January 30, 2008

Does the First Nominee Have the Advantage?

After the American Century

There is a myth floating around in conversations I have heard in the US, that the party which decides on its candidate first has a decisive advantage. In other words, the party that unifies first behind one candidate can then consolidates its troops, while the other side is still fighting amongst themselves. It seems plausible. If true, then the Republicans might have an advantage, because their primaries are often winner-take-all contests, like Florida, where Romney got 31% of the votes but no delegates.

In contrast, the Democrats divide up the delegates from a primary roughly in proportion to the votes each candidate received. I say roughly, because the division is made at the local level, and can lead to small anomalies. For example, Clinton got the most personal votes in Nevada, but Obama got one more delegate (13) than she did (12), because of the way the vote broke down in particular districts. In other words, McCain (or conceivably Romney) might assemble the needed delegates in the next few weeks much more quickly than Clinton or Obama can. The Democratic race could easily take several months after Super Tuesday. If it is really close, then the decision might be made in balloting at the Democratic national convention in the summer. In other words, possibly neither Hillary nor Obama will get a majority, even when the primaries are over. In that case, the delegates who are pledged to Edwards would become crucial. He could be the power broker, deciding who gets to be the nominee, in exchange for something he wants - such as being the Vice Presidential nominee (again).

With that sort of scenario a possibility, the myth of early consolidation sounds appealing, but it is simplistic. The myth may be true if a party's candidates broadly agree on policy and are only fighting for the right to be the nominee. But what if the candidates fundamentally disagree about policy, as they do in the Republican Party right now? McCain is the front-runner, but I have met people who are furious at him, for example because he has a liberal approach to immigration policy. One angry woman told me that all the illegal immigrants should be thrown out, that they should have gotten in line for a green card and not entered the country before then. In her view, and that of millions of other conservative Republicans, McCain is completely unacceptable on that point. They will not much feel like rallying behind him, even if he does sew up the nomination. The question asked on a CNN Poll today was, "Can McCain Bring the Republicans Together"? Three out of four did not think so. There are too many fundamental issues that divide them. In addition to immigration, they disagree on what for them are fundamental moral questions: the theory of evolution, abortion, and gay marriage. Nor do they agree on how to deal with Iraq. Ron Paul's vocal minority wants withdrawal, but McCain will stay as long as it takes. I do not expect to see Huckabee or Paul supporters put much energy into a McCain candidacy. Or, if the candidate is Romney, many McCain supporters will sit on their hands, because he is too conservative for them.

In short, either Romney, or more likely McCain, might get the nomination early, only to find that party support is lukewarm. Weak enthusiasm from the Republican base would not stand up well to either the Clinton machine or the Obama wave. Moreover, the media are not going to give as much attention to an already-selected Republican as they will to a dramatic battle between the two exciting candidates on the Democratic side. And note that Obama and Hillary do not have radically different policy statements. Supporters of either one could in good conscience go out and work for the other.

An interesting historical comparison makes the same point. In 1960, Richard Nixon was the clear, early front-runner and early got the Republican nomination. On the Democratic side a fierce battle for the nomination went all the way to the convention and was only decided on the third ballot. In other words, the Republicans had unified early and, according to the myth, should have won, because the Democrats were fighting each other all summer. Moreover, Nixon could claim far more experience than his younger but less well-known rival. The winner? Jack Kennedy, a charismatic candidate demanding change. His vice-presidentail running mate? Lyndon Johnson, a Southern Senator who had the delegates needed for a majority. It might be "deja-vu all over again."

January 29, 2008

Florida: Mac is (Still) Back

After the American Century

The results are in, and McCain has won Florida with 36%, with Romney at 31%. It seems that McCain has found what Ponce de Leon was looking for: rejuvenation. He was the Spaniard who discovered Florida, looking for the the fountain of youth, which he had heard lay in that region. McCain may be the oldest candidate, but he's looking a bit younger after winning Florida. Giuliani, in contrast, found out that he is old news. Finishing third, the press is reporting that he will drop out of the race and endorse McCain. That means the Republican moderates will no longer be split, while Huckabee and Romney will continue to divide the more conservative Republicans.

The state where the Republican field was reduced to three is not like the rest of the South. Almost exactly 400 years after Ponce de Leon's futile search, old people from the Northern US began to retire to the warmth of Florida, which has had a land boom and bust cycle for 90 years. This influx of Northerners, many from New York City, makes the State less "southern" on the political map than it appears to be geographically. If the rest of the South is reliably conservative in Presidential elections, Florida is not. There are acres of retired Jewish voters on the beaches near Miami, who tend to go for McCain. There is the large Cuban community, still fighting the Cold War against Castro. They also voted on the whole for McCain. Then there is the large gay community on the chain of islands leading down to Key West. Some of them are conservative enough to vote Republican, but they will not like Huckabee, who wants a Constitutional Amendment to ban gay marriage, or Romney, who is almost as hostile.

Huckabee gave up on Florida, and he got only 13% of the vote. Perhaps he hoped that Romney could beat McCain if he were not there to divide the vote.
Meanwhile, Giuliani put all his eggs in the Florida basket, but has now proven the pundits were right: campaigning only in one state was a bad strategy, though it gave him a chance to work on his tan. All the polls indicate that in the last days before balloting, it became a two day race, and now we have the results.

Florida is diverse enough to resemble the nation as a whole, certainly more so than South Carolina. So it is important who wins there, not just for the delegates to the convention, but because the Republicans usually need to win this state to win the Presidency. That was obviously true in 2000 (though they may not have really won), and it was also the case in 2004. If they lose Florida (as they did 1996), then they likely will lose the general election. It is the biggest swing state.

The Republican Party contenders, like Ponce de Leon, have been looking for rejuvenation in Florida. The explorer not only failed but soon died. The same has now happened to Giuliani, and perhaps Huckabee. Now the questions are: Will the battle between Romney and McCain get nasty? Will Huckabee drop out in time to help Romney, creating a political debt? Can McCain win over the conservative wing of the party, many of whom still publicly say they do not want him? We will get an idea in six days, on Super Tuesday.

January 28, 2008

Why the Kennedy Endorsement Matters

After the American Century

First it was Carolyn, comparing Obama to her father, President Jack Kennedy. Now the last of the legendary Kennedy brothers, Ted, has endorsed Obama. Traditionally, Teddy Kennedy has not endorsed primary candidates, preferring to play the role of the grand old man, who may work quietly behind the scenes, but publicly supports the Party. So this endorsement is big.

It is important because the demographic group that has been most hesitant about Obama are those over 60. But for that generation, the Kennedy Family remains iconic. For the Kennedy Family to present Obama as the successor to JFK is a major campaign event. Now Obama will inherit and revitalize the Kennedy coalition.

It is important because the Kennedy Family has enormous credibility in the Hispanic community, where Hillary has had an advantage until now.

It is important because the Kennedy network has strong labor ties, and will help bring these voters to Obama. Until now, Hillary has had an edge here, notably in the mill towns of New Hampshire.

It is important because Kennedy is one of the longest serving members of the Senate, where he is respected and has great influence. This endorsement signals, too, that Obama has impressed Ted Kennedy with his work in the Senate over the last four years.

It is important because Kennedy has made his decision eight days before Super Tuesday, at a moment when it will have the maximum impact on the electorate.

It is important because until now Obama has been fighting mostly alone, without any heavyweight supporters. Hillary would have her husband and Madelaine Albright, and many others. This gave her the aura of experience. Ted Kennedy will now be appearing in public at the Obama's side, giving him the gravitas of his decades of experience.

It is important because the Clintons have been courting Kennedy, hoping for his endorsement for Hillary. It seems clear that Bill Clinton's clumsy campaigning in South Carolina did more than turn the Black community and many young people against his wife's candidacy. Kennedy has rejected that style of campaign. If you think of a vast electoral scale, with Hillary on one side balanced by Obama on the other side, adding a Kennedy endorsement for either candidate could tip the balance in such a close contest. By opting for Obama, Kennedy has dramatically improved his chances.

Most of all, it is important because Kennedy is saying to the American people that Obama has the measure of greatness, that he has the stature to be compared with JFK.

