Monday, January 28, 2008


South Carolina Blues

South Carolina’s Democratic primary turned into more of a surprise than was really expected, when considered in its entirety. This wasn’t because of the result – Obama’s victory there was a lot more certain than many excitable pundits, myself included, had admitted – although the size of Obama’s victory did raise eyebrows. (He won with 55% of the vote, to Clinton’s 27% and 18% for John Edwards, thus becoming the first Democrat to romp away with significantly more delegates in a primary than his chief competitor.) It was more to do with the campaign tactics. Hillary Clinton’s gloves came off in South Carolina, and much of what was revealed wasn’t particularly pleasant – but it may yet have been enough to set up Obama for a fall later on. What seems more likely at this point, however, is that Obama deftly parried the set-up that Clinton prepared for him, walked into her trap, and emerged stronger that he had done previously. The tone of the campaign was even lower in South Carolina than it had been in Nevada, but Barack Obama may just have shown strength of character right when it mattered the most.

The Clinton campaign is a masterclass in political strategy. Without changing any of her actual policy content (and thus becoming liable to the dreaded charge of flip-flopping), we have seen Hillary the experienced candidate who knows how Washington works, Hillary the candidate of change who will actually get things done, Hillary the woman who’s trying to break the ultimate glass ceiling, Hillary the nice lady stopping her supporters from getting too unpleasant, and now – emerging just before the Nevada caucuses and on full display in South Carolina – Hillary the bruising political powerhouse who will bring in the heavy guns to do whatever it takes to squelch her opponent. These crude simplifications obviously exaggerate the lack of continuity in her campaign, but are nevertheless revealing.

The first unpleasantries came in Nevada, with proposals to allow caucuses to be held in locations close to Obama-endorsing union workplaces. The Clinton campaign launched legal action to try to prevent them being opened, arguing that their placement was clearly designed to help Obama. Even if this was true, the push to close them down was even more nakedly political – only without the benefit of being on the side of enfranchising those who otherwise wouldn't be able to vote. This was reasonably unpleasant, but what was more unpleasant was what those caucuses eventually revealed about South-Western voters, as an extremely perceptive piece in the Economist pointed out: despite their unions having endorsed Obama, low-key racial tensions between Blacks and Hispanics in the South-West meant that a large majority of the (Hispanic) caucus goers in the caucuses the Clinton campaign had tried to shut down actually ended up voting for Clinton: Hillary took victory in 7 of the 9 caucuses under dispute.

This wasn’t a particularly sweet note to finish off on before heading into South Carolina, the first state to vote in the South, where racial tensions are those between whites and blacks and date back centuries. An opportunity beckoned, however. Obama is running as a post-racial candidate, and in Iowa and New Hampshire – states which are almost entirely white – his ethnicity was a non-issue. The hope was that this post-racial America existed elsewhere, too. Nevada showed it doesn’t; South Carolina confirmed it. 78% of black voters chose Obama, compared to only 24% of white voters, who otherwise split fairly evenly between Clinton and Edwards. This emphasis on race is undoubtedly a local phenomenon – for the moment. Obama has resolutely maintained his unifying message and stuck to rhetoric that emphasizes his message of change. But it would have been a foolish black candidate to avoid campaigning in a way that would hit the right buttons for black communities. (It's worth noting that it would be a foolish white Democrat who didn’t push those buttons either.) Speeches at Martin Luther King’s old church, for example, were bound to resonate more with blacks than with whites. But Obama is not a black candidate in the Jesse Jackson tradition. The nasty thing that happened in the South Carolina campaign was that the Clinton campaign subtly tried to paint him into a corner. The whispers around the campaign that begun before Nevada have metamorphosed in South Carolina into protracted media discussion about whether Obama is a black candidate or a postracial one, and Obama himself has not been able to avoid being sucked into addressing such whispers. The very act of doing so, some worried, would only make the whispers seem truer. It goes without saying that any candidate running as the representative of a specific ethnic group would not be electable in a wide swathe of the country. Making Obama blacker would end up hurting his campaign.

What has actually happened is slightly different. Obama did win South Carolina, and he did win it because of black votes. But he did this without changing his tone at all: his widely-played (and immensely impressive) victory speech was a paean to national unity. The Obama challenge was to win along racial lines but make it appear like he carried everyone, and he appears to have succeeded. The Clinton challenge was to turn the Obama victory story into a race story – and she seems to have failed. In so failing she now risks a significant backfire. Although she hasn’t been racist, precisely, the tactic she used assumed the existence of racial divisions and attempted to exploit them. That sort of strategy can only be viewed as disgraceful. In campaign terms, Obama now appears to have a very specific target in mind when he lashes out against the divisive tactics of the “establishment” – so instead of giving Obama a bruising, Clinton has now put herself in a position where Obama has her squarely in his rhetorical sights. Her campaign should expect to get given a good kicking. Aside from the race issue, Clinton’s strategy of deploying Bill to campaign aggressively on her behalf has backfired as well. Representative of the past, he managed to come across as nasty and angry, which offered an unpleasant alternative to Obama’s message of hope. Hillary Clinton’s personal absence didn’t send a good message either. In practical terms, the Clinton strategy in South Carolina has already produced one notable outcome: Senator Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama today is a blow, particularly since Kennedy has explicitly linked it to disappointment over Clinton’s tactics. His presence on the campaign trail with Obama gives the candidate access to Kennedy’s charisma and his expansive political network, and confers legitimacy of a major chunk of the Democratic establishment.

The best lesson that the Clinton campaign has learned so far is the one that it took from its loss in Iowa: Democratic voters are up for change and optimism, and will be turned off in this election cycle by the sort of shrewd politicking that years of politics has taught the Clinton team. Optimism and passion, with a human touch, clinched the deal in New Hampshire. That the Clinton campaign can have forgotten this lesson already is a dismal outcome. The nomination is still very much Hillary Clinton’s to lose: the biggest February 5th states are leaning in her direction, and even if the race turns into a rush for delegates she enjoys a big lead in pledged superdelegates to the Democratic convention. A few more performances like South Carolina, though, and she will have put the nomination out of reach. Worse, this outcome will be thoroughly deserved.

Next Up: Republicans and Democrats vote in Florida – a big state – on Tuesday January 29th. Only the Republican votes will count.

Obama’s Faith

So, apart from being generally nice and happy, what does Barack Obama believe in? Clearly, he believes in Democratic politics – his policy proposals may not be as impressively detailed as Clinton’s, but he’s pushing all the right buttons. What else? Well, as he told Christianity Today, “I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Moreover, “I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life.” So there we go.

These might sound to some ears to be more like pronouncements from the Huckabee campaign than the Obama one, but it is important to remember that religious faith is an absolute pre-requisite to participation in American politics – not only for success, but even for basic viability. It may be unusual for Democratic politicians to talk about their faith so directly, but it’s much less unusual amongst ordinary Americans. To American ears, then, such religious talk is a major part of Obama’s crossover appeal – he’s never going to transcend American political divisions without offering a hearty chunk of Godliness. Such pronouncements may explain, however, why Obamamania has notably failed to catch on anywhere outside the States. A brief straw poll of European friends shows a strong preference for Mrs Clinton, in marked contrast to the preference amongst Americans of the same age for Mr Obama. It’s worth noting that although Obama has the rhetorical power to restore America’s own standing at home, it might take a voice of experience to restore its standing overseas.

Or then again, maybe it’s just because the rest of the world hasn’t really met him yet. We’ll just have to see how it plays out. I’ve a funny feeling that some “Ich bin ein Berliner!” speeches might not be beyond his reach.

Friday, January 25, 2008



Thompson Quits

The Republican race dynamic changed a little bit this week when the first of the genuine front-runners dropped out. Fred Thompson’s recent political eclipse has been reasonably surprising: up to the point where he entered the race at the tail-end of last summer, he was one of the most popular Republican candidates and was expected to take off. But after his only half-way decent result – 16% in South Carolina last Saturday – he delivered a speech that was described as “rambling”, took time off to visit his ailing mother, and then abandoned his candidacy. So who was Mr Thompson, and where did it all go wrong?

