February 28, 2008

Crunch Time for the Democrats

After the American Century

Now that we have heard perhaps the last primary debate, the psychology of the Democratic presidential campaign has reached a decisive point. If Obama wins either Ohio or Texas, Clinton is expected to drop out. Many stories in the media are saying this. Symbolically, Senator Dodd has just endorsed Obama, saying that the campaign should not go on too long. Dodd hopefully put himself forward as a candidate, but was one of the early casualties in the primaries. I believe he is the only former candidate to endorse either Clinton or Obama. Even Bill Clinton has said that Hillary must win both Ohio and Texas if she is to go on. Admittedly, he said it a while ago when she had comfortable leads in both states. The latest polls now show that - as has happened in so many other states - Obama has overhauled her in Texas. Two weeks ago Clinton had more than a 10 point advantage, but now she trails by as much as 4 points.

The Obama team smells victory in Texas, and so do the Move.on activists. They are putting together a gigantic nationwide phone-a-thon, getting members to gather on Sunday, bringing their cell phones along, for a massive effort to get out the Texas vote. In the past phoning voters was usually done from a central location, but Move.on is getting people together in smaller groups in their home towns. This demands a high level of organization, getting lists of phone numbers in Texas to each of these calling groups, and organizing tens of thousands of volunteers through Internet communications. If they can pull that off, Obama will get quite a boost. I think it likely he will win Texas. He will also win Vermont, but probably not tiny Rhode Island, where Hillary has been more.

Obama can easily afford to lose Rhode Island, but Ohio is another matter. Hillary still has a lead there of 4 to 6 points, depending on what poll you look at. He has been chiseling away at her, but the shift toward him is more gradual than in Texas. Averaging all the polls together, his momentum might push him into the lead in a couple of weeks, but five days may not be long enough. Today, I note that he has left Ohio for Texas, while she remains in the Buckeye State a bit longer. Still, the difference between them is about the same as the margin of error, so he has an outside chance to win there, too.

Ohio is suffering economically more than Texas. Cleveland has been especially hard hit by teh mortgage crisis, and thousands of homes have been foreclosed there, and neighborhoods are dotted with For Sale signs. There are not likely to be many buyers in Cleveland. That city looked pretty depressed in 2003 when I visited there twice, and it has gotten much worse since then. Judging by the still weakening national economy, Ohio will likely suffer more during the spring and summer. Clinton has appealed to struggling blue-collar areas throughout her campaign, so it is appropriate that she makes what may be her last stand in Ohio. Back in the 1970s Ohio was the heart of the "rust belt" and some parts of the state never entirely came back to full prosperity. The steel mills are mostly gone from Youngstown, for example, and Clinton seems popular with the voters there. Should Obama be the nominee, he will need to find a way to appeal more strongly in such places, because it is a vital swing state. Kerry would have been president had he carried Ohio.

John McCain has a chance to win Ohio in the national election, especially if he can convince blue-collar voters that national security is the central issue of the campaign. He is there now, of course, ostensibly running against Huckabee and Paul, but focusing most of his attacks on the Democrats. Polls show him narrowly defeating Clinton, but trailing Obama by as much as 6 percentage points. McCain surely would prefer to face Clinton, whom the Republicans love to hate, so he spends much more energy running down Obama. (Yesterday he accused him of having a weak, naive approach to Al Qaeda.) I would not be amazed to hear that some Republicans were even giving Hillary contributions now, in hopes of derailing the mesmerizing Senator from Illinois.

With McCain sniping away every day, it is becoming essential for Obama to wrap up the primaries and shift attention to a full scale challenge of the Republicans. If it is crunch time for Obama, however, it is do-or-die for Hillary. She is becoming more shrill and aggressive, but I sense that she becomes unappealing in the process. One has to admire her grit and determination, but the hectoring tone and tired voice begin to wear on the nerves. Worse, the "shame on you" tone may have worked for Bill Clinton, but when she uses the same phrase it does not sound "presidential," but more like an angry mother.

It is not (yet) easy for any woman to run for president. Should Hillary bow out next week, she will have done far more than any previous female candidate, pushing open the White House door for other women. She will remain a force in the Democratic Party and the Senate, and she could also run again in four years time. Then again, this race is not yet over. It's crunch time.