January 27, 2008

Obama Breaks Through, Again

After the American Century

Today Barack Obama won a stunning victory in South Carolina, crushing the Clintons with more than double the vote that Bill and Hillary could scrape together. With 55% of the vote, this was the first time any candidate from either party won an absolute majority. Clinton, with only 27%, lost by far more than Obama did in Nevada or New Hampshire, where he trailed by only a few percentage points. As Obama pointed out to a delirious crowd in his victory speech, taking all four primaries together, he has won the most votes and the most delegates. Poor John Edwards was unable even to come in second in the state of his birth, and one might assume he will give up now. But his concession speech said nothing of the kind. He will go on campaigning at least through February 5.

Interestingly, the only group that Edwards won over were white men. If they had been the only ones allowed to vote, then he would have won. But since 1920 women have been voting, of course. And if only white women had been voting, then Hillary would have won. Logically, then it might seem that Obama won because of the Black vote. He did - more than 80%. But one cannot get 56% of the vote with only African-American support. Many Whites had to vote for him too, and this is in South Carolina, where they still fly the Confederate Flag.

Obama gave a powerful victory speech that showed far more than his great rhetorical skills. He presented his victory and his campaign as the expression of the desire for change, and not as a triumph of any single group or faction. He only referred obliquely to the way the Clinton's had campaigned, no doubt content that yesterday the New York Times already criticized them in an editorial. However, the same editorial contained that newspaper's endorsement of Hillary, on the grounds that she has the most experience.

So they have fallen for this rather bogus argument. Bogus because the President does not sit there by himself but with a team of advisors. The question is not "Which candidate locked in solitary confinement could the best decisions?" It is rather, "Which candidate is likely to put together a fine team, and have the values and the character needed to listen to and adjudicate and do what is best for the country?" I am not going to listen to the New York Times. It is my view that Obama is the best leader and that he would make the best president. Clinton has much the same policies, but she does not have the intensity and the vision that Obama has. He has charisma, she does not. Ultimately, I fear she does not have a unifying impulse, but a divisive one. I doubt that she can transcend the bitter partisanship of the past that marked the eight Clinton years. Even if she wants to have a unifying administration, many Republicans hate her, and to elect her is to begin with partisanship and doubt that it can be overcome. With her and Bill Clinton in the White House again, the United States could easily sink back into the divisions and gridlock that have made legislation difficult. I think Obama has a better chance to bring new ideas into practice.

Carolyn Kennedy, daughter of President Jack Kennedy, has written an article that will appear in the New York Times tomorrow. She is endorsing Obama, saying that he is the first politician who inspires her the way her father inspired Americans in 1960. Think about what that endorsement suggests.

January 26, 2008

Politics or Football?

After several days of random conversations and taking the general pulse, I have the strong impression that Americans are not quite as excited about this election process as I had imagined. On television, of course, one sees excited crowds, emotional appeals, and other signs of intensity. But an old friend, recently retired who is well read and always up on the news, and who has time to engage in whatever excites him, told me over coffee that a bit of political fatigue had set in. There have been too many debates between the candidates, too many sound-bites on the news, and worse, none of the candidates on either side seems quite satisfactory.  

I spoke to a women I know well who runs a  small store in central Massachusetts. She has also been an elected official, and her husband won a seat as a town selectman in their last local election. So I assumed she would be excited about one of the candidates, but I was wrong. She has followed the candidates carefully, but now is looking forward to the Green Party's convention, and hopes that they run a strong candidate! And she told me that many people in this little New England town of hers are giving money to Ron Paul. 

When polls tell us in state after state that one third of the people have not made up their minds, perhaps it is not a sign that these voters are equally attracted to two candidates. Rather, quite a few voters seem unhappy with the candidates on offer. This is only an impression based on an arbitrary sample and an unscientific method. But it seemed confirmed by another thing I noticed. Few people seem to be wearing buttons proclaiming their support for a candidate. I was in a large store with many middle-class Black customers outside of Hartford Connecticut. I was hoping to see some Obama buttons. I did not see any, worn by anyone, regardless of race. Nor did I hear anyone talking about politics, either.

So what are people talking about? Football, American style. The Super Bowl is February 3. And it pits the New York Giants against the New England Patriots. And for the majority of readers of this blog who live outside the US, I should say that the Patriots have won every single game of the season, including one at the end against the Giants, and have the longest winning streak in the whole history of football. But that was a close game against the Giants a few weeks ago, even though it meant little to the Giants, because they were going to the playoffs whether they won or lost. And that game was played on the Patriot's home field, whereas the Super Bowl will be played in good weather in Arizona on a neutral field. The game is everywhere in the media, and the sporting public is betting heavily on it. Las Vegas bookmakers think this could be the first time that a single football game will generate bets of more than $100,000,000 dollars. Some tickets are still available to the game on the Internet, but the prices are from $3950 up to $7000. That is for one ticket. A parking space is $125. Plus a flight, a hotel, meals, drinks, and souvenirs.  Total cost at least $5000 per person.

Two days before Super Tuesday, almost the entire male population and many women as well will ignore politics completely to watch the Super Bowl. I expect that John McCain, from Arizona, will manage to be in the stands for the game. If Obama is smart, he will be there too. And Bill and Hillary surely have realized the value of being there. Because most of the nation will be watching, and they will like a candidate who takes an interest in moving that bloated bit of pigskin up and down a 100-yard field.   Politics or Football? For many, this is a silly question.

January 25, 2008

Republicans Struggle to Find a Candidate

Here in Boston, where I had my hair cut this morning, Mitt Romney does not seem popular. He once was governor of the state, and he also ran the Olympics, and normally such things make one respected. But my barber assured me that Romney was "a two-faced liar" who told every audience whatever they wanted to hear, and who did not stand for anything. This was the most direct expression of what many others also have said to me. Furthermore, rumors float about that some Democrats dislike Romney so much that they have changed their voter registration to "Independent." This will give them the right to vote in the Republican primary in Massachusetts - voting against Romney in his home state. In other words, they want to embarrass him. It may be that few people are actually going to do this, but the rumor itself suggests an unusually active dislike.

Nevertheless, on the national scene, Romney has begun to look like McCain's most serious Republican rival. Fred Thompson has dropped out of the campaign, and Huckabee is so short of money that he cannot afford to give journalists free transportation. He has decided to cut back his appearances in Florida and concentrate on more evangelical places, notably Georgia, where polls put him in first place. Still, cutting back on travel for the press is one of the last things any contender will do, because the press are vital to keeping your name and opinions before the public. In Florida's primary, coming up on Saturday, that leaves McCain and Romney as the main contenders, which Giuliani a potential spoiler. At the moment Romney is leading in the Rasmussen polls, with 27%. McCain is close behind at 23%, and the former Mayor of New York at 20%. [Update Friday 25th: since writing this I have seen several other polls that put McCain slightly ahead, but the margin of error is 5%, which means they are in a tie. But these polls also show Giuliani falling back to about 15%, in a tie with Huckabee.] Since Giuliani has spent far more time and money in Florida than the other two men combined, he seems to be fading out of the race. But note that slightly more than one third of the Republicans say they have not entirely made up their minds yet. In other words, "undecided" is winning just at the moment.

And what the Republicans cannot decide upon is not just which candidate to support, but what policies they stand for. Each of these men stands for something quite different. McCain comes from a military family, in which four generations have now gone to the Naval Academy. He is a maverick on social issues, and does not appeal to the Huckabee backers. The religious Right only likes Huckabee, in fact, as Giuliani has been married too many times and does not get angry about abortion or praise Jesus. Worse yet is Romney, whom the largely Southern Evangelicals do not like because he is a Mormon and in any case a Northerner. So this numerically important, if intellectually stunted fundamentalist rump of the Republican Party is in a crisis. There is even talk of running a third party candidate if an unacceptable candidate wins the nomination. For more sensible Republicans, Romney represents the business wing of the party, the employer class. Before serving as governor he was a successful capitalist.

For those readers who know their Protestant theology, the differences between these candidates can be explained in the theological terms. Ever since European Protestants came to the New World, they have struggled with two incompatible ideas about how one achieves salvation: the doctrine of grace vs. the doctrine of works. Huckabee is all about grace, the word of God, and the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit. There are millions of people in the United States who believe in the reality of Angels, who refuse to accept the theory of evolution, and who see nothing wrong with "speaking in tongues" in a church service. Huckabee is their man, and he represents the idea that the only way to salvation is through grace raining down on the unworhty sinner. Romney may be a Mormon, but his career is all about hard work and achievement, or the doctrine of works. A man earns his way into heaven. By prospering in this world he shows that he will be one of "the elect" in the next world. Ever since the seventeenth century, Protestants have disagreed about whether grace or works is the correct doctrine. Churches have broken into warring sects over these matters.