Thompson first rose to prominence when, as a young lawyer, he was involved in the Watergate hearings. In that capacity, he helped to bring about the downfall of Nixon. After winning a corruption case in Tennessee, he was invited to play himself in a televised dramatization of the case, and discovered a talent for acting; various other roles followed, and he parlayed his acting fame and his legal experience into two terms in the Senate, in Al Gore’s old seat, starting in 1994. An undistinguished Senate career was capped by his time serving as John McCain’s campaign co-chairman in the 2000 Republican race; he stepped down in 2002 to act, and he famously played the President on television.

Quite why he became a well-known Presidential candidate is, to me at least, slightly bizarre: although clearly clever, he also has a reputation for being lazy, and his Senate career wasn’t stellar (as these things go). Somehow, though, it happened, and by Spring Republicans were clamouring for him to join the race. He kept them on tenterhooks throughout the summer, coyly avoiding committing himself – and thus avoiding the Republican debates – until September, when he finally declared, the last major candidate to do so. He has an easy Southern charm which, it was hoped, would make him the ideal consensus candidate in a year when all the front-runners had flaws. (Giuliani had a dodgy personal life, Romney was a Mormon, Huckabee was an also-ran, and McCain had just finished alienating the Republican base and was suffering a campaign meltdown.) On closer inspection, however, all those hopes were based less on him than on illusions about him which were quickly blown away. He didn’t really have any big ideas. He didn’t seem to have a driving force. His charm didn’t extend to his campaign style, which was wooden. He may have been an actor, but he was no Ronald Reagan. His poll ratings sank and sank as time went by, to the point where he had fallen from the ranks of the front-runners by the time the primaries started. He desperately needed to parlay his charm and conservatism into a victory in the first Southern state, South Carolina, and his failure to do so – coming in third – showed how far the race had moved away from him. Mike Huckabee had captured his mantle amongst evangelicals, and his remaining positions were so undistinguished as to be almost vapid.

So for Republicans seeking a consensus candidate, Thompson wasn’t it – he may have been normal enough for it, but the spark was missing. His departure from the race provides a good moment for reflection, however: all the points that held true last summer are still valid today. Giuliani has, if anything, come to seem even more dodgy. Romney is still a Mormon, albeit one with a few reassuring wins under his belt. Huckabee is a crazy Christian. (To paraphrase, the impression one forms is “Haha, check this guy, he doesn’t believe in evolution, that’s really funny!”, remarked Time last week. Until you realize, “no wait, seriously – he actually doesn’t.”) And McCain has still not reconciled with the Republican base. These reasons are a crucial part of why the Republicans still don’t have a front-runner: no consensus has emerged on which flaws they mind the least. Fred Thompson’s hoped-for spot as the consensus candidate isn’t going to be taken up by anyone else in this election cycle.

So where does his withdrawal leave the other candidates, then? Because of Thompson’s swing to the right as the campaign progressed, most of his supporters will probably tack towards Huckabee; Romney will probably pick up a few as well who were drawn to the economic conservatism rather than the values. McCain and Giuliani are likely to suffer. Huckabee tacitly blamed Thompson for splitting his natural constituency in South Carolina, resulting in McCain’s victory; there were even suggestions that Thompson was only sticking it out in the campaign to do precisely that, thus helping out his old friend. In reality, though, Thompson’s supporters were concentrated in places that were tending to Huckabee anyway, and his support wasn’t big enough anymore to really cause upsets by swinging in other directions. Florida is now a toss-up between McCain and Romney, so Thompson’s departure won’t have much of an effect there. Huckabee may win the Southern states on February 5th with a little more ease, but that won’t be enough to save his campaign. So the net result is that Thompson will now simply be less of a distraction. Which frees things up for the Republicans to concentrate on their remaining front-runners.

Who will be the next candidate to drop out? Well, putting aside the also-rans – the Democrats have Mike Gravel, who could drop out at any time, while the Republicans have Ron Paul, who will stick around for as long as he feels like it given his impressive fundraising – it’s a toss-up. It might be John Edwards, who is increasingly feeling irrelevant; but Edwards may yet decide to see how the race plays out in case his delegate count turns out to be crucial. It could easily be Rudy Giuliani, if things go as badly as seems likely and he comes third in Florida then crashes on Super Tuesday. It could even be Mike Huckabee, if he doesn’t pick up those Southern states on February 5th, or even if he does but a front-runner emerges nationally. Who knows? Maybe the Super Voting day will be followed by a Super Candidate Clearout. Four of those five remaining Republican candidates will have to follow Thompson out the door sooner or later.

Kucinich Quits

In the meantime, Dennis Kucinich has also dropped out of the race. Kucinich is a bit of an oddball – he ran in 2004 with similarly poor results, and his position in the House of Representatives is not one ideally suited to a Presidential run. He was never a serious candidate, but more than many others has clearly been in it to make some strong points. His most controversial position has been his efforts to secure the impeachment of Dick Cheney and George Bush, a fairly futile endeavour that the House Democratic leadership had decided was too divisive and distracting to throw its wait behind. (He almost succeeded in getting floor time to debate the motion to impeach the president, but only with the help of House Republicans eager to embarrass the Democrats.) Some of his other positions have been steadfastly liberal as well, promising to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible, legalise gay marriage and institute universal health care. He even picked up a few celebrity endorsements along the way. He gave every indication of wanting to fight to the last, realizing that victory was impossible but eager to keep on making his points for as long as possible; he was the only candidate to protest strongly at being excluded from the recent debate for Democratic front-runners in Nevada.

Maybe what persuaded him to drop out was something a little closer to home: Democratic primary rivals for the House election in his Ohio constituency had been making a great deal of hay out of his unproductive quest for the Presidency, and that primary is one that he might actually still be able to win.

Quote of the Week

"Never get into a wrestling match with a pig", said John McCain about Mitt Romney. "You both get dirty, and the pig likes it."

Take that, negative campaigner!

Monday, January 21, 2008


Media Winners, Real Winners: Nevada and South Carolina

Saturday saw the latest round of voting, with three separate contests – Nevada Democrats and Republicans, and South Carolina Republicans – two of which were very closely fought. Hillary Clinton won 51% in Nevada, beating off Barack Obama on 45%, while John McCain won a narrow victory over Mike Huckabee in South Carolina, of 33% to 30%. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney decided to effectively concede South Carolina and concentrated on campaigning in Nevada, where he romped to victory with a 37-point lead, winning 51% of the vote in a relatively empty field. The contested elections on the Democrat and Republican sides received the majority of the attention, but it was a contrary results day overall: the tables of who actually won the most delegates tell a different story. Does this matter? It is increasingly appearing that it might, and that the traditional bandwagon effect produced by early victories and subsequent media attention is absent from both campaigns this year. If candidates in either party fail to reach the magic number of delegates for an absolute majority at the convention, then this primary season could remain competitive for quite a while yet.

For the Democrats, the results reflect a closely-fought battle. Despite concerted attempts by the candidates to keep things nice, the Clinton and Obama campaigns have both started sniping at each other – a phenomenon which is only going to get worse as time goes by. The reason why negativity in this campaign is so controversial is precisely because of its historic nature: anyone sniping at Mrs Clinton is liable to charges of sexism, while anyone taking aim at Mr Obama is open to accusations of racism. Given that “what do you think” pieces interviewing ordinary voters on the street keep on throwing up “I don’t think a woman could ever be President” comments (generally from women) and “They’ll never let a black man win” comments (generally from blacks), perceptions of discrimination remain in place, so the nervousness about hostile campaigning seems justified. Although it seems ridiculous to suggest that any of the candidates are themselves sexist or racist, any campaign which is perceived to be tapping into latent sexism or racism in the wider electorate risks a massive backlash, which is why the candidates themselves strive so hard to keep things civil. This restraint has already been tested. When Clinton brushed off an unpleasant question in New Hampshire about her “likeability problem”, Obama suffered when his “you’re likeable enough” response was perceived as ungracious, particularly by women. (It sounded to me like he was trying to be nice, but it came out wrong.) Similarly, when Clinton made an (unwise) point about Martin Luther King’s dream only being realized when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, Obama staffers were quick to suggest that Clinton was denigrating a black icon. (She was actually trying to contrast having a vision to getting things done, but even if that point remains valid, it’s a foolish politician who says anything remotely un-worshipful about Dr King. And comparing oneself to Lyndon Johnson is a curious tactic, to put it politely.)

In the end, the Nevada result came down to Clinton’s support amongst Hispanics and her superior get-out-the-vote efforts. The former support base will prove very useful in the rest of the campaign, particularly in the South-West – any candidate who can capture Hispanic votes will be in with a very good chance in California, particularly. The get-out-the-vote effort is more significant. Clinton was beseeched by some to jump into the 2004 race for the Democratic nomination; she demurred, and then hoovered up as many seasoned campaign staff as she possibly could when the campaign was over. Four years of planning are now starting to show their value. Obama, having given in to the calls for him to run earlier than he had intended, is now finding that the cult of celebrity building up around him (“Obamamania”) is no substitute for this. It can pay off – as it did in Iowa – but phenomena tend to peak at given moments, and are hard to sustain for several months, let alone years; Obama’s has been going since 2004’s speech to the Democratic convention. Clinton’s ability to generate turnout proved very useful in New Hampshire, and it has now shown its worth again in Nevada. Now with two wins in a row, Clinton is rumbling along nicely.

For the Republicans, the results were as good for John McCain as he might have hoped. One win could have been put down to a fluke; two now gives him a healthy image of being electable as the candidates head into states that will be trickier for him. South Carolina Republicans were receptive to an evangelical message emanating from Mike Huckabee, but still ended up voting more heavily for McCain. This is particularly sweet for him given South Carolina memories from 2000, when he was viciously slandered by groups supporting the Bush Campaign and lost the primary, a result which dealt a hammer blow to his insurgent campaign. A reprise of those tactics by independent groups supporting the Huckabee campaign came to nothing this time, partly due to a well-organised quick-response team. McCain also benefited from strong military links in South Carolina – his war hero status helps him there – and also from South Carolina’s primary rules allowing independents to vote in Republican primaries. The next steps may be a mixed bag for him. Many of the next wave of Republican states do not allow independents to vote, which removes a vital constituency of his support. Conversely, he has now won more contested primaries than anyone else, and that makes him look electable. The media is currently full of (heavily caveated) recitations of the well-known political lore that South Carolina has backed the eventual nominee every year since 1980, and that whoever wins two out of the three early states (Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina) has a similarly bullet-proof trajectory historically. This might mean that he is now in a strong enough position to leapfrog into success in the next round of primaries. Florida – where he recently surpassed Rudy Giuliani in the polls – is now his big test on January 29th.

For the other candidates, it’s a mixed bag. Rudy Giuliani can’t be happy that McCain has so much momentum, but the value of his lengthy campaigning in Florida shouldn’t be discounted. It was precisely such low-key devotion to New Hampshire that helped McCain to his “comeback” there. At any rate, things will start looking up for him now that the campaign is moving to a state that he is contesting. With Giuliani in the race, some of the national publicity that has been heaped on the other candidates will start to stick to him, which can only buck him up. Everything will depend on Florida for him, however. If McCain wins it, then he will cannonball onwards into the primaries, leaving Giuliani in the dust at the marks of his standing start. The entire Republican campaign could hinge on the next state. As for the rest of the field, Mike Huckabee’s decent second place in South Carolina does point to his potential appeal in the South, but doesn’t look good for his chances to turn that appeal into wins. He needed a South Carolina victory to prove his regional appeal. Since Florida is unlikely to swing in his direction, his hopes now hinge on the southern states on Super Tuesday (including Oklahoma, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and his native Arkansas), and if he doesn’t pick up a chunk of those states then he will really be in trouble. After South Carolina, he appears to be coasting genially to defeat. As for Fred Thompson, most commentators have long since decided that he isn’t presidential material and dropped him from their reckonings of the front runners, despite his one-time leading position. The South Carolina results confirm that they were correct to do so. With only 8 delegates so far, he doesn’t even have a chance to win kingmaker status. It can only be a matter of time now until he announces his departure from the race.

Which brings us to Mitt Romney. Romney had poured effort and money into South Carolina as part of his early states strategy, and immediately after his Michigan win he attempted to capitalize this into serious competition. When it became apparent that this wasn’t going to happen, however, he decided to cut his losses and flew west, to the other Republican contest that day – in Nevada. Nevada wasn’t in serious contention – second place was claimed by Ron Paul – but Romney’s focus on the state was understandable for the simple reason of electoral arithmetic. This is interesting. Normally, the way that campaigns work is that the media frenzy in the early states produces a clear front runner, who then cements their status by sweeping Super Tuesday. Under normal circumstances, John McCain’s South Carolina victory sets this up as best it could, and it’s definitely a possibility that this may still happen. In that narrative, Romney’s decision to concede the state would be curious. But if the contest fails to produce a clear front runner on February 5th, then the picture gets muddied. Eyes will start to turn to the Republican convention, where the key factor is not who won the media contests in the photogenic states, or who won the most votes, but rather who won the most delegates. And Nevada had about as many delegates up for grabs as South Carolina. McCain’s headline win resulted in his picking up 19 delegates; Romney’s Nevada win saw him picking up 18. After Romney’s Michigan win, then, the Nevada results mean that Romney maintains his heavy lead in delegates won from primary contests, with 72 delegates to McCain’s 38 and Huckabee’s 29.

Of course, that might not matter too much. Early delegate counts generally get overshadowed once the popular race produces a clear winner, and if that happens now then Romney’s advantage will dissipate. It remains to see what he will pick up on Super Tuesday. But if that day fails to produce a clear winner – which it looks at the moment like it won’t – then these delegate totals will quickly become the key measure, and on that measure Romney is not doing badly at all. On the Democratic side as well, the delegate count tells a different story from the headline results. Obama and Clinton both ended up picking up 18 delegates in Iowa, they both received 14 delegates in Nevada, and Obama actually won 12 delegates to Clinton’s 11 in New Hampshire. Because of pre-pledged delegates and superdelegates, Clinton is leading in the total tally, but in terms of delegates won the two candidates are absolutely neck and neck. Unless one of the two starts to break away soon – by which, of course, we mean on Super Tuesday when a vast number are available – neither is on course to clinch victory, despite the more binary race that the Democrats are enjoying.

The practical results of this maneuvering take the campaigns to a level of complexity that hasn’t been seen in decades. If one of the Democratic candidates starts pulling away and looks to get an absolute majority of delegates, then there is little point in the other staying in the race, and there is even less point in John Edwards sticking it out beyond a third place finish in South Carolina (the state in which he was born). But if a majority can’t be achieved and other candidates have enough delegates to bridge the gap, then that puts the other candidates in an extremely powerful position. John Edwards could keep on running through the campaign, picking up small numbers of delegates here and there, and then play kingmaker at the convention. This would upset the usual way of things, as the biggest prize available in return for his assistance would, of course, be the same seat he had in 2004: that of the Vice-Presidential position on the ticket. More than this, he would be able to force some of his own policy agenda onto the nominee. This would mean that the VP candidate would have an unusual amount of power, further disturbing the way that things usually work. Alternatively, given that delegates can change their allegiance after the first ballot, Edwards might even be able to lobby for delegates to switch to him as a compromise candidate, and thus snatch the nomination itself. Any such convention strategy would mean that we wouldn’t know who the nominee would be until the convention itself, which would then cease to be the usual coronation-style kick-off to the presidential campaign proper, and become an arena for a genuine political battle.

On the Republican side, it would be similar – just more complex. Thompson is unlikely to pick up any great number of delegates, but Giuliani, McCain, Huckabee and Romney will all have quite a few. The bargaining would thus be even more unpredictable. A McCain ticket would be well-balanced by a genuine social conservative like Huckabee, but the two disagree so much as to make that unlikely. Giuliani, however, might be in a position to bargain. A more intriguing link-up would be between Romney and Huckabee, with Romney at the top of the ticket: Huckabee’s charm would balance Romney’s robotic style, Huckabee’s genuine social conservatism would reinforce Romney’s opportunistic positions; Huckabee’s evangelical base would ease Romney’s religion problem; and Romney’s sound management style and general competence would address the biggest problems with the case for Huckabee.

Such outcomes remain fanciful for the moment, however, and eyes must necessarily remain on the campaign itself. Clinton may have won another hotly contested state, but South Carolina will be a giant test for both candidates. If Clinton can break through and win there, then Obama’s campaign will be in serious trouble; conversely, if Obama wins it the race will continue to be highly evenly matched going into Florida and Super Tuesday. On the Republican side, Florida is up next anyway, giving us a week of campaigning in which to observe Giuliani joining the battle. Giuliani needs a win to prove that he is actually in the race; McCain needs a win to prove that he can win amongst Republicans in the absence of independent votes, and Huckabee and Romney also need strong finishes to keep up their momentum going into Super Tuesday. What comes next is, therefore, pivotal.

Next Up: South Carolina’s Democrats vote on Saturday, January 26th.

Bill Clinton’s Temper
Clinton the elder has obviously been reasonably closely involved in his wife’s campaign, but for quite some time there was concern over how best to make use of him. Now that she has grown in national stature, talk of him overshadowing her has dissipated somewhat, and the campaign has found something that he can be good at: being Hillary’s attack dog. As the New York Times reports, he’s recently been losing his temper a little bit, calling Obama’s claimed consistent opposition to the Iraq war a “fairy tale”, and being vocal in opposing rule changes for the Nevada caucuses that would have benefited Obama. The fact that he appears to be losing his temper gives one the distinct impression that he has an avid dislike of people attacking his wife, but suspicion naturally lingers that it’s not entirely coincidental. With Clinton the younger’s need to appear in control and to avoid attacking her opponent outright, it’s very useful to have someone largely beyond reproach who can say things that she can’t. Obama is now being moved to pledge stronger responses in future. Read the BBC report
here. Does this mean that the time for being nice is coming to an end now that candidates are winning (and losing) in the real elections? Despite a remarkably nice campaign so far, the BBC’s impression is that “the two candidates' mutual dislike appears to be intense and growing”.

Giuliani’s Immigration Problem
Or is it a corruption problem? Rudy Giuliani was famous for his successes in New York City, but New Yorkers got to associate him with a certain lack of respect for propriety alongside his ruthless dedication to sorting out the city’s problems. This partly expressed itself in his much-discussed private life, but more worthy of attention is its effect on his public activities. He is famous for surrounding himself with uncritical supporters, some of whom – such as Bernard Kerik – have proved to be unworthy. His loyalty to his supporters is legendary even when they get in trouble. Now the New York Times is
reporting on a new variation on bad judgement: his apparent failure to declare that his firm, Giuliani Partners, had – until a few months ago – close links to a firm that builds the technology for the high-tech border fence that he is busily campaigning in favour of erecting on the Mexican border. This “technological fence” has been a key part of his immigration policy. This has long been in the public domain – the New Yorker reported it last August – but it still raises questions.

It would be difficult to see this relationship as being anything other than a corrupt one – any politician running for office who proposes policies that would have direct financial benefits for themselves is, surely, the very definition of a corrupt one. This applies even if he believes that the solution is the right one and if his financial holdings have no bearing on his decisions to adopt policy. Politicians customarily divest themselves of any investments which they might profit from as a result of their policies. When she started her campaign in earnest, Hillary Clinton even disposed of a blind trust, which had been managing her funds without her knowing what it was investing in. Such moral conduct is noticeably missing from the Giuliani campaign.

The only comeback would be that he clearly didn’t make any money from the relationship. At this point, however, it gets worse. The reason why he didn’t make any money from it is that “the financial relationship ended in September when Giuliani Partners gave up its ownership stake in SkyWatch without compensation.” So he gave up his stake in the technology without receiving a single cent from the deal. What altruism! Or? Well, actually “the company ended its involvement with Giuliani Partners when it became clear the consulting company could not meet its contractual obligations. He said Giuliani Partners had essentially bartered for a 12.5 percent share of SkyWatch by committing to develop business and marketing plans and to raise $7 million in capital. But the companies amicably parted ways when those commitments were not reached”.

So basically, Giuliani’s company was not only heavily implicated in a major conflict of interest, but was so incompetent that it ended up forfeiting the money it was supposed to receive for its work. Not an encouraging sign. This isn’t the first time that Giuliani has shown bad judgement and incompetence all rolled into one. Invited to participate in the 9/11 Commission – probably the most important national security group to meet and report on the 2001 terror attacks – this candidate, running on his supposed expertise in national security and foreign policy, also parted ways from his commitment there. Why? He was just too busy. That’s priorities for you.

Hunter Drops Out
Little noticed by – well, by everyone, Republican candidate for the Presidential nomination Duncan Hunter dropped out of the race yesterday after his failure to make any headway in South Carolina – or, indeed, anywhere else. He will be remembered for his honorable second-place finish in Wyoming.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Another Comeback

The Republican race is rapidly becoming the unlikely comeback race. “Tonight marks the beginning of a comeback,” said Mitt Romney after his victory in Michigan. “We sure showed them what a comeback looks like,” said John McCain after winning New Hampshire. Mike Huckabee had been so far behind before his Iowa victory that it was pretty much a comeback before ever having come in the first place. Given their pummelings in recent polls, it’s a fairly safe bet what the catchphrase will be in the event of any victories for Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson in the upcoming states.

That Romney victory is today’s big news. While it wouldn’t necessarily be accurate to call it a surprise – Romney had always been expected to do well in Michigan – it would definitely be true to call it an achievement. His campaign had focused strongly on Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which he lost. The momentum was with John McCain. Romney’s campaign was on the back foot, having to throw extra resources in to Michigan and redefine its message to appeal particularly to Michigan voters. Polls were showing McCain sneaking up on victory. And if Romney lost Michigan, he was pretty much out. In that context, his 39% of the vote – to McCain’s 30% - is just the result he needed to get his campaign back on track.

The problem is that his approach to Michigan may not work elsewhere. He made the most of his latent advantages, especially the advantage of being a native son: his father was a fondly-remembered Governor of Michigan in the 60s, and he lived there until he was 18. This local-boy approach made Michigan voters more comfortable with him, effectively cancelling out his usual handicap on account of suspicions of his religion. He also configured his economic message to hit home. McCain staked his economic pitch on his straight-talking approach, telling Michigan voters – honestly – that their old industrial jobs weren’t coming back, that globalization was here to stay, and that retraining was the way forward. While this approach was a necessary one for McCain – his reputation as a straight shooter is key to his campaign – it was also a massive turn-off for Michigan’s struggling citizenry. Economic populism was in order to secure victory. Mike Huckabee’s approach played to this on a personal level – that old “you’d rather vote for the guy who reminds you of someone you work with than of someone who laid you off” line – but it turns out that voters do prefer the competent CEO type, so long as he’s on their side. (Huckabee won 16%.) Romney’s populism was no less shamefaced than Huckabee’s – promising to fight for jobs in disappearing industries – but unlike Huckabee, Romney’s record in business marks him out as someone who can deliver. The pitch was a perfect match of economic populism and an impression of the competence that gives it credibility.

For Romney, then, Michigan was a perfect storm: he brought a personal connection to the state and an authoritative populist economic message to a context where his religion and his social conservative flip-flopping weren’t issues. When he poured all of his resources into the state and worked flat out with public appearances, it was more than enough to tip the state in his direction. What is less clear is whether this approach will work elsewhere. Michigan had a lot of particular characteristics which worked in his favour. In that respect, it is similar to New Hampshire and Iowa: New Hampshire’s prickly independents helped tilt it towards McCain, just as Iowa’s evangelicals helped tilt it towards Huckabee. National messages have thus far failed to resonate in the Republican race as much as localized messages have.

This makes it still harder to predict an eventual Republican victor. If McCain had beaten Romney in Michigan, then Romney’s campaign would be over; as it is, he picks up a large degree of momentum. He has now won two states (though the media frenzy continues to ignore Wyoming), and now has the highest delegate count, even though it is still early days. If he can get respectable showings in some of the remaining Republican primaries – especially in Nevada on January 19th and Maine on February 1st – then he will be in a good position going into Super Tuesday. McCain, similarly, is counting on decent showings in Nevada and South Carolina on the 19th to propel himself further forward, while Huckabee is hoping for a good South Carolina result. Huckabee needs a good result in South Carolina more than the other candidates – because of the dominance of economic concerns in Michigan, Romney actually won more evangelical votes there than Huckabee – and if he comes in a disappointing third place again then he will be somewhat weakened. But all three of these candidates have now done well enough to go into Super Tuesday with a reasonable amount of confidence.

For the other two front-runners, their continuing lack of success is almost comical. Skipping Iowa, New Hampshire and Wyoming is understandable in a big-state strategy, but skipping Michigan is verging on the ridiculous. (Ron Paul came in fourth in Michigan with 6%, ahead of Thompson with 4% and Giuliani with a wince-inducing 3%). Michigan is one of the seven big states (along with California, New York, Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Texas) which have the highest numbers of delegates, meaning that the failure even to seriously campaign there – as Giuliani and Thompson have failed to do – is a breathtaking admission of political weakness, especially given Huckabee’s low-level success in states like New Hampshire and Michigan which – for him – are unwinnable. The Giuliani campaign strategy of avoiding expenditure in unwinnable states – which, in fairness to him, all of the states so far have been – might make good financial sense, but it also makes it appear as if the candidate is avoiding getting into contests that he’s afraid he might lose. By refusing to campaign in so many states, he risks alienating large chunks of the country by insinuating that they can be safely ignored. It also doesn’t speak well to his ability to win over the undecided and uncommitted. But none of this will matter if Giuliani can pull off a win in Florida on January 29th, at which point his campaign will take off again. The likelihood of this gets smaller with each passing primary that he ignores, but unless he has an extremely poor third or fourth place showing in Florida, he will probably go into Super Tuesday fighting. As for Fred Thompson – if he can pull off a win in South Carolina, then he may be in with a chance, but he’s still likely to be the first major candidate of either party to pull out of the race, possibly as soon as this weekend when the South Carolina results come out. Even if he leaves, the prospect of four Republican front runners all heading into Super Tuesday with a decent chance makes the race very unpredictable; the prospect of all four of them doing moderately well makes it more so.

As for the Democrats, Michigan was near-irrelevant for them because of a scheduling dispute. (The Democratic National Committee decreed that any more states jumping the gun and going early with their primaries would lose their delegates; Michigan and Florida called their bluff and have suffered accordingly.) There are rumblings that Michigan and Florida’s delegates may be sat at the national conventions anyway – it would be a good display of national unity, as well as very poor politics to leave such big states excluded – but given the lack of a campaign there and the biased results (Clinton was the only major name on the ballot, and thus won handsomely), their votes will only be allowed to count by the eventual victor in the primaries if they won’t affect the result. The Democrats are thus still focused on the next step – Nevada – and have recently put an end to a minor outbreak of nastiness amongst their supporters so as to continue the upbeat tone in what is possibly the nicest campaign in living memory.

So: The Democrats are still on course for a showdown on the 5 February. But for the Republicans, the race seems wider than ever.

Next Up: On January 19th – this Saturday – both parties vote in Nevada, and the Republicans vote in South Carolina.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Why I Love England

From the NB column in last week's TLS:

The TLS Reviewer's Handbook: New Year update. As we emerge into 2008, hopes rise that the team of lexicographers toiling in the underground labyrinth will issue sufficient directives to permit preliminary consultation on future production of Volume I, Part One, of the Handbook. Meanwhile, another memo has surfaced from below:

We avoid: Idle talk about a subject of which the talker is evidently ignorant.

The reference for this typically sensible piece of advice reads, "Guardian, Dec 18; Carey, Professor John; subject: lit crit". On making a beeline for the stacks, we found, already laid out for perusal by an invisible hand, a copy of the newspaper's Education supplement of the date in question. It was open at an article on the function of literary criticism, and its future. Some remarks by John Carey, Emeritus Merton Professor of English at Oxford, had been highlighted. They included the following: "If we can get away from the wilful obscurantism of a few academics talking to each other in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement it can only be a good thing". The Guardian journalist observed: "He laughs".

Professor Carey has been writing book reviews for the Sunday Times for a quarter of a century. Readily we admit that ignorance disqualifies us from making polite remarks about his contributions; by the same token, it prevents us being impolite. Were we to say, on being asked about the value of Sunday supplement criticism, "If we can get away from the wilful obscurantism of John Carey talking to himself in the pages of the Sunday Times it can only be a good thing", you might "laugh", while
feeling it was a low blow on our part to have thus provoked your mirth. We would be indulging in "idle talk about a subject" of which we are plainly ignorant.

However, in 2008 fairness is to be our guide, and so we invite Professor Carey to put forth examples of "the wilful obscurantism of academics talking to each other" in the pages of the TLS. Half a dozen from the past twelve issues will be enough for us to concede the point.

Only in England could it take that much effort to say: "fuck you". Marvellous.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


The inter-Primary Round-Up: Further Reading

Hillary's Teary Moment
"CAN HILLARY CRY HER WAY TO VICTORY?" Sometimes you just want to take journalists around the back and shoot them. Hillary Clinton finally exhibits a little bit of humanity by revealing the pressure that she's under - in a moment when her entire political life was hanging in the balance, which you would assume is a pretty pressurised place to be in - and all that anyone can talk about is whether it's a new campaign strategy or not. Will her tears make people feel sorry for her? Will this appeal to women who will instinctively be more drawn to her? Is this the only way that she can show her personal touch? Will it only serve to reinforce stereotypes about women, that they'll just break down and have a good cry when the going gets tough? Will it make people think that women are too emotional to ever be president?

This sort of rubbish may have been over the top - after all, a slight catch in your voice and a certain mistiness in the eye is hardly the same as blubbering, and Clinton maintains her poise and eloquence throughout - but having the press jumping up and down all over the story has had one effect, at least: it's served to remind everyone that Clinton, who has worked so hard at appearing tough and competent to the extent where she's become the establishment candidate, actually represents a pretty big milestone herself. The words "first female president" may have suddenly had their emotional resonance reattached.

That said, the incident wasn't the only factor in winning New Hampshire - her excellent organisation was probably more important - but it undoubtedly helped. A danger now is that a single, touching moment could become a bedrock of her campaign. If we end up with a weepy Hillary touching her heart and talking about her emotions all the time, it will start to irritate people a lot more than that one moment of humanity in the midst of extreme professionalism did. As to whether it was genuine? The suspicion aroused by the initially shocked reaction of her aides - refusing to spin it and just holding their breath to see how it would play out - suggests that they were terrified that it could have been the end of the campaign, and that it was therefore genuine. But you should make your mind up for yourself. Watch her full answer here.

Reasons to be Scared of Rudy
Not being American, my stake in American politics is really quite small - although I can feel sorry for Americans about various domestic policies that candidates want to inflict on them, I'm not really going to be affected personally all that much. When it comes to American foreign policy, though, I do have a stake: America's role in the world is so important that my country - and pretty much every country - is affected by the elections now happening. As a result, I watch the foreign policy debates with a somewhat keener eye. Luckily, most of the viable candidates have pretty decent ideas. But there is one person, alone amongst the front-runners, who genuinely scares me with the thought that he could actually be in charge, and that person is Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani is the only candidate who is running as a foreign policy expert, but his actual foreign policy experience is practically nil: his reputation in foreign affairs comes from being cool under pressure when faced by the worst terrorist attack ever perpetrated. The fact that 9/11 had international dimensions does not mean that he knows anything about why it happened, what should have been done about it at an international level, or how to stop such things happening again in the future. In the meantime, his extreme lack of good judgement - shown in everything from the Kerik affair to his decision to skip the early primary states (a decision that will hopefully cost him the nomination) - threatens to destabilise international relations in highly unpredictable ways. The efforts of a (bipartisan) group of relatives to 9/11 victims, who are putting on a travelling roadshow to highlight his failures as a leader before, during and after the attacks - could flare up into a major swift-boating at any given moment.

But don't just take my word for it. You can read Elizabeth Kolbert's recent New Yorker essay about him here. Or better yet, you can read the man himself: get his essay from Foreign Affairs here. His own words will tell you everything you need to know about why he is best avoided.

Obama and hopefulness
Nobody doubts that Barack Obama is inspirational, but what does this mean? Does it mean that he is simply a new Howard Dean: a movement rather than a platform, and destined to fizzle out in the face of better organisation and candidates with better policies? I very much doubt it - Obama is too well organised and well prepared to fall over in that way.

