How Voters Should Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Obama

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, May 8, 2008)


With Tuesday’s result in Indiana going Hillary Clinton’s way by an ultra-narrow margin and her resultant decision to stay in the race, the Democratic primary contest is going to continue for at least another week. And with only six primaries to go, there will inevitably be another round of hysterical stories about how the ongoing process will doom the party’s eventual choice come November.

That’s possible, but not nearly as likely as the 24-hour news channels would suggest. In reality, the November electoral math still looks quite good for Barack Obama. As long as he emerges as the nominee (and the numbers say this primary is now even more over than it already was), the scars of this primary season will almost certainly heal about as well as they do every four years and give him enviable odds of putting the White House back in Democratic hands.

Hand-wringing by the pundit class aside, the length of the primary season should never have been a cause for concern. Frankly, it’s always good for democracy in the long run when voters across the country actually have a say in who the parties nominate. (Even on the long-decided GOP side, 29 states voted while the race was still competitive). It’s still another six months until the general election, a full 1.5 times as long as the stretch between the Iowa caucuses and today. Clinton staying in this long isn’t a problem.

The kind of campaign she’s run — the “kitchen sink” strategy, the pandering and position switching — does have the potential to do some damage, as she’s basically campaigned by trying to tear Obama down rather than raise herself. Still, polls show voters see that approach as a reflection on her. After the worst stretch of interparty mudslinging (the seemingly interminable few weeks before the Pennsylvania primary), half of Pennsylvania voters in a USA Today poll said the contest had gotten too negative. However, 43 percent of those people blamed Clinton, compared to only 3 percent blaming Obama. For all the pundit-driven furor and bloviating about Jeremiah Wright’s raving rants or Obama’s misconstrued “bitter” comments, the Illinois senator’s poll numbers held steady in the ensuing states despite the controversies. Admittedly, the Clinton campaign has done some of John McCain’s “dirty work” for him, as the sky-is-falling crowd argues. Yet Obama has proven able to clean up the mess.

More importantly, the long race on the Democratic side has also driven record turnout in nearly every state, including historic numbers of first-time voters. Primary voters are statistically far more likely to vote in general elections, and the record numbers of new voters brought in by the Obama campaign in particular should boost November turnout as well. This week in Indiana, upwards of 200,000 more people voted in the Democratic primary than voted for John Kerry in the general election there in 2004. The extended primary also means more people in formerly ignored states have had the opportunity to meet Obama already, and he’s now ahead of schedule for intense retail politics in places where McCain hasn’t yet been tested.

To a large extent, Clinton’s argument that she is somehow the more electable of the two senators come November has rested on her strength in large, delegate-rich states — such as New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, and California — and her campaign specifically targeted those states. The pro-Clinton theory goes that those wins prove she can win the big states in a matchup against McCain.

The thing is, Ohio excepted, those states aren’t going to be in play. Despite its alleged swing-state reputation, Pennsylvania hasn’t gone Republican in two decades, is trending Democratic in races lower on the ticket, and has suffered economically during the Bush years. Texas is a sure thing for McCain, as are New York, New Jersey and California for either Democratic nominee. Clinton won only two primaries by more than 20 percent — her former home state of Arkansas and the “as solidly GOP as they come” Oklahoma. In Nevada and Texas, she won the state but lost the delegate count to Obama. Most of her wins were tight, meaning she and Obama have roughly equal strength in those states for November.

To win the presidency, Obama just needs to win the same states John Kerry took in 2004 with a couple additions. Only New Hampshire — historically a swing state and one that’s backed McCain in two Republican primaries — looks remotely vulnerable the other way. Here’s where Obama’s true strength becomes apparent.

While Clinton only topped him by 20 percentage points in two states, he did the same to her double-digit times. Granted, those incidents included safe Democratic states such as Illinois, Vermont, Maryland, Minnesota, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia. But the same was true in Virginia, Colorado and Louisiana — swing states ripe for the picking. Obama’s own biography also makes Kansas a possible switch (just as Clinton’s would do for Arkansas).

His blowout wins against Clinton in Idaho, North Dakota, South Carolina, Alaska, and Mississippi may not translate into making the states competitive nationally, but they do show he has better potential coattails than Clinton for Senate and House candidates in those states. Obama also won in Iowa, a swing state Kerry narrowly lost that can realistically go Democratic this year, and one where McCain barely bothered to campaign.

As for the polls claiming Democratic voters will choose McCain if their preferred candidate loses, much of that comes from short-term sour grapes that will improve with age. There’s always some party crossover — 11 percent of Democrats voted for George Bush in 2004, and 6 percent of Republicans for Kerry — but it’s never as high as heat-of-the-moment primary polls suggest. Similarly, exit polls show race has been a factor in the Democratic contest, but that’s in a vote between candidates with similar 2008 platforms. It’s one thing for some voters to prefer a white candidate they generally agree with to a black candidate they generally agree with, and another to vote for a white candidate with a worldview diametrically opposed to theirs.

For all the attention national polls generate, it’s important to remember that they essentially mean nothing under the American political system. Remember, national polls showed Clinton and Rudy Giuliani dominating the primaries in late 2007. Joe Lieberman actually led all national polls for the Democratic nomination for a significant stretch of 2003 and — like Giuliani this round — never won a single state’s primary. So Obama’s Electoral College advantage is far more important, but the popular vote looks promising anyway.

While McCain has gained on both Democrats in national polls of late, he still hasn’t been able to crack 45 percent support with any consistency or even take a lead outside the margin of error. In other words, with the Obama/Clinton race at its most divisive and McCain generally able to campaign wherever he wants without facing the intense scrutiny that’ll come his way once the Democratic race is settled, the Arizona senator is still struggling when he should be at peak poll numbers.

Once a basically united Democratic Party is hitting him for his support of the disastrous Iraq invasion that is less popular than ever and an economic policy that has left the country in dire straits, it will be McCain’s turn to be on the defensive. And unlike Kerry or Clinton, Obama won’t be held back by a voted-for-it-before-voting-against-it conundrum. While Tuesday’s vote was technically a split decision, the reality is it increased Obama’s delegate advantage and inched him closer to his party’s nomination. The Obama campaign has survived the storms of April, and looks to have smoother sailing ahead.

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