For those immersed in the doctrine of grace, Giuliani, with his Italian background, is the worst thing imaginable. For he is a very secular man. He is not just a Catholic, which for several hundred years was thought a terrible thing. He appears to be something even worse, he is a lapsed Catholic, with three divorces and liberal positions on abortion and other family value issues. A man like that, to the religious right is Godless, liberal, and clearly untrustworthy.

McCain is another matter, representing the warrior class. A potential slayer of infidels and defender of the American faith, he is more acceptable to the religious right in the sense that he stands for some moral absolutes. They respect that. But McCain has also been a maverick on social issues. He too seems secular, certainly neither a Creationist nor Bible-thumper. So the religious right is uncomfortable with all the candidates except Huckabee. However, the non-evangelical Republicans, the ones who went to real universities, gag when they hear Huckabee pontificate.

To sum it up, not only is the Republican Party struggling to find a candidate, it is struggling with its own identity. Bush could win over Evangelicals with a bit of coded rhetoric now and again - which was also the old Reagan tactic. Both gave fundamentalists the sense that their values were honored in the White House. Reagan and Bush II were mostly rhetoric, however, and they did not use too much political capital actually trying to stop the spread of gay marriage, prevent the teaching of evolution, or get prayer back into the classroom. It seems that neither Romney nor McCain nor Giuliani will play that game. The Reagan coalition seems to be dead.

Yet politics makes strange bedfellows. What if Huckabee became the vice-presidential nominee? Surely not Giuliani and Huckabee. But Romney and Huckabee? McCain and Huckabee? Then the Evangelicals would rejoice in their temples, gird up their loins, and march out on the campaign trail to do the Lord's work. It is a frightening prospect.

January 22, 2008

The Real Campaign Issues I: Oil

All the candidates are talking about change. One area that screams out for change is US oil policy. The United States is the world's largest oil consumer and polluter per capita, and yet it has resisted the Kyoto Accords. Rather than offering leadership, the US has been a stumbling block. This is not in its own national interest, and it is economically wrong-headed, as well as contributing to environmental degradation. 

The US spends billions of dollars a year on imported oil, and yet its cars are far less efficient than they might be. Indeed, while some mild requirements for miles per gallon have been imposed on automobiles, the gas-guzzling SUVs and small trucks driven by millions of Americans are exempt from controls. I even know one 80 year-old woman who drives a Humvee to the supermarket, getting about 4 miles to the gallon. This is in rural Connecticut, where the need for an armored car is minimal. Gas mileage for cars in the US is roughly the same now as it was thirty years ago, and it was better in 1988 than in 2008!  Could there be any connection between this policy fiasco and the fact that former oil executives, i.e. members of the Bush family, have been running the country for 12 of those 20 years? I am not suggesting a conspiracy, just inability to see that the world has changed. Only as his presidency has drifted toward its end has George W. Bush admitted that, in his words, the nation is "addicted to oil." But after making that admission in a State of the Union message, little has changed. Except the price of oil. It has kept going up. 

The US today could drive just as much and use less than half the oil it does today, if only it made a real effort. American cars today average less than 25 mpg. The Toyota Prius gets 55 mpg. The Honda Insight got 70 mpg. Detroit did not build these cars, and has consistently fought for lower standards, and that means more imported oil, primarily from the Middle East. Detroit has not shown any leadership, and it has backed candidates with a similar (lack of) ideas, notably George Bush and another former oil executive, Dick Cheney.

This is the old story. Do any of the candidates in this election want to champion a new story? The Democratic candidates seem to want a new policy for gas mileage, but the American public has generally resisted any forced changes in the automotive lifestyle. Obama has proposed to help Detroit make the transition to hybrid cars by having the Federal Government pick up some of the health-care costs the car industry has. As he points out, health care now adds $1500 to the cost of every car, which is more than the cost of the steel. In short, Obama has moved beyond mere rhetoric to look for a solution and a partnership. He argues that Ford, GM, and Chrysler really have no choice. If they want to stop losing market share, then they will have to begin making more fuel efficient cars.  Obama also champions substituting home-grown biofuels for oil, reducing the costly dependence on foreign oils. Obama has also said that he would appoint a Secretary of Energy Security, in order to keep focused on the problem.

Hillary Clinton has some of the same ideas. More efficient cars, bio-fuel, more solar and wind power. She introduced legislation in 2006 for a "strategic energy fund" that would put $9 billion over a five year period into energy research, and and she suggested taxing the oil companies to help pay for it. Clinton has noted that ExxonMobil made the highest corporate profits in history, and together with the five other large oil companies had profits of $113 billion in 2005. A tax of less than 10% on their profits from one year would be enough to pay for the research into alternative energies. 

In short, both Obama and Clinton see the importance of new energy policies. Both see the dangers of relying on foreign oil, the dangers of global warming, and the need to rescue Detroit from its own backward looking executives. Either, if elected, would push the US in the right direction. But how hard would they push? Jimmy Carter was educated as an engineer, and he understands thermodynamics. Unfortunately, he did not find a way to get the public to accept his energy plans. Instead, Ronald Reagan told the electorate what they wanted to hear, that the shortages were artificial results of red-tape and environmentalists tampering with the free market. Never overestimate the American voter when it comes to oil. Convenience and the cost at the pump may matter more than global warming or national security or preserving what is left of the automobile industry. But at least if either Clinton or Obama are elected, there is a chance that the US will have an intelligent policy.

Anyone interested in the story of how the US became the world's largest consumer of energy might want to go to the library and borrow my Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies (MIT Press).

A blog on Electricity will follow next month.

January 21, 2008

The Bush Economy, Part 2

More than one month ago, on December 12, I put out a blog on the failings of the Bush economy.(See the archive.) In the past week the failures of his economic policies have been driving down the stock market, and have prompted the head of the Federal Reserve to call for an economic stimulus package as quickly as possible.  Bush's immediate response has been to call for an across the board tax cut. Now, recall that the foolish tax cuts of his first year in office helped to over-heat the economy, and recall that these overwhelmingly favored the very rich. The immediate problem is not that these same rich people need yet another tax cut, but that relief is needed specifically by the middle class. More specifically still, people who bought houses recently need help in paying their mortgages. Rather than give a tax cut to everyone, in other words, Bush should be focusing on those families who are on the brink of going under. If they default on mortgages, the ripple effects will further destabilize the entire economy. What to do?

First, Congress should step in and guarantee mortgages, helping banks and borrowers to renegotiate the terms of their debt. Neither banks nor borrowers gain anything if the mortgage market collapse. Rather than just give some money to everyone, including rich people who already have received a terrific tax cut, and then hope that the economy as a whole will be stimulated enough to help people with big mortgages, why not attack the problem directly?

Second, Bush should admit that the US cannot afford to keep spending $1 billion a day in Iraq. There were strong military and strategic arguments against going into that war in the first place, but they made no impression upon the true-believers who directed policy. Perhaps the Republicans will listen to an economic argument, especially in an election year.

Third, the Democrats should seize this opportunity to attack the Republicans for their mistaken foreign policy and their failed economic policy. During the last week in the Nevada Caucuses we have witnessed some rather pitiful in-fighting, especially from the Clinton side. It is time to tell the American people just how bad a President Bush has been. The Democrats have to attack the neo-conservative policies that have weakened the United States financially and hurt its international image. Obama must move beyond "feel good" unity and hope toward a more detailed vision of what will change and how. And Clinton should stop crowing about her vast experience and start to show the American people that she has the courage to confront the Republicans and hold them accountable for their mistakes. 

Unfortunately, I doubt that any of these things will occur. In an election year Congress is likely to be distracted, and the Democrats may not want to rescue the Republicans. They may calculate that the worse the economy gets, the less chance there is for McCain or Romney or whoever it turns out to be. Nor should one expect that Bush will retreat from Iraq. He will no doubt stubbornly "stay the course," just as Richard Nixon stubbornly stayed in Vietnam, convinced that a victory and vindication would eventually come. Even if Bush suddenly did change his mind, it will take more than a year to get the troops out in an orderly fashion, and that $1 billion a day will continue to hemorrhage out of the economy. Finally, it seems that the Clintons may lower the tone of the Democratic primaries. Bill Clinton in particular has become more aggressive toward Obama. In contrast, McCain and Huckabee on the whole seemed to be take the high road of civility in South Carolina.  (But note the latter has begun to embrace the Confederate flag!)

