February 15, 2008

Obama and Clinton: Dangers of a Long Race

After the American Century

Obama has now won a string of impressive victories. Ahead for the first time in the race, however, he faces new kinds of problems. The front runner never gets a free ride. He has been the media's darling, but now they may begin to play a little rougher. Where before the Republicans were busy with their own race, McCain has now begun to attack him directly, by name. Obama has seen the advantage in that kind of attention, and is responding to McCain. It seems to say that Hillary is history. She is not, and Obama will now need to fight them both.

Clinton will likely have trouble winning in either Wisconsin or Hawaii, but when the battle shifts to Texas and Ohio on March 4, she will be in states where polls show her well ahead. Texas has been a Republican stronghold since at least the 1980 presidential elections, and there is little chance that the Democrats can win there in November. But take away the Republican majority, and the voters left include a large Hispanic population that now votes more than in the past, plus a sizable number of working class southerners who are comfortable with the Clinton name. For Obama, it will be an uphill fight in Texas outside of the Black community and college towns. Since Hispanics greatly outnumber African Americans there, Hillary starts with an advantage. However, Obama has been doing better with the kinds of voters who earlier went for Clinton. In Virginia he drew more women voters and started to attract more Hispanics and older Democrats as well. Still, the game for Obama in Texas is probably not to lose by too much, getting as many delegates as possible so that Hillary does not catch up.

In the crucial state of Ohio, Obama needs a better showing. If he can wrest Ohio from Hillary, such a victory might convince super delegates that he is the best standard-bearer for the party. However, if he looses in both Texas and Ohio, then Hillary has a real chance to raise additional money and rally for a showdown in the Pennsylvania primary. Even more than Ohio, Pennsylvania is a place the Democrats must win in November to ensure safe passage back into the White House. But Pennsylvania has a conservative history. It went for Herbert Hoover in 1932, in what was otherwise a Roosevelt tidal wave. Pennsylvanians also liked Ike in the 1950s and Reagan in the 1980s. In recent times the Democrats have carried it (1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004). With more than 12 million people, it is a crucial state, where polls now show Clinton in the lead. Bread and butter issues will be important there, particularly in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and among the remaining steel workers and coal miners.

In short, Obama has had all the momentum of late, but if Clinton holds on to her current leads in both Ohio and Texas, then it will stretch out the decision at least until at least April 22, and do possible damage to the Democratic Party. The super delegates may even wait it out to see who wins what in May.

Granted that neither candidate can attain the magic total of 2025 delegates through the primary process alone, the hope must be that one of them convinces the super delegates that he or she is the best choice. Ideally, whoever that is ought to have won a plurality of the pledged delegates as well. Unfortunately for the Democrats, however, it might not happen that way at all. Obama has the most delegates, but Clinton has the most super delegates. Roughly 390 of them have not made up their minds, and both candidates are wooing them non-stop.

Ominously, in the long gap between primaries from March 4 until April 22, other than vying for super delegates, the festering question will be: What to do about Florida and Michigan? There are no good choices. Playing strictly by the rules, these states held their primaries too early and were sanctioned for it: neither was to get any delegates. Abiding by this decision, Obama did not even get his name on the Michigan ballot. That made it easy for Clinton to win there, since she essentially ran unopposed. Now that she is behind, her camp has begun to call for giving Michigan delegates again. This seems grossly unfair. But if you are from Michigan, it no doubt seems just as unfair to be kept out of a close election. Florida offers almost the same connundrum, except that Obama at least was on the ballot there, though he did not campaign. Should Clinton win the nomination by getting Michigan and Florida seated - reversing the party's earlier decision - then Obama's camp would rightly feel aggrieved. But if they are not seated, Clinton's supporters will feel that two states where she was strong unjustly were excluded. I happen to side with Obama on this one. Don't change the rules in the middle of the game. But watch for unpleasantness on this issue.

Finally, because it is not likely to end soon, the campaigning, especially from Clinton's side, may get negative. That would also be a danger to the Party, not only because it will make it hard to unify for the fall campaign, but in October the Republicans will gleefully repeat whatever charges have the most destructive force. If it is not over, then, the Democrats will have to conduct themselves with some dignity. If it becomes a dogfight, they risk losing to McCain.