So does it mean that Obama is the guy who could change the country and rescue it from itself? It's too early to tell, but some people are daring to hope. One of the best endorsements of him that I've read was found in the Atlantic: read it here.

McCain's Iraq Problem
Does John McCain have an Iraq problem? Yes, he certainly does. His problem is this: he understands the cost of failure; he is committed to avoiding it the only way possible, which entails backing the Bush Administration; and he's too much of a stubborn bastard to lie about it.

The problem is that he's thinking about it like a policy-maker rather than a candidate. Candidates tell people what they want to hear. Policy-makers do the best they can given the constraints that they're under. Since candidates become policy-makers upon success, it might - just conceivably - be a good thing for candidates to start thinking about the world in realistic terms, but as this New York Times piece points out, it's not going to help his chances if it leads to his opponents jumping all over him with distorting, out-of-context sound-bites. It must suck to be the only candidate engaging seriously with the biggest issue.

Bill Richardson Bows Out
Bill Richardson wanted to stick around in the campaign until his home state of New Mexico voted, but any hopes for a Huckabee-esque last-minute comeback have now truly faded, so the man who would have been the first Hispanic nominee for President is going back to just being a governor. Few candidates can ever have bowed out in so dignified and courteous a manner, though. Richardson only had good things to say about his former opponents. Hillary Clinton's "poise in the face of adversity is matched only by her lifetime of achievement and deep understanding of what we face." Barack Obama represents "a bright light of hope and optimism in a time of great national unease" and is "grounded in thoughtful wisdom beyond his years." John Edwards "is a singular voice for the most downtrodden and forgotten among us."

It doesn't stop there. Joe Biden: his "passion and intellect are remarkable." Christopher Dodd: "the epitome of selfless dedication, public service and the Democratic Party." Dennis Kucinich: a "man of great decency and dedication who will faithfully soldier on no matter how great the odds." Even Mike Gravel - who? - was singled out for "his brave leadership during the national turmoil of Vietnam." Two things are clear. First, Mr Richardson is clearly an exceptionally nice man, and it's a shame his campaign didn't go better. Bless his little cotton socks.

Second, whoever wins the Democratic nomination would undoubtedly benefit from having such a nice man as a running mate. Imagine the ticket: Female-Hispanic or Black-Hispanic. It would definitely be a new era. Here's hoping!

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


The Race Begins in Earnest

So – New Hampshire has gone and voted, and in record numbers, and the news is: the race is still very much on. The early primaries have failed to point to a clear leader in either party. Five primaries – two Democrat and three Republican – have been won by five different people, and any hopes that any of them may have had for an early knockout blow have now been firmly kicked into touch. Campaigning now enters a new stage, with the race on to build the biggest lead in the next wave of states, hopefully culminating in some knockouts in the hideously-named “Super Duper Tuesday” on February 5th, when some 20 states will go to the polls.

One of the great advantages of the early primaries is that they focus all of the energies of the campaigners onto some extremely small groups of people. Iowa’s population is a little under 3 million; New Hampshire’s just over 1.2 million. In a nation of 300 million people, the disproportionate influence that these states take clearly arouses resentment elsewhere, but the great advantage of starting out so small is that politics becomes possible at a personal level. Candidates spend at least a year – and often the better part of two or three – crawling all over the early states, shaking hands, meeting people, and most importantly giving speeches and taking questions from audiences that fill up living rooms and greasy spoon cafes as opposed to high school gymnasia and sports stadia. The people of these early states seem to take their responsibilities seriously. Candidates need to be able to answer questions on a wide variety of issues, and often have to answer probing questions that won’t be satisfied by soundbite responses. Later on in the campaign, this is all missing – there is no time for small stops, no real grilling of candidates on policy. Candidates who are prepared and organized should get a boost; candidates who can’t build up a positive following will not fare well later. For candidates without a strong national presence already – which includes pretty much every candidate in the current race outside of Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton – a strong performance in the early primaries is an essential pre-requisite for success in the overall campaign.

For the Democrats, yesterday’s results represent yet another surprise. Obama surged ahead in Iowa at the last moment, surprising pollsters who saw him with only a slim lead or none at all. In New Hampshire, the polls had predicted increasingly large margins of victory for him – 9% at one point - which seemed to persuade him that he was in a position to deliver an early knockout blow. His hopes were comprehensively dashed. An emotional, humanising appearance from Clinton in the final days contrasted with Obama’s overconfident rhetoric to turn things around and provide Clinton with a 39% share of the vote to Obama’s 36% - not as great a margin as Obama had enjoyed in Iowa, but a victory nonetheless. (The two candidates were only separated by 8,000 votes, however, and look likely to take away the same number of delegates. A victory it may be, but a resounding one it is not.) Delving deeper into the turnout figures reveals a couple of surprises. Clinton’s core voters were core Democrats, rather than the independents Obama appeals to, yet she still managed to win in one of the few states that allow independents to vote in party primaries. In terms of demographics, Obama had caught up with – even overtaken – Clinton in his appeal to women voters in Iowa, but they swung heavily towards her in New Hampshire. This serves as a cautionary warning to the Obama campaign that it cannot take such demographics for granted, a lesson that may prove important in South Carolina on January 26th, which has a large black population whose votes are intensely coveted by both Clinton – whose family has a long history of involvement with and support from African American politics – and Obama, who promises a breakthrough for the individual success of African Americans. Clinton has previously led heavily in that demographic. Another lesson comes from the age of voters turning out. Obama was buoyed by a wave of youth in Iowa, with surprisingly large numbers of young people coming out in his support. This popularity amongst the youth is hardly illusory – the American friends I’ve heard from are near-universal in their support for his campaign – but young people in general are a fickle constituency to rely on (those friends of mine aside), and they didn’t turn out in New Hampshire for him. Clinton, meanwhile, is riding a wrinkly wave of her own, with older voters being more persuaded by her experience than by his idealism. Her impeccable organization showed in her ability to mobilize her supporters to come to the polls – an advantage that may prove crucial over the rest of the campaign. Obama’s groundswell of support from the youth clearly still exists and may well prove incredibly important, but New Hampshire offers a cautionary warning not to take it for granted, and not to sound too triumphal in advance.

The other Democratic candidates are now in a bit of a pickle. John Edwards was overlooked in New Hampshire despite his second-place showing in Iowa, an early but telling indication that he has failed to get enough momentum behind him for general success. His economic populism would have gone down well in Michigan on January 15th, while his easy southern charm would appeal in Florida on January 29th, but both states have had their delegates to the Democratic convention stripped away as punishment for holding their primaries earlier than the Democratic National Committee was willing to sanction. Neither his populism nor his charm will go down particularly well in Nevada on January 19th, leaving his home state of South Carolina on January 26th as his last chance to show himself a viable candidate prior to the 20 states which vote on Super Tuesday. With Clinton and Obama both also competing heavily for South Carolina, victory for him there is unlikely, and a poor showing on February 5th will leave his campaign adrift. Having failed to get the necessary traction in the early states, his campaign – like that of the other minor Democrats – is now simply putting off the inevitable.

For the Republicans, John McCain’s victory turns everything upside-down. The presumed front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, has (as expected) received tiny proportions of the vote thus far, while Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and John McCain now have one state each under their belts. The Giuliani focus on the later, larger states makes it very hard to gauge how the Republican race will play out in advance of Florida’s primary on January 29th. But a few things are now definitely clear. First, Mike Huckabee is a non-starter. His appeal outside of the religious is practically non-existent, and even amongst the religious there are plenty of people who will plump for a candidate who is more likely to actually be electable. His third place finish may be better than expected, but it doesn’t point to any likelihood for more first place finishes from him outside of the South. Second, Mitt Romney is now in real trouble. His strategy of focusing on the early states is in tatters after second place finishes in states where he had outspent the eventual victors by 20-1 and 5-1 respectively. New Hampshire even neighbours Massachusetts, the state that he governed so successfully. His campaign now hinges on a Michigan win on January 15th, a state that he grew up in and that his father used to govern. A win there will propel his campaign into a decisive moment on Super Tuesday; a loss there will send him into a tailspin. Third, and potentially most importantly: John McCain is back in the game. After having been written off for much of the autumn following the near-bankruptcy of his campaign last summer, his convincing victory – 37% next to Romney’s 32% - marks a moment of sweet triumph. All the media talk of his campaign coming back from the dead has the welcome effect of emphasizing that it is now very much alive, granting him the biggest momentum boost out of any of the candidates given his name recognition from the past three years of being the presumptive front-runner. But a caution is very much in order against too much optimism for him. That reserve of name recognition in the rest of the country will have to be vital, because throughout the autumn he has focused single-mindedly on success in New Hampshire, sacrificing time that he could have spent in other states. If victory in New Hampshire doesn’t lead onto victory elsewhere, then he may be in trouble, but nevertheless his future is secure at least up until February 5th. If he can then challenge – and win – in California and New York, then he will simultaneously land a vast number of delegates while knocking out Rudy Giuliani. That – with a potential win in Nevada to pick up steam – would prove his route to victory now. It will be even stronger if he wins Michigan, which he picked up in 2000 - a result which would have the added benefit of knocking out Romney.