In short, while the economic woes of the US continue to worsen, there is no clear sign yet of intelligent policy or good leadership from Bush. Meanwhile, the Democrats may squander the opportunity to lead in an internal war of attrition. 

January 19, 2008

Clinton Gambles for Nevada Votes

Whenever I get to Nevada I feel as though I ought to be given a free hotel room. After all, the first governor of the Nevada Territory, at the time of the Civil War, was James Nye (1815-1876. See the photo on the right). I admit he was a distant relative, but they did name a county after him (population 32,000), and he was the first senator elected to represent Nevada when it became a state. We have some rather friendly remarks about James Nye from the pen of Mark Twain, whose brother was the governor's secretary. Twain declared,
The Government of the new Territory of Nevada was an interesting
menagerie. Governor Nye was an old and seasoned politician from New
York--politician, not statesman. He had white hair; he was in fine
physical condition; he had a winningly friendly face and deep lustrous
brown eyes that could talk as a native language the tongue of every
feeling, every passion, every emotion. His eyes could outtalk his
tongue, and this is saying a good deal, for he was a very remarkable
talker, both in private and on the stump. He was a shrewd man; he
generally saw through surfaces and perceived what was going on inside
without being suspected of having an eye on the matter.
In any case, since my family has been associated with Nevada for almost 150 years, I have always taken a little extra interest in its affairs, including the caucuses going on there later today.

First of all, despite being a large western state, Nevada's 1.9 million people are mostly urban, with Las Vegas and vicinity concentrating 1.3 million of them, followed by Reno and nearby Carson City. As Las Vegas and Reno have grown, they have become more like other American cities. They have universities and high schools, supermarkets and malls, suburban housing areas, and all the other features you might find in Omaha or Denver. The majority of the land areas in these cities bears little resemblance to the glamorous "strip" of gigantic casinos that figure so prominently on CSI or in films.

A politician need not visit 95% of the state to reach the majority of voters, but can focus almost entirely on these two urban areas. The racial composition of this largely urban population is not much like that in New Hampshire or Iowa. One fifth of the entire population is Hispanic, and polls indicate they lean toward Clinton. Obama can expect strong support from the Black population, but they are less numerous (7%).

Economically speaking, Nevada is not like the rest of the country, or much of anywhere else, because its economy has such a large element of gambling and tourism. The gambling revenues are so large that the tax paid on them covers most of the state's expenses. There is no state income tax in Nevada. So it has been a liability for Obama that in the past he has been critical of gambling. I happen to think he was right to say that gambling was not a good thing for poor people, taken all around. In his words, it can have a "devastating effect" on communities. As a state senator in Illinois, Obama did not always want to see gambling spread to more and more places. But Las Vegas is not the ideal place for a politician to get known as a critic of gambling, even if we do know that gambling in effect is a regressive tax that hits the poor harder than the rich.

The Clinton campaign has kindly made a point of letting Nevada know Obama's views, while Hillary has posed for photographs with casino owners. She has stressed her support of their operations. Meanwhile, Obama has the endorsement of the casino and restaurant workers, which makes for an interesting contrast. Who would have thought that the Hillary of New Hampshire who identified herself with mill workers could so quickly become a buddy of the high rollers? For her, gambling apparently is just good economic development, and she has been endorsed by leading figures at MGM Mirage and Harrah's. Clinton's new position potentially could mean she will support on-line gambling, which has large implications for the election as a whole. Gambling is a hot issue in California, where there are several referendums about it. Furthermore, John McCain is not friendly to on-line betting and gambling. So, is Hillary really intent on widening the reach of gambling? Is this what "change" means to her? Or is she just willing to use anything to get an advantage against Obama in Nevada? She has already run into trouble with the Methodist Church. She claims to be a good Methodist, but apparently the church has somewhat stricter views on gambling than she does. One suspects she will return to the church fold soon, perhaps as soon as the voting is over. Tomorrow is Sunday, after all.

Meanwhile, I am still hoping to get that free hotel room, though perhaps I will have to go to bone dry Nye County to get it.

January 18, 2008

Which Candidates Are Winning On-Line?

Which candidates are most popular on-line? The answer to this question is not surprising. The Democrats are far and away the more computer savvy, while Republicans are mired in the old economy. Just recall how many members of the Bush Administration are tightly linked to either the oil industry or the automobile companies. Bush and Cheney are oil men. Even Condi Rice is on the Board of Chevron and has an oil tanker named after her. This name was bestowed before she came into the Bush White House, suggesting added reasons for her engagement with Middle East politics.  So, the Republicans are part of that old economy shaped to the needs of Detroit and Texas, the economy which focused on General Motors and assumed that the more cars sold every year the better off we all were.

The Democrats have moved on into the digital world, especially Obama, who has forged strong ties with Google. If you want to test that proposition, have a look at Facebook. All the candidates are out there on Facebook, but only some of them have much credibility in that venue. On Facebook, as most people know, it is relatively easy to become "friends" with another person, just by posting them a message and getting a quick reply. Obama must have a full time staff person looking after his Facebook page, however, as he has amassed no less than 251,000 "friends." Even if it only took 15 seconds to reply to each of them, the time involved is stupendous, more than 1000 hours. Hillary, by comparison, is not as popular - as everyone knows - so she has only 75,000 "friends" on Facebook. 

That is a big difference, but consider that McCain, most popular with voters over 60, has only 26,000 friends, while Romney is slightly more so, with 29,000. If all the Republicans are relatively "friendless" compared to Obama, Huckabee reveals a slight edge, with more than 43.000. This should not surprise us, for the religious Right is often quite high tech. They love tele-evangelism, use powerpoint presentations in sermons, and mount sophisticated marketing operations. Even old Oral Roberts who used to heal people on TV through the laying on of hands, while shouting "Heal," made millions through telemarketing, including a dial-a-prayer operation. 

Facebook is largely populated by the young, and not by people over 30 like myself, most of whom were cajoled to join by their students or a young relative. One may reasonably conclude that these Facebook ratings show that political commentators are correct when they suggest that the Democrats, particularly Obama, are winning over the young. If the election were held on Facebook, then the two candidates would be Obama and Huckabee, the winners of the Iowa Caucuses. And Obama would win that confrontation easily.

I want to thank Bent Sørensen who drew my attention to the Facebook "friends" of the candidates. He also pointed out that one can express a stronger level of support by declaring that one is a "fan." This requires downloading an extra little program, but does not cost anything. Here again, Obama wins, with 6300 "fans" compared to 3564 for Hillary. The poor Republicans have so few fans I will not embarrass them by posting their numbers. 

There is another way to tackle this issue of popularity on-line, however, by moving outside the confines of Facebook and just "googling" the candidates. Type in "Hillary Clinton" and there are 59 million hits. Obama only has 3.3 million, less than John Edwards at 3.8 million. The Republicans weigh in with McCain at 5.2 million, Mitt Romney 2.3 million, Rudy Giuliana 1.25 million, and Huckabee 1.1 million. If Google is a reliable indicator, then the two candidates are likely to be Hillary Clinton and John McCain, who were the winners of the New Hampshire Primary.

Curiously, one gets a similar result from Rasmussen Marketing.com, which has an on-line trading system that rates candidates and issues. It functions as a kind of handicapping system, suggesting the chances of each candidate getting his or her party's nomination. It turns out that as of today, Rasmussen Marketing gives Clinton a 57% chance of getting the Democratic nomination, with Obama at 41%.  McCain has a big lead among the Republicans, with 39%, while Romney (20%) and Giuliani (19.5%) trail behind. Huckabee is given little chance, with only 13.5%

In conclusion, we have three indicators - Facebook, hits on Google and Rassmusen Marketing. If you put them all together, Hillary and McCain seem to have the strongest likelihood of winning the nominations. It seems that Facebook is only a reliable index to the youth vote, not the electorate as a whole. But, as baseball fans like to say,  it ain't over yet.

January 16, 2008

The Michigan Results

Romney has won in Michigan, with 39% of the votes, and so he keeps his hopes alive. McCain had 30%, Huckabee only 16%. It was a convincing victory. Romney was the strongest candidate in all age groups except for those over 60, who went for McCain. Romney also beat Huckabee among both Protestants and Catholics. Meanwhile, McCain carried the Republicans who never go to church, with 39% of that little constituency. Furthermore, as noted in an earlier blog here, Huckabee did extremely poorly among the Catholics, getting less than 10% of their votes. And these are the very conservative, Republican Catholics, who represented about 30% of the vote. Huckabee would have even less appeal to the larger group of Democratic Catholics. In short, Michigan's results suggest that Huckabee may have been a one-win wonder in Iowa, who now must redeem himself in South Carolina next week, if he is to look viable. 

