Saturday, February 23, 2008

 

Balkanisation

Last weekend, the world added a new country to its list of independent states, as Kosovo finally decided that it had exhausted the political process to the satisfaction of its western backers and declared independence from Serbia unilaterally. It thus follows Montenegro to become the most recent new country added to the world's total. So now we are 193. (I think.)

Unfortunately for the Kosovars, their declaration is not without controversy, and a delicate dance has now begun around the core measure of international respectability: recognition. This is a funny thing. A country establishes diplomatic relations with a new state only after recognising its existence, or its government, as legitimate. The reality of who actually rules a given country doesn't necessarily have any bearing on whether those rulers are "recognised", with the key criterion being the perceived legitimacy of their path to power. Usually there isn't any trouble: Montenegro, for example, left the old federation of Serbia & Montenegro after a peaceful referendum, and with mutual consent: a political process was followed that reflected the people's will. Recognition followed fairly mechanically.

In other circumstances, recognition has not been so mechanical. When the Soviet Union annexed the interwar (and now restored) Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the United States adamantly refused to recognise Soviet sovereignty for quite some time. Israel is not recognised by a large number of Arab countries, 60 years after its foundation. Sometimes this can have important consequences: it was the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek which ruled China in 1945 at the time when the United Nations was founded, and America's refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the government of Communist China - coupled with its Security Council veto - meant that it was Taiwan who sat in the UN as a veto-wielding Security Council power until America's rapprochement with mainland China in 1972. At other times the consequences can be trivial: witness the ongoing battle for recognition between China and Taiwan (since both governments claim to be the legitimate government of a united China, including Taiwan, you can only recognise one or the other), which plays out mostly in Caribbean island states on the basis of which of the two parties steps in to build a new cricket stadium. Or, to return to the Balkans, witness Greece's umbrage when Yugoslavia's southernmost republic declared itself independent under the name "Macedonia" - already the name of a Greek province, and synonymous with the history of the most famous Macedonian, Alexander the Great, who the Greeks claim as part of their own classical heritage. Greece refused to recognise the new state under its preferred name, and it currently sits in international organizations as the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia", or FYROM.

Kosovo will be one of the countries for which the process will not be so mechanical. The United States and 22 of the 27 EU countries decided to recognise it immediately - roughly corresponding to the NATO coalition that intervened in 1999 to force an end to Serb ethnic cleansing, despite a lack of validation by the UN Security Council. But other nations will not do so. The reason for this is based on the particular history of this former Serbian province, and on the fear of the precedent that it may come to set.

The history of the Balkans is steeped in confusing changes to sovereignty and to borders, and it was the collapse of two great South-Eastern European empires a century ago that prompted the initial flurry of state establishment. As the Ottoman Empire slowly collapsed in the second half of the 19th century, its European possessions gained their freedom, resulting in independence for Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia, and subsequently in the Balkan Wars in the 15 years prior to the Great War. It was in the Balkans that the First World War started, in fact, with radical Serbian nationalists who objected to Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina assassinating the Austrian heir in Sarajