Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Onward they slog

So onward they shall slog across the electoral landscape, like a pair of prison escapees joined at the wrist by handcuffs, each yearning and scheming to be free of the other, and we still don't know how this movie will end. Rumor now has it that they're fixing to hole up for six long weeks in Pennsylvania.

Hillary Clinton can thank the kind souls of Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island for providing some much-needed aid and comfort. She can reasonably claim that she has the wherewithal to persevere. Let's face it, no candidate who wins a state like Ohio - a bellwhether state, a linchpin state for any Democrat planning an autumn victory strategy - is going to celebrate that achievement by dropping out. Especially after winning it so decisively. And when you add that with the Rhode Island win (decisive again) and the Texas win (narrow), that's sufficient ammo for the psychological warfare that we are sure to witness in the days ahead.

"As Ohio goes, so goes the nation...and so goes this campaign," Clinton declared last night, and indeed her goal is to frame the Tuesday results as evidence of a paradigm shift in momentum, a theme aimed in part at her worried donors and superdelegates. She wants them to focus on the Clinton spin, not on Barack Obama's math.

Indeed - and we won't know this for many hours - it's probable that Obama's national delegate lead (roughly 150) will remain virtually unchanged after all 370 pledgees from the four states are allocated. The latest reliable estimate is that his lead was trimmed last night by roughly a dozen delegates. In terms of the big picture, he tops Clinton in delegates, states won (roughly two-thirds of them, in fact), and the aggregate popular vote. (In all the states that have awarded delegatesn thus far, Obama is ahead by 49 to 47 percent, or a margin of 600,000 votes.) Clinton last night, while seeking to demonstrate her national reach, felt compelled to extol her meaningless, delegate-free victories in Florida and Michigan - but that itself is a sign that she will renew her demand that the delegates from those states be seated (even though it means changing the rules that she originally agreed to).

Nevertheless, she did manage to halt Obama's steady incursions into her base. In the last few rounds of primaries, in places like Wisconsin and Virginia, Obama had done well among working-class voters, Hispanics, and even seniors. Not this time, however. Clinton recouped strongly among all those folks (working-class voters and seniors in Ohio; Hispanics and seniors in Texas). In both those states, she even outperformed Obama among white men, a switch from earlier contests.

And, perhaps most tellingly, when Ohio and Texas voters were asked in exit polls which candidate had a "clear plan" for America, Clinton was favored over Obama. In other words, she was perceived as more specific on the issues. This suggests that her anti-Obama message - that he is more rhetorical than substantive - gained some traction. She sowed doubt about her opponent; the "3 a.m." TV ad may have been a scare-mongering ripoff of an ad that Walter Mondale ran in 1984, but it may have connected with voters who were worried that Obama lacks experience - while shoring up support among women with kids. We'll no doubt hear more about this "gravitas" theme in Pennsylvania, where Obama would be well advised to make some adjustments.

(Regarding that ad: Clinton was asked on CNN today whether she can cite any experience dealing with a wee-hour crisis, amd she replied: "Well, you know, there isn't any way that anyone who has not been president, but you know, the administration sent me to war-torn zones." Italics mine.)

Despite her delegate deficit, she has stuck around partly in the hopes that Obama would screw something up. And finally he did. He and his aides were slow and hamfisted in responding to the flap involving his economic advisor, who may have winked to Canada that Obama's anti-NAFTA rhetoric was mere politicking. The timing could not have been better for Clinton, given the fact that it occurred while Obama was seeking votes in Ohio, where NAFTA is a dirty word among the blue-collar working stiffs - and given the fact that Clinton's husband was the president who signed NAFTA into existence. We'll soon see how (or whether) the Canada incident plays to Clinton's advantage in Pennsylvania, which is also home to a large number of blue-collar working stiffs.

By the way, last night provided fresh proof that negative attacks work. People say they don't like those tactics - exit polls showed that they pegged Clinton as the more negative campaigner - and yet, Ohio voters who made up their minds in the final three days broke strongly for Clinton. And what dominated the discourse over the final three days in Ohio? The 3 a.m. TV ad, and the NAFTA/Canada flap. And late-deciding Texas voters broke for Clinton as well, erasing Obama's reported popularity among those who cast early ballots ahead of primary day.

This is all great news for John McCain. He gets to set up his general-election operation, raise money, potentially frame the terms of the autumn campaign, and unite the Republicans (the latter, not necessarily an easy task) all while Clinton and Obama spend six weeks and tens of millions of dollars beating each other up from one end of Pennsylvania to the other. If Clinton trashes Obama as an inexperienced naif, McCain can use that against Obama in the fall, citing Hillary; if Obama goes on offense and trashes Clinton as a typical pol who's hiding her tax records and the donor lists to her husband's library, McCain can use all that against Clinton in the fall, citing Obama.

Only the Democrats could manage such a scenario, in a year when the prevailing winds are supposedly in their favor.

After Mississippi votes next Tuesday, Pennsylvania will become the new Iowa; with no competing contests, it will be the target of unremitting national attention. And it will be a brutal battlefield. For all the glib comparisons to Ohio, its rustbelt neighbor, there are significant differences that could aid Obama. Pennsylvania has a larger black population than Ohio, larger cities, and a larger student population. In contrast to Texas, it has a small Latino population. It has populous white liberal suburbs around Philadelphia.

On the other hand (advantage Hillary), it has the second-largest senior electorate in America, behind Florida. It has a large population of lunch-bucket guys, just as in Ohio. And, perhaps most importantly, the Keystone State primary is open only to registered Democrats. Obama-friendly independents need not bother to show up - unless they re-register as Democrats in advance, by the March 24 deadline. It's hard to imagine that these converts will vote in the same numbers as the independents in other states.

The overall delegate math still looks bad for Clinton, even if she wins Pennsylvania, and she would no doubt like to ignore one jarring statistic in the exit polls. When voters were asked whether superdelegates should pick the candidate they feel would win in November, or whether superdelegates should ratify the candidate who leads at the end of the primary season, the ratification option won in a landslide (62 percent in Texas, 61 percent in Ohio). That's basically the Obama argument, but she'll slog onward anyway. Her basic character pitch is that whatever hasn't killed her has merely made her stronger, and that "fighter" argument goes over well with a lot of Democrats.

So I'm passing the word to my fellow Philadelphians: The circus is coming to town.


I did a gig on C-Span's "Washington Journal" earlier this morning, verbalizing much of what appears above, and then came the questions from viewers. That's always a high-wire act. My favorite: "I believe that Jeb Bush is going to end up being president. And I believe that, because McCain will choose him as a running mate...McCain is suddenly going to get sick, or not able to fulfill the duty, and you're going to have Jeb Bush as your president."

I politely suggested in response that nobody with the name of Bush would be appearing on any ticket in 2008...and that I don't think any of us are capable of handling any more twists and turns, beyond those we perpetually seem to be experiencing.