McCain, on the other hand, did respectably in Michigan, which after all is Romney's former home state. It is hard to beat an opponent who can bring his old schoolteacher and classmates up on stage. Nevertheless, if we probe these results further, it turns out that voters who think the economy is on the right track and who are generally satisfied voted for Romney. The unhappy voters were more likely to be for McCain, whether they were upset by Bush in particular, the poor Iraq results, or the economy.  McCain also was relatively successful with Independents and Democrats, some of whom crossed over to vote for him. Finally, McCain defeated Romney in urban areas (40% to 31%), which is obviously important in the coming contests for New York and California.  So while he lost, McCain showed that he can appeal across party lines, and remains in a good position for the contest in South Carolina.  In terms of money, however, Romney has $60 million to McCain's $31 million, a difference which could begin to be a real problem for McCain by February. 

There are also three footnotes to these Republican results. The first is the strange failure of Giuliani to put up any fight at all, as he dropped to just 3%. Perhaps if neither Romney nor McCain can win an advantage soon, this strategy will yet be vindicated, but it looks like a long shot. Only slightly better was Fred Thompson's 4% showing. He seems unable to ignite his campaign, and one suspects that he is staying in the race in order to have a shot at being the vice-presidential nominee. Indeed, perhaps that is Giuliani's idea as well. If he can show he is strong in Florida, he becomes an attractive VP who can deliver that vital swing state and help carry New York. Finally, there is Paul's fascinating maverick candidacy. He describes himself as an old-fashioned strict constructionist of the Constitution. He is so far to the right that he emerges on the left on some issues, notably Iraq, where he advocates withdrawal. If you have not seen him in the debates, pay more attention, for the Texas congressman has some vocal supporters, as he calls for balancing the budget, an end to military adventurism abroad, and a return to the foreign policy of Thomas Jefferson. I strongly doubt that he is seeking the vice-presidential nomination, and he is smart enough to know that he is but an articulate gadfly. If nothing else, he shows how boring Fred Thompson is by comparison.

Meanwhile, Hillary won, running unopposed, and will get zero delegates, because the Democratic Party is punishing Michigan for advancing its primary date, as discussed a few days ago here. A notable 43% did not support her in the absence of other candidates. The real action was out in Nevada, where delegates can be won or lost, and where a debate took place yesterday. It apparently was a particularly friendly affair, as the three main candidates made a point of not attacking one another. After some un-pleasantries earlier in the week over the relative contributions of Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson, it seems that Clinton and Obama have returned to their senses. Arguing about events that took place 40 years ago, and bringing up race, were just not going to sell either candidate to the electorate.

One final aspect of the Michigan vote needs to be emphasized. Fully 46% of those exit-polled admitted that they did not make up their minds until this week. Indeed, more than 30% made up their minds during the last three days. As in Iowa and New Hampshire, this remains a fickle electorate, one that can be swayed by small events or media images right up to the end. The last minute shifts on the whole favored Romney. McCain outpolled him (32% to 28%) among those who had decided more than one month ago, but Romney garnered 41% of the voters who decided on the last day, as they neared the ballot box. McCain only got a quarter of these votes, and that represents much of the margin of difference between them.

January 14, 2008

Fluidity in the "YouTube Campaign"

More than any presidential race that I can recall, this one reveals voters who are uncertain about whom they will ultimately support. Look at any of the more detailed polls, and you find that half or more of any candidate's support is "soft." So many people have not really made their minds yet, that relatively small events may have a big impact on the final result. Hillary's tearing up is only one example of what we can expect will be a series of signature moments when the electorate gets a new perception of a candidate. One such moment, showed an older woman ask McCain, "How do we stop the bitch?" She can only be referring to Clinton, and the entire (Republican) room erupts into laughter, McCain included. He never directly answers the question, but his facial expression reveals some sympathy for the query combined with the realization that he had best treat the incident as humorously as possible. But the question and the crowd response speak volumes about the Republicans.

Another moment, concerning Romney, also was caught on camera and made available on YouTube. In this short sequence, Romney approaches a young man in a wheelchair. No doubt the candidate is expecting to score some points by displaying compassion. But the encounter goes badly for Romney. As the camera rolls, he learns that the young man suffers from an incurable condition, and that the only thing that can ease his pain is marijuana. Romney is against drugs of all forms being legalized under any circumstances, and immediately points out that there is a synthetic form of marijuana available as a pill. This he supports, if prescribed by a physician. But the young man says that the such pills make him ill, and that only smoking marijuana works for him. Romney begins to back away, as the young man asks whether, if elected, Romney would put him in jail for smoking it. Romney does not hesitate to say that he does not endorse such use, turns his back on the man and begins to look for a more congenial conversation. But whoever is holding the camera stops him, and asks if he is literally going to turn his back on the young man. Will he not speak with him? Romney curtly replies that he has already spoken to him and given him an answer.

The whole episode takes less time to see than it does to describe. It makes me dislike Romney who appears slick, self-assured, insensitive, rigid, cold, and "deeply superficial" - by which I mean superficial all the way down, through and through. Now conceivably this was not a characteristic moment. Maybe Romney normally is a really nice guy. But the footage seemed to me a confirmation of what I have sensed about the man all along.

Such YouTube coverage may become a crucial element in this campaign, helping the public to get beyond the spin and the crafted TV commercials. I certainly hope so. But we will also have to be wary of assuming that YouTube videos are themselves completely unvarnished slices of reality. They can be manipulated and edited, too.

The important point is that in 2008 we are experiencing the conjunction of two events that might not have coincided. The first is the wide open race on both sides, with no heir apparent in either party. This basically has not happened in the memory of the electorate. The second is the advent of YouTube, which is so new that it did not play a role in any previous campaign. As we move through the rest of the primaries, look for more of these moments digitally captured and rebroadcast via the Internet. We seem to be witnessing the birth of a major force in the electoral process. Just as radio became important in the 1930s and television in the 1950s, reshaping the political landscape in the process, the Internet may provide a new kind of electoral battleground. In this new form of public space, the ordinary person has more opportunities to be heard, via Blogs and digital imagery. This makes possible new forms of negative advertising, and new kinds of "reality TV" straight from the campaign trail.

Perhaps that is why Barack Obama has visited the Google headquarters at least twice. He can see that the politics of the future will be more interactive and less from the top down. During his second visit Obama gave a rousing address to a standing-room-only crowd, in which he showed himself quite savvy on the issues that concerned such entrepreneurs. Obama's appearance at Google, too, is available on YouTube - which Google owns.

Obama also has a sophisticated on-line fund-raising operation, which has gathered thousands of email addresses from supporters and provided him with infusions of new cash. His homepage is not only well-designed, it generates campaign money for up-coming contests. Obama makes it easy for contributors to match gifts, to provide the names and emails of other likely contributors, and to follow the progress of each mini-fund drive. And contributors have opportunities to chat on-line to one another, too.

Overall, both Obama and Clinton appear more computer literate than either McCain or Huckabee. That ought to position them well to operate in the new world of Internet campaigns, with its unscripted (or semi-scripted) moments on YouTube. This may be crucial in reaching the still undecided electorate. Stay tuned.

January 12, 2008

Voting Patterns May Favor Clinton and McCain

Forty years ago I worked briefly for the Eugene McCarthy campaign in New Hampshire. That was a heady experience, because the primary became, in effect, a referendum on the Vietnam War. And McCarthy did something no one had thought possible. He embarrassed a sitting President, who won with 49%, by getting more than 42% of the vote. This was hardly an expected result in a conservative state. It was only possible because of massive support from college students and other young people. It did not hurt McCarthy that he had a good education in Catholic universities, so he could appeal to that constituency as well.

Working in the campaign made me acutely aware of the differences between voters. The problem for any candidate is, "How can I appeal to as many groups as possible?" The usual practice is to come up with a general campaign slogan, such as "New Deal," "Fair Deal," "New Frontier" or, this year, simply, "Change," and then develop a variety of specific proposals, which the candidate trots out or barely mentions, depending on the particular audience being addressed. Yet, in the end, each candidate appeals more to some social classes, religious faiths, or racial groups than to others. Some appeal more to men than women, or vice-versa. If only men could vote, then Bill Clinton would never have been president.  What can we learn about the major candidates' constituencies, based on Iowa and New Hampshire? 