The various Republican candidates are now in flux, with different strategies needed to secure victory. Romney needs a Michigan win and then a big state on Super Tuesday. Huckabee needs victories in the South on February 5th (Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia) and 9th (Louisiana and Kansas), which would equip him to carry on to fight for a win in Texas on March 4th. McCain needs to win Nevada and then one or more of the big states on February 5th. Thompson needs to pick up South Carolina and possibly Florida, followed by at least one big state on Super Tuesday. Giuliani needs to win Florida and then one or more big states on Super Tuesday. The difficulty for the Republicans is that these different outcomes are not mutually exclusive – it’s easy to envisage the next few states going different ways, and the prospect is not unrealistic that three or four candidates could get what they need to have going into Super Tuesday. (My prediction would be that Thompson will fail to win South Carolina and Florida and subsequently fare poorly in Super Tuesday, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Giuliani – against all expectations – or Romney were also to be forced out after poor showings on February 5th.) If the Republicans have three or four leading candidates going into Super Tuesday, and the elections on that day see the big states of California, New York and Illinois plumping for different candidates (possibly in some combination of Giuliani, McCain and Romney), then the Republican race will be in the awkward position of emerging from Super Tuesday with no clear front-runner. The race would then hinge on the outcomes in the remaining big states of Texas and Ohio on March 4th and on the smaller races, with the prospect – already being salivated over by pundits – of no candidate getting the number of delegates that they need and a candidate only being selected at the Republican convention in September.

The final hint that comes from New Hampshire may be worthy of note in advance of the distant general election (lest we forget that the winners of these two contests will, sooner or later, have to face each other). New Hampshire has a semi-open primary structure, meaning that voters who are not registered with either party can vote in the primaries – but only in the primaries of one party, not in the primaries of both. This made it difficult to call: independents were drawn to McCain on the Republican side and to Obama on the Democratic side, and which primary they would choose to vote in was difficult to predict. In the event, McCain’s victory helps to show that independent voters, given the choice, preferred to back McCain’s experience and integrity to be represented in the general election, rather than Obama’s idealism. If this shows a pattern that subsequent independent voters would follow, then prospects for the Republicans in the autumn may be better than the polls suggest, at least in the case of a McCain candidacy, and – crucially – in a McCain candidacy against the phenomenon of Obamamania.

But, as before, the upshot of all this is that everything is still to play for. Clinton and Obama are both very much in contention. The Republicans are no clearer on which of their five front-runners is winning than they were to begin with. In other words, the race remains very exciting indeed.

Next up: Michigan votes in a Republican primary on January 15th – next Tuesday.

Monday, January 07, 2008


Q&A: The Wyoming Caucuses

Q: So, Wyoming. Isn’t that a sort of cactus?
A: Er, possibly. But what we generally mean by “Wyoming” is actually a state in America.

Q: A real state? As in, one of the 50?
A: That’s right.

Q: So where is it then?
A: I’m not entirely sure. Somewhere in the mountains, possibly. It’s one of those states that you fly over if you’re going from Miami to Seattle.
Q: I’m not convinced it really exists.
A: You’re going to have to trust me.

Q: So how come I’ve never heard of it, then?
A: You’ve clearly not been paying attention. It’s figured in the news recently.

Q: And why’s it been in the news?
A: Well, little-noticed by the outside world, it’s actually become the second state to hold a Republican primary – a caucus, just like Iowa.

Q: But not a Democratic primary? Don’t they always go together?
A: They do usually, but not in this case – although the state Republicans voted on Saturday, state Democrats are going to have to wait until March.

Q: But how come I haven’t heard anything about it?
A: All the media attention is actually still fixed on New Hampshire, which holds its primary tomorrow. New Hampshire is traditionally the second state to go, so journalists haven’t really been focusing on Wyoming.

Q: So… who won???
A: It actually became the first state to be picked up by Mitt Romney, meaning that in the total tally of states won, Romney has now caught up with Huckabee with one state each. He won an impressive 67% of the vote, with Fred Thompson picking up 25% and also-ran Duncan Hunter getting the remaining 8%.

Q: Wow! Romney must be pretty excited.
A: It would seem so. His campaign even issued a statement. Not from the man himself, you understand, but from the next best thing: Josh Romney, one of his sons. JR said: “It was a great day. It shows we are running all over the country.”

Q: Er- is that all? This is important, right? I mean, people have been campaigning there?
A: Well, sort of. Undoubtedly, some campaigning has been going on. Romney did actually visit the state twice, in August and November, which seemed to be enough to win its loyalty. But apart from that, none of the candidates were actually out there on the stump. They were all in New Hampshire too.

Q: Why’s everyone ignoring Wyoming? Is New Hampshire that much more important?
A: It probably is. Wyoming is the least populated of the 50 states, with only just over 500,000 people. Romney’s victory only gives him about 8 delegates to the Republican convention, and he needs 1,191 to win the convention.

Q: So how come one random, tiny state in the middle – Iowa – gets all the attention, but another one gets none at all?
A: It’s just one of life’s great mysteries.

Q: Maybe it’s because none of the candidates or journalists can find it.
A: Good point. I’m going to go get my map…

Friday, January 04, 2008


And they're off!

So, the election season is finally upon us! Not the British election season, you understand – God forbid that we should actually have a chance to elect our leaders in this country, other than at a time of their choosing – but rather that centerpiece of politics as theatre, delivered to us in a way that can only be generated by a nation which has far too much money to throw around, a strong preference for high drama, and an electoral system which gets people to run around campaigning for four years rather than actually having them tend to a day job of governing anything: the presidential election of the United States of America.

Any West Wing fan should, naturally, follow the current race for the party nominations avidly - after all, it's the first completely open race, with no President or Vice President in the running, since the stone age. In that spirit, I eagerly decided to stay up last night to see what would happen. Having been assured by BBC News that the Republican winner would be apparent by 1.00 or so, I tuned into CNN at midnight and sat through a whole hour of Lou Dobbs, becoming increasingly incensed as I discovered how “Communist China” is continuing its “aggressive military buildup” designed to “threaten American military dominance” and how the American middle classes are enduring a “war” against them that will soon leave everyone other than greedy elites enduring grinding poverty, not least because of the “crisis” of illegal immigration. (Luckily, there’s a plucky sheriff in Arizona enforcing tough new state laws banning employers from hiring anyone without conducting background checks on their legality, so there's still hope that we may see a real economic crisis arise from this topic yet.)

My waning enthusiasm by this point – I was just about ready by 1AM to endorse Tom Tancredo and pray fervently for America to just go away – was augmented by the realization that the little primary timer in the corner was actually counting down to the start of the caucuses, not the results announcement. So when Dobbsey handed over to “Wolf Blitzer” and his magnificent beard at 1 and I was giddily informed that “YES, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, WE WILL BE HERE FOR THE NEXT FOUR HOURS FOLLOWING THE RESULTS AS THEY UNFOLD”, my excitement reached such heights that I had no other option than to switch off the television and go to bed.

