Wednesday, March 5, 2008


Last night's primaries and caucuses left the battle for the Democratic party presidential nomination unsettled. If you are a Clinton supporter, you feel good about her (finally) blunting Obama's momentum and about her winning two more big states. (Although Texas is in some ways a split decision, since while Clinton won narrowly at the polls, Obama again won the caucuses handily.) On the other hand, the delegate picture remains more or less unchanged, with her having to win the remaining contests by margins she has yet to demonstrate she can compile.

If you are an Obama supporter, you're likely to point out that your candidate cut deeply into what were once 20 point margins, and that he still holds a commanding lead of about 100 in the delegate count. The fact remains, however, that he missed a chance to exert strong pressure on Clinton to end her campaign. He now faces at least six more weeks of campaigning until the Pennsylvania primary, where Clinton holds a lead of from anywhere from 6 to 14 points. Moreover, demographically Pennsylvania is one of the oldest states in the country, which plays to Clinton's strength among voters aged 50 and over.

In my mind, picking a candidate on the basis of "electability" is a sucker's game: Anything can happen between now and the first Tuesday in November to change assumptions made today. However, it's going to become an item of discussion regardless of what I think. You can anticipate arguments from the Clinton and Obama camps along the following lines.

Clinton will argue that the electorate remains split into red and blue states. She will argue that no Democrat can be elected president without carrying the states John Kerry carried in 2004, plus Ohio. She will point out that she won primaries in the vital states of California, Michigan, New Jersey and New York, not to mention Ohio. Pennsylvania, because of its demographics, is hers to lose, and Kerry barely carried it in 2004. Because of the strength she's shown in the Midwest, she is the candidate who can hold the Kerry electoral base, add Ohio, and be elected president.

Obama will spin the debate in a different direction. The electorate is closer to purple than red and blue, he will posit, and this election offers a historic opportunity to Democrats if they can legitimately offer a change in the way we conduct politics. He'll remind us that John McCain is more Catholic than the pope when it comes to an Iraq war that the public has turned against; that with the country in or on the brink of recession, Republicans offer a candidate who admits that he "doesn't really understand economics;" and whose solution to the health care access crisis is to continue letting the market work its wondrous magic. This sets the stage for a Democrat to win big, and Obama is the candidate who has shown strength in states like Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia, and Missouri -- states that Bush won narrowly or that Democrats didn't dare think of winning until he (Obama) demonstrated the possibilities.

What the electability debate comes down to is whose reading of the political landscape you agree with and whether you think America wants a new politics enough to elect an African-American president. I will say this: I don't think Hillary Clinton can overcome her disapproval ratings enough to win big, no matter how favorable the terrain. She's simply not a good enough campaigner. Obama has the better chance of a big win, but he must figure out a way to finesse the preparedness argument that Clinton successfully raised in Ohio. As for Obama's race, let's hope that the better angels prevail.


Kathy said...

Those "better angels" might end up being the superdelegates. If they throw the nomination to Hillary, they'll risk being branded as racists by the GOP and many Democrats.

I fear they'll also alienate many of the young voters who have been energized by Obama and his message. His race isn't an issue to them like it is the older, white voters, but if they stay home in November it could hurt Hillary's chances against McCain.

K. said...

From everything I read, the supers won't go against the voters. Obama has 600,000 more votes than Clinton; I don't see how she catches up to that. It also doesn't help her if the remaining primaries go as expected. At this point, she has to either upset him a couple of or beat him badly in a big state. She'll put everything she has into Pennsylvania.

linda ana said...

Hmmmm...."picking a candidate based on electability is a sucker's game". That sounds like you have to be a little stupid to consider such a thing. I think most issues, including/especially politics, are very complicated with multiple facets. I think it's foolish to ignore any important facet of a decision. Electability is a VERY important facet. McCain's stance on the Iraq war alone -- not to mention a long list of other things I disagree with him on -- makes it VERY important he not become our next president.

I happen to think Hillary would make a slightly/somewhat better president than Obama. However, I agree with the majority of what both say and I think both are sincere, intelligent, hardworking people. I feel strongly, however, that Obama is WAY more electable against McCain than Hillary would be. I saw how the Republicans crucified her in one of the last debates prior to "Super Tuesday", when she still looked like the probable frontrunner. They could never hit Obama that hard. My own father and older sister, both Republicans (one in Florida), have told me they would probably vote for Obama in a McCain/Obama race but would NEVER, EVER vote for Hillary Clinton.

I would not have attended my caucus even if I had not fallen ill with the flu because I stuggled, ethically, with supporting the slightly lesser of two "greats" (Obama) on the basis of electability alone. I wasn't sure I could defend my position. However, given a vote in private, I am 98% positive I would have gone with Obama, based on electability. Playing a "sucker's game"? That's one way to look at it.

K. said...

It was a turn of phrase intended to emphasize that we can't read the future, which is why I never buy the electability argument when politicians make it. It's invariably self-serving and oversimplifies the question. You've plainly thought it through and reached a conclusion based on your own brain, not a primitive argument such as "I'm more electable because of my personal experience with the Republican slime machine."

Good point re the debate. Although watching the Republicans crucify Clinton makes me want to extend my middle finger in their direction while voting for her.