Who voted for Obama instead of Clinton? For Huckabee or McCain?  Iowa and New Hampshire voting behavior suggests some patterns to think about. Consider that Hillary's New Hampshire victory essentially was won in small industrial towns, where she got twice the support Obama did. She is also emerging as a working-class candidate who speaks to bread and butter issues. Since the American economy is fading at the moment, with falling house prices and higher unemployment, this aspect of Hillary's appeal bears watching. Another area of strength for her is in terms of religion. The Catholics clearly preferred Hillary (44%) to Obama (27%), with Protestants more evenly divided. In New Hampshire, these Catholics are mostly French-Canadian and Irish. Will Obama find a way to reach out to such voters? Will he have more success with Catholics that have other ethnic backgrounds? He will have to re-think his basic message a bit if he wants to appeal to the less educated and to the working-class. To put this in a more positive way, Obama outpolled Clinton among college students, the better educated, and the wealthy. Among those who have gone to graduate school, he defeated her soundly, 46% to 27%. But could he win a Presidential election primarily based on that kind of support? Perhaps, for Obama seems to attract votes from people with higher incomes, many of them Independents. Among voters earning more than $50,000 a year, Obama had a margin over Clinton of 43% to 27%. 

These kinds of preferences are not written in stone, and candidates can modify their speechs and presentations to woo voters whom they failed to attract early on. For example, Hillary discovered in Iowa that the young were flocking to Obama by a radio of 2 to 1, while she was busy targeting women over 45. To improve in this area, in New Hampshire Hillary began surrounding herself on stage with young people. That may seem a rather minimal change, but it seems to have helped her. 

Overall, one can see that while the total vote for Obama and Clinton was close, support varied greatly within specific groups. Men strongly preferred him, but women brought her the victory. Clinton may be a bit better positioned, with strong support from Catholics, women, and the working class. But Obama will presumably adjust his campaign messages in an attempt to reach more of these voters, all of whom traditionally have been more Democratic than Republican. If he fails to do this, he will have troubles down the road that may undercut the boost he can expect to get from Black voters, who were scarcely present in Iowa or New Hampshire.

On the Republican side, for the last three decades religion has been a particularly important influence on voters. New Hampshire Catholics taken as a whole are rather conservative, and in 2004 gave more support to Bush (52%) than to Kerry (47%). In theory, Huckabee could do as well as Bush. In practice, he did far worse. Huckabee received most of his support from Evangelical Protestants, while in New Hampshire only 8% of the Republican-voting Catholics selected him. McCain literally got five times more Catholic votes, suggesting that he is far more electable in a national contest. More to the point, in the Michigan Primary next week there are three Catholic voters for every two Evangelicals. Furthermore, if one looks at Protestants as a whole, McCain has roughly the same appeal as Huckabee.  In short, Huckabee's born-again Baptist religion ultimately may be a limitation, not a strength. Nevertheless, the latest Michigan polls show Huckabee and McCain in a dead heat along with Romney, with all three getting about 20% of the vote. 

January 10, 2008

Michigan Primary

Michigan is much different than Iowa or New Hampshire: it is more like the rest of the United States. In that sense, the Michigan Primary could function as a reality check. How might these candidates fare in an industrial, multicultural state? Unfortunately, the Michigan Primary will not function this way, because when it was moved to an earlier date, this was against party rules. Both parties have punished Michigan by taking away delegates to the national nominating conventions. The Republicans took away half, the Democrats took away every one of the delegates. As a result, Obama, Edwards and Richardson have taken their names off the ballot, while Clinton did not. So, on the Democratic side, there is no contest, though voters may choose to vote "uncommitted." In a curious way, the vote then turns out to be a referendum on Hillary. Her or "uncommitted"?
In the first two contests, the candidates could reasonably expect to come into personal contact with a good deal of the electorate. On a good day in Iowa or New Hampshire, they might be seen and heard by 15,000 people or more, and multiply that number by the days they spent in the state, and it compares rather well with the turnout in Iowa and New Hampshire. Fully half of the voters in each state got a first-hand impression of the candidates, and anyone who wanted to do so certainly has the opportunity. A friend of mine in New Hampshire wrote me that he and his wife managed to see Obama three times, Clinton, Richardson, and Edwards twice each, plus McCain and Giuliani.  He decided for Obama, saying, "When we first saw him, a year ago at a book signing event, I was underimpressed. But he grew into his candidacy. His Welcome Back to New Hampshire rally the morning after the Iowa caucus was rocking - and actually very moving." 
The voters in the first two states are the lucky ones, because they can really study the candidates and talk about them based on direct contact. Michigan is another matter, and more typical of the campaign for the presidency from now on. To begin with, there is the sheer scale of the State. Michigan is six times larger than New Hampshire, though about the same size as Iowa. More to the point, Michigan has 10 million inhabitants, more than twice as many as Iowa and New Hampshire put together, and they are not going to get many chances to see the candidates in the six days between primaries, no matter how intensive the campaigning. This means that the candidates will have to use the media to reach the voter, and that fact favors candidates with deep pockets.
Since there is no Democratic contest, we should focus on the Republican side. Huckabee and McCain do not have much money, and they will need to calculate carefully how to use the scarce resources. Huckabee will presumably be mobilizing the churches, as he did in Iowa, and McCain can count on support from veterans organizations. By comparison, Romney has more, and apparently plans to spend heavily.
Not only does Michigan demand more money to run a campaign, but it has a more varied electorate. More than 800,000 people in Michigan do not speak English in their homes, including many of the 400,000 Hispanics. Iowa and New Hampshire basically do not have Black people, which makes Obama's success there almost astonishing. Michigan's 1.4 million African-Americans traditionally vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party. Had there been a three-way contest with Edwards and Clinton, Obama presumably would have received far more than a third of the Black vote. Even more intriguing, Michigan also has a sizable Arab population, more than 400,000 in the Detroit metropolitan area. Dearborn, where Henry Ford once built his largest factory, today is 30% Arab. It seems reasonable to think that because of his cultural background, Obama would have appealed to such voters. But because the Michigan Primary is meaningless for the Democrats, we will never know how Obama might have done. However, the Arab voter is not necessarily a Democrat. The Arab population is better educated and more highly paid than the Michigan average, and half typically vote for the Republicans. This group may choose Romney, rather than the Bible-thumping Huckabee or militant McCain.  
The Republicans will battle it out in a state whose economy has been struggling for decades. Detroit is the headquarters for General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, and as they have lost market share to Japanese and European firms, jobs have been disappearing. This is a blue-collar state, where only one adult in four has a BA (in New Hampshire it was one in three), and where the number of jobs has shrunk 7% during the Bush years, at a time when the country as a whole has created more than 2 million jobs. Given these local hard times, the populism that Edwards brought into the campaign and that other candidates have picked up, should play well in Michigan. That ought to favor Huckabee and McCain more than Romney. Note also that while Detroit dominates Michigan, it has a large rural area as well, and an entire penninsula, Upper Michigan, that has no large cities. This population is less multicultural and more conservative, and it will be interesting to see how Huckabee and McCain do in these areas. Romney's father was once governor of Michigan (and an unsuccessful Presidential candidate), and the resonance of the name, plus old family connections, can only help his faltering campaign. Indeed, the news today is that Romney has pulled his advertising off the air in South Carolina to focus all his energies in Michigan. This seems to be a recognition of the fact that if he cannot win there, his campaign may be over.
The Michigan Primary could have been the dramatic third act of an electoral drama, pitting the Clinton machine with its strong ties to the labor unions against the Obama wave. Instead, it will be a sort of referendum on Clinton by herself, and if half the Democrats are "undecided" that is a kind of defeat for her. At least on the Republican side there is still a contest, and a very interesting one, between Huckabee, McCain, and Romney, who each have around 20% in the average of all polls, with Giuliani running at about 10% and assorted others garnering a few votes, too. If one looks back over the polls for a year, McCain had a high point of 30% back in March of last year, before his finances collapsed and his campaign seemed hopeless. After falling as low as 10%, his numbers are rising rapidly now. Romney peaked at 26% at the same time that McCain waned. But Romney has been fading a bit ever since then, even before his losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. Giuliani once had 28% in Michigan, but he has been falling to his present 10%. Huckabee, in contrast, has not suffered any relapses. Starting at 0% in June of 2007, his numbers have continually risen to his present tie with Romney and McCain.  If the electorate in Michigan is as volatile as that in New Hampshire, the next week should be very interesting.