Never mind. The results were in by morning, and we appear to have experienced the holy grail of political excitement: an electoral contest too close to call beforehand that actually produced a decisive result, with Barack Obama picking up an astonishing 37.6% on the Democratic side and Mike Huckabee taking a no less stunning 34.3% of votes on the Republican side. The reason that these results are so exciting is that they were largely unpredicted: Obama was tying with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in polls up to a few days before the caucuses, so the 8-point gap which opened up between Obama and the other two (who were very closely matched, with Edwards on 29.7% and Clinton on 29.5%) is remarkable. Huckabee may have come a long distance in a very short time – he was regarded as one of the also-rans until a couple of months ago – but his victory was at least predicted, with polls showing him having a slim lead over Mitt Romney before the caucuses. The surprise here lies entirely in the scale of his victory, with his 34.3% providing a 9-point lead over Romney’s 25.3%, a margin of victory which was completely unexpected. Both Obama and Huckabee are to be congratulated for their strong showings, which come off the back of a great deal of hard work. But one would be forgiven for doubting the results’ significance, given how tiny Iowa actually is on the national scale. A lot can still change. So the key questions that we need to be asking in order to derive more general relevance are: How did this happen? (We may be able to discern emerging trends that will provide clues as to what happens next.) And what does it mean? (How does this change the dynamics of the campaigns?)

For the Democrats, the result has come off the back of a remarkably positive campaign, with the absence of character assassination being enough to put a little warmth back into your heart. This plays directly into Obama’s image of representing a more idealistic politics free from the things which usually make people cynical about politicians. This might seem a bit wishy-washy, but it shouldn’t be underestimated. Obama was tying in the polls amongst registered Democracts in Iowa – so where, precisely, did that giant lead in the results come from? The answer can be seen in the turnout figures. The turnout in 2004 that gave John Kerry his giant boost was around 124,000, whereas this year’s came in at 239,000 – and this despite worries that the caucuses clashed with various other evening events (sporting and otherwise) that pundits reckoned might keep turnout down. A surprisingly high percentage of those 239,000 people were under 30 – an age group that traditionally has much lower levels of political activity than were on show yesterday. Obama has much higher poll ratings amongst the young than any of the other candidates. But turnout wasn’t everything – many Iowa democrats who were telling pollsters that they were undecided clearly made up their minds at the last minute, and they decided on Obama in much higher numbers than they did for other candidates. All of this adds up to suggest that Obama’s level of support is being consistently underrated by traditional forecasting techniques, which tend to take into account the apathy of the youth and to focus on primary voters who've made their minds up rather than the undecided. Add in the fact that Obama managed to claw back Clinton’s lead amongst women, and the potential emerges for a media narrative of a transformational campaign that will protect Obama with a saintly aura, feeding expectations that Obama will win over other demographics as well and gain momentum.

Huckabee is less of a surprise – his folksy appeal (to paraphrase a good Huckabeeism yesterday: “people would rather vote for the guy they work with than the guy who laid them off”) is the root of his success amongst Republicans, who voted for him more on the basis of who he was than of what his policies are. Huckabee is a former preacher, and the only Republican front-runner with uncomplicated religious credentials, who lost a vast amount of weight (and wrote a book about it), plays in a band at campaign stops, gets endorsements from Chuck Norris, and generally seems to be extremely nice. (Having never seen him speak before last night, I was astounded at how genuinely appealing his style is.) But Iowa matters less for Republicans. Front-runner Rudy Giuliani was always a non-starter in Iowa, so the campaign dynamic there was always going to be different from that elsewhere in the country.

So what does all this mean? Clearly Obama has received a giant fillip. Expectations for an inspirational campaign faltered throughout the autumn as he failed to dent Clinton’s aura of inevitability with a distinctly un-inspiring stump style. This has now been reversed, with the media narrative switching from “Where did Obama go?” to “This is the man who could change the country”, an emerging Kennedy-esque narrative which the Atlantic provided a good example of with last month’s cover story. Obama clearly appeals to younger voters and independents, attracting voters who otherwise wouldn’t feel too strongly about the Democrats. (Call it the Nintendo strategy.) If this expectation takes off, then Obama will have wind in his sails as he moves towards the other primaries. For Clinton, in the meantime, this is not entirely unexpected (Obama has always polled better in Iowa than in other early primary states). The challenge for her campaign is to keep its sure footing in anticipation of the other primaries. After Obama’s larger-than-expected victory, Clinton needs to win New Hampshire on Tuesday – preferably by a big margin – if she is to keep her front-runner status. Edwards, meanwhile, as a “man of the people”, must surely be looking for a win in Michigan on January 15th as its industrial economy creaks. His campaign has been faltering somewhat lately, and he won’t be picking up any momentum from Iowa: my expectation would be that this is the beginning of the end of his run. A poor Super Tuesday performance on February 5th will knock him out. Clinton needs to win enough states to regain her aura by then; the challenge for Obama, meanwhile, is to continue doing well enough to keep that new sense of momentum and knock Clinton off-balance. Poor showings in New Hampshire and South Carolina would be particularly damaging for her. For the Democrats, then, the dynamic may have changed, but the result is still very unpredictable. The only immediate result is a welcome thinning of the field, with Joe Biden and Chris Dodd ending their futile runs.

For the Republicans, things also remain highly unpredictable, but the impact of a Huckabee win is more limited. Huckabee will now unquestionably be the evangelical choice, but whether this will be enough for him to win the nomination remains very much in doubt. He has no credible economic policies. His foreign policy experience is notable only by its total absence. In terms of policy, his campaign is not so much mistaken as it is loony. If he wins enough states to be a spoiler, however, he may still have a huge impact: by winning bible-belt Southern states, he can deprive Fred Thompson of the states most open to his own brand of folksy charm and Rudy Giuliani of the states most susceptible to his line of caustic, bilious, and aggressive ignorance on matters of national security and foreign policy. This would tilt the Republican nomination towards candidates running on their records of sensible policies and administrative competence: John McCain and Mitt Romney. Question marks now hang over Romney’s campaign, however. Romney has never been viewed as the front-runner, but many observers – myself included – suspected that his impeccable organization and high spending gave him a vast advantage over the other front runners in the early states – an advantage that would quickly make him the front runner once the primaries got under way. But all that was before Huckabee’s surge started, and the caucuses have now shown that all of Romney’s organization and spending were only good enough to secure a weaker-than-expected second place finish. This could prove disastrous for him. In the absence of a momentum boost from Iowa, the challenge for him is to avoid his campaign faltering, preferably with a win in New Hampshire or Michigan. As for the other candidates, the biggest loser is probably Fred Thompson, whose extremely limp 13.4% showing may persuade him that his campaign is going nowhere, and lead him to drop out. Rumours abounded before the caucuses that he might do this if he had a poor showing. Alternatively, the fact that he managed to hold on to third place might persuade him to keep going for a bit longer: either way, my money is on him to be the first front-runner in either party to end his campaign. The most surprising result of the caucuses actually comes courtesy of John McCain, who nearly grabbed third place – with 13.1%, he was nipping at Thompson’s heels – in a state that he had long neglected as being a complete lost cause. It’s still early days, but a strong win in New Hampshire (which he won in 2000) and Michigan would propel him into front-runner status, a position he surely deserves as the only Republican candidate with the faintest hope of winning the general election. As for Giuliani’s risible 3.5% showing, this isn’t nearly as damaging as it might appear – Giuliani never had any hope of doing well in Iowa – but will still be depressing for his campaign. He will fizzle out surprisingly quickly if he doesn’t get a strong result in the next few primaries. The last Republican surprise was Ron Paul, who hit 10%. Like Huckabee, he has long been regarded as an also-ran, and it is probably far too late for him to build any momentum towards winning in any state, but as another candidate on the extreme right of the party he is competing surprisingly well for the conservative vote. With his remarkable internet-based fundraising, he might prove to have spoiler power of his own.

So, in the final analysis, it is all very exciting, not least because it remains very unpredictable. At present, I wouldn’t want to place a bet on who would be nominee for either party, though I have a growing suspicion that Obama might just pull it off – and some lingering hope that McCain might, as well. But after Iowa, Obama only has a likely 16 delegates to the Democratic convention, and Huckabee 17 to the Republican one. To succeed, they need to amass 2,025 and 1,191 respectively. So there’s a long way to go. And who knows? Rumour has it that in the absence of an Obama-McCain match-up, Michael Bloomberg might throw himself into the ring as an independent. Things could keep on being entertaining even after the nominations have been locked up. Here’s hoping.

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