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at [email protected].