January 09, 2008

Hillary Beats Obama, Just!

I was wrong, and so was everyone else who believed the polls. I looked at them all, and as of two days ago, Obama was widening his lead. But something happened in the two or three days since those polls and the actual election. Clinton got far more support from women than the polls had predicted - they said women would split between the two. In fact, she got 14% more, showing that when women go into the polling booth they are still thinking about their decision. This was decisive, as Hillary defeated him by only two percentage points - 39% to 37%. Obama was also perhaps a victim of his anticipated success, as Independant voters, who can participate in either primary, seem to have gone over to help McCain, because Obama apparently was going to win without their help. Had the polls showed Obama in a close race, then more Independents might have supported him.

Voters clearly were volatile in New Hampshire, and the process of the election brought more energy to Hillary's campaign. This surprised all the pundits, who admitted it on CNN and in the other media. In the last two days Hillary became more populist in tone and more open to questions from the crowds who came to hear her. Until this week, she gave few interviews and the communication was all one way. She also teared up in an emotional moment surrounded by women in a small public meeting. That moment was caught on TV and rebroadcast many times. (This seems to have worked once, but how many times could she become emotional before it would begin to hurt her?) She was learning from what worked for other candidates, and that is as it should be. The primary process gives candidates a chance to know the public and find out what they care about. She refocused on younger voters, as Obama has, making a point to pose many of them behind her on the stage. In her victory speech Hillary sounded a bit like Edwards, speaking about the "invisible Americans" and the hard-working people who cannot afford to pay the bills. She has also begun to attack the oil companies, the pharmeceutical companies, and the insurance companies, which may win the primary for her, but may alienate swing voters and can stimulate these companies to give more money to Republicans. Overall, Clinton presented her self as more emotional, and won over many to the cause at the last minute.

Now we have an open race, with two candidates almost equally strong in the North, and Edwards hoping for a comeback in the South. So far, the campaign has not tested the candidates' appeal in large cities or among Black and Hispanic voters. The next primary in Michigan will be the first in a large, urban, and multicultural state. Can Hillary appeal to that audience as well as Obama will?  Can she continue to outpoll him among women voters? 

On the Republican side, McCain made a tremendous comeback, defeating Romney, who has now come in second twice. But that race is still wide open, as it rolls on toward Michigan. Romney's father was governor of Michigan, after all, so he has one more chance to win a primary. But if he cannot win there, then it may come down to a race between McCain and Huckabee and perhaps Giuliani, with Fred Thompson as a remote outside possibility.

January 07, 2008

Why Obama Beats Hillary

The election tomorrow in New Hampshire will likely cement Barack Obama's status as the leading Democratic contender for the Presidency. Some of the most recent polls place him 10-12% ahead of Mrs. Clinton, and all observers on the ground agree that he has tremendous momentum. He is filling every hall, and the crowds leap to their feet with enthusiasm. In contrast, former President Clinton, it is widely reported, is not filling halls, and those who do come applaud politely

How has this happened? How could Hillary Clinton, with more than $100 million and the backing of hundreds of former officials from her husband's presidency, lose to a first-term Senator, much less a Black man who is in his mid-forties? How could Obama beat not one Clinton, but two? There are many possible answers to this question, but for convenience let us begin with the Hillary negatives and then move to the Obama positives. 

HIllary wants to be perceived as the candidate of experience, yet this is a weak platform for her. She bungled health care when given the chance to put forward a plan as First Lady, and it came out during the campaign that she did not have a security clearance, and therefore lacked access to important foreign policy documents when in the White House. Nor did her vaunted experience stand her in good stead when faced with the Iraq War. She voted for it, suggesting that she has not learned enough, despite the opportunities. Did she support it because she genuinely agreed with President Bush? Or was she too timid to stake out an anti-war position, fearful that she could not get elected president if she looked "soft"? Unfortunately for her, the post-war period has gone so badly that the American people by a considerable majority want to get out of Iraq. So does Hillary now.

She wants to be the first women president, but her charismatic husband gets in the way. Too often she seems to be riding her husband's coat tails, which does not work well when he is no longer running himself. But the key problem is that she simply does not compare well with him. Bill Clinton generated a public enthusiasm but Hillary does not. She is a better speaker than George Bush, which is not saying much, but she does not electrify a crowd.

That is the first Obama positive. He does electrify a hall, as he speaks with passion and conviction. His speech after the victory in Iowa was masterful, and already some are comparing him to some of the greatest public speakers in US history, namely Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. Obama knows how to build up to a climax and take the crowd with him. He does not just talk about hope, he creates it. 

The second positive for Obama is that he does not talk about being Black. Rather, he embodies what it means for a Black man to have attended Columbia and later Harvard Law School, without taking the lucrative path to a big law firm. Instead, Obama chose politics and public service. He also chose to be inclusive, defining himself not as a minority candidate, but as a candidate in the Democratic mainstream. The reason white audiences respond to him so positively is that he never tried to lay down a guilt trip, to make people feel bad about the injustices of the past. Instead, he calls out to their good impulses to make a better future. The fact of Obama being there at all is an embodiment of hope.

The third positive for Obama is that he has built up a coherent campaign theme based on hope. It began with his two books, both bestsellers that reached a large audience with his message of personal transformation, growth, and hope for change. In contrast, Hillary wrote a memoir about her years in the White House that sold well enough, as her publisher advertised heavily to get back the big advance. But look at their books today on Amazon. Obama's The Audacity of Hope is number 36 overall, but number one in non-fiction books on government and number one among all biographies and memoirs. Hillary Clinton's A Woman in Charge is number 14,752 overall, and only number 49 in biographies and memoirs. Her Living History from 2004 is below 49,000. His Dreams from My Father is the best-selling non-fiction book about African Americans, and it is in the top 400 books. 

So, Hillary has not become as strong and convincing a spokesperson for American women as Obama has for African-Americans. You have to feel sorry for her. She is a good candidate, better than Kerry, far better than Bush. But Obama is a great candidate, a once-in-a-lifetime candidate. Let us hope he can continue as he has begun.

January 04, 2008

Iowa Caucuses: Not Clinton, Not Romney, but Obama vs Huckabee?

The Iowa caucuses have spoken. The clear winners are Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama. The clear losers are Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney, both of whom spent a lot of time and money in Iowa and came up wanting. She was judged the front runner both in Iowa and nationally until a few weeks ago. But Clinton came in third, slightly behind John Edwards, even though she spent vastly more than Edwards did. It is worth noting that Edwards did slightly worse this time around (30%) than he did in 2004, when he garnered 32%. But Edwards is very much alive, having exceeded polling expectations. Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, failed to win, although she had her husband and heavy-weights such as Madelaine Albright at her side.  

Hillary desperately needs to do well in New Hampshire next week, for there is nothing worse in the presidential primary process than losing momentum. Edwards gained some of that last night, while Obama definitively became the front-runner. He is already the most successful Black candidate for the Presidency that the US has ever seen, and he is developing three campaign themes that Americans have always liked: restoring national unity, time for a change, and throwing out the rascals in Washington. What makes his campaign especially interesting is the surge of college students supporting him. Young people do not vote as reliably as older people. But when thousands of them become excited about a candidate, as happened with John Kennedy in 1960 or Eugene McCarthy in 1968 or Bill Clinton in 1992, such students can have a disproportionate influence on the election. For students have more time and energy than most others, and they will throw themselves full time into a campaign they believe in. Will New England's college students also turn out for Obama? If so, that will be a sign that new energies are going to redefine American politics in 2008.

Obama received the same percentage of support (38%) that John Kerry had in 2004. Recall that the front runner before the Iowa caucuses that time was Howard Dean, whose candidacy faded rapidly after his poor showing. This time around the Iowa voters have shown that Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Mike Gravel, and Dennis Kucinich have virtually no traction with the voters. Together, all of them managed to garner only 3% of the delegates. They are effectively out of the race, which will be further clarified on Tuesday. Should Clinton continue to falter, then it might become a two-man contest between Obama and Edwards.

On the Republican side, the clear winner was Mike Huckabee, the affable Arkansas governor. He is a charming salesman for banning abortion and other conservative causes. The latest avatar of the "compassionate conservatism" that George Bush claimed to represent in the 2000 election, Huckabee garnered passionate support from evangelicals and other religious minded conservatives. They turned out for him and defeated the far more heavily financed Romney campaign. He has lost some momentum, but has a chance to regain it in New Hampshire, which in theory ought to lean his way. After all, Romney was the Republican governor of Massachusetts, which normally votes Democratic, and he evidently knows how to talk to the Yankee voter. By comparison, the Baptist preacher Huckabee with his southern accent will sound like a foreigner in the Granite State.

However, Romney's main opponents in New Hampshire are John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani skipped the Iowa caucuses, calculating that he would be better off using his time and money on the later primaries. McCain almost skipped Iowa, but decided to make a partial effort there, once he saw that he might place a respectable third, which he did.  So Romney runs the risk in New Hampshire of coming in second again. In that case, he might be through. For Huckabee showed that Romney cannot excite the conservative religious Republicans, even in Iowa; he would surely appeal to them even less in Alabama. Quite possibly either McCain or Giuliani will demonstrate that Romney is also the second choice among the more secular Republicans.

It is early in the campaign, and almost all the votes are still to be cast. But Iowa has suggested the possibility of a presidential race between a White Baptist preacher and governor from Arkansas and a Black lawyer and Senator from  Illinois. For US politics, that would be an absolute (and polarizing?) contrast in political goals, personality, and values. But if these turn out to be the candidates, then Obama will already occupy the middle of the spectrum, while Huckabee will have to work hard to show he represents more than the evangelicals.

January 03, 2008

Moby Bush and The Great Saddam Whale

On April 2, 2003 I sent a short opinion piece out to several US newspapers, criticizing the Bush Administration's planned war on Iraq. None would print it. Criticism of the Bush Government was still not widespread in the media, though hundreds of thousands of people were protesting the planned invasion in the streets of New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and other cities around the nation. At the time I was a visiting professor at Notre Dame University, and I had followed the build up to the Iraq War quite carefully. I was against the invasion then, but I could not have imagined how thoroughly the Bush Administration was going to bungle their "peace keeping" once the invasion was over. Subsequent events showed that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and was not making any. This seemed likely to be the case to many people at the time, not least to the inspectors who were on the ground. Recall that Colin Powell went to the UN and, we now know, lied, claiming that the US had superior intelligence to that possessed by the French and the Germans. Today, we know that they were right and the US was wrong. But even at that time, I felt that the nation was going absolutely in the wrong direction. And so I wrote the piece now published here.

Warning: If you have not read Herman Melville's Moby Dick, then the literary parallels between Ahab and George W. Bush will be lost on you. 

On board the Pequod II
The Pequod II shipped out in 2001 with the new captain, whom we did not know well, but he was rumored to be compassionate. In the first long months of the voyage he kept himself mostly below, in the Texas, letting others steer the ship while he plotted his unilateral course. Then he emerged in the midst of a storm and addressed his officers and crew. He called on all to join in a quest to make the seas safe for whalers and to assure civilization a steady supply of sperm oil, by hunting down and slaying the Great Saddam Whale.

Captains from passing French, German, and Russian ships warned him to hunt only normal prey, but he ignored them. For his mind was fixed on an earlier encounter with that great whale, whom he believed once tried to kill his father, and whom he saw as the very incarnation of evil. Indeed, he spoke of an "axis of evil" that included Iran and North Korea, making up a strange triumvirate that had no alliances with one another.

Can First Mate Starbuck Powell stand up to the Captain's extravagance, and steer us into safer waters? Or is his goodness ultimately no match for monomania? Will the frowning captain accept advice to change course from the smiling second mate, Tony "Stubb" Blair? Can the captain heed advice, or is this course become a destiny? We cannot expect restraint from third mate Flask Rumsfeld, who is cheerfully certain he can kill all whales that spout in any gulf.

Below decks are wolfish planners who steel Bush's will for the fiery chase. First, they promise an easy chase and quick victory. Have we not harpoons with satellite guidance? Now, they counsel patient pursuit. We will bring democracy and progress to the Middle East fishery. There be also readers of Revelation on board, who look to scripture and conclude that the confrontation with the Great Whore of Babylon has come. This will be the last day of judgement against the infidels. 

The Pequod sails on a profitless voyage into a rising storm. In his quest to destroy the Great Sadddam Whale the Captain risks his cargo, insults his allies, kills innocent people, and creates new enemies. I am a involuntary Ishmael on this voyage. My cry for war did not go up with the rest. I don't want to end up clinging to my best friend's coffin.


I see no need to change this more than 1700 days later. Melville was not, of course, writing about George Bush. But he had seen men like him and was able to imagine an apocalyptic scenario. 

Bush's foreign policy has been a catastrophe for United States. If we are fortunate enough to have wise leadership after the next election, by which I mean leaders who do not act unilaterally but listen to their allies, it will still take at least a generation for the nation to regain  the moral stature it had abroad at the end of the Clinton years. Sadly, however, it is possible that during the last decade the US has squandered a great historical opportunity for world leadership that will not come again.

January 02, 2008

Parking in Boston, or Homesteading in 2008

Last week I was in Boston and happened to learn of a widespread local practice there. Whenever a blizzard hits, the City does a poor job of clearing the snow away, and many homeowners must dig themselves out of the drifts. And when someone has shoveled out a ton or two of snow to create a parking space, it seems only natural to lay claim to that space and not give it up to parasitic strangers or neighbors who have not done so. Once a space is cleared, the homeowner hunts around in the basement and brings out some old plastic furniture or perhaps some orange plastic cones "borrowed" from a construction project, and puts them in the space, to block access to the spot while out doing errands. Your sturdy Bostonian lays claim to the parking space, and dares anyone to encroach on his hard-earned spot! 

If you have ever been to Boston, then you know that parking is scarce even in good summer weather. When I lived there, I often had to circle the neighborhood many times to find a space. I had a permit pasted in the car window to park on those streets, in theory at least, but in practice the city did not provide enough spaces and earned a large revenue by fining people who parked illegally. Competition was so fierce that everyone also knew where the various illegal spaces were, the ones that carried various levels of fines, depending on whether one was too close to a corner, blocking a hydrant, stealing a space from the handicapped, or just remaining for too long in a commercial space. Everyone in Boston always has several unpaid parking tickets, as they continually struggle to find a place. After a big snow storm the competition for spaces gets really frantic - the technical word for this is parking dementia - and I sympathize with those who feel they have a right to a space if they have cleared it. It's not as if the City did anything, other than handing out lots of parking fines.

Yet the Mayor of Boston, quite logically from his side, announced that the streets belong to the citizens as a whole. People do not gain ownership of public property by shoveling snow! But surely the Mayor has forgotten his basic John Locke, whose works are at the foundation of American government. Locke argued that people gained the right to own land by mixing their labor with it - investing themselves in a particular place. If you put your sweat into the land, it ought to be yours. Societies, in Locke's view, were formed by independent people out of their own free will. They joined in a social contract. But it could be broken later on, if the state could not provide the protection and the services it should. This theory is presumably familiar to my readers, and I do not want to insult their intelligence by too long a summary. My point is that in Boston, when the government fails to clear the streets, the social contract temporarily breaks down. People are forced back into a state of nature. They become hunters of parking spaces, carving out of an unforgiving Nature the vital necessity - a place for the car - that they know is the birthright of all Americans. It seems like it is in the Bill of Rights, maybe number eleven. Instinctively, the Bostonian feels that those who labor in the snow earn the right to the space that lies beneath it. They are urban homesteaders. They are like Americans on the open prairies of the nineteenth century who benefited from the Homestead Act. They claimed land, but it was only granted to them on the condition that the claimant lived on it and developed it. 

The precedent seems clear. Your Bostonian, in the spirit of American individualism is only homesteading in a new place, the city street. The activity is thoroughly American: Lockean individualism combined with a refusal to depend overmuch on the State.  And if someone should move the battered lawn chair, and put a foreign vehicle into that space, it constitutes a trespass upon that man's sacred parking spot, which he cleared and maintained by the sweat of his brow. In the face of such outrages, a Bostonian feels it is only right to issue threats, to order the miscreant away, and if that fails, to slash the tires, or bash up the intruding car a bit. And so we see recapitulated the basic history of the United States: first, raw Nature (the blizzard), then rugged individualism and homesteading, followed by turf wars, and concluding with the Mayor's (re)imposition of state law. 

This is a seasonal ritual, of course. New blizzards are bound to come, and the city will soon again revert to a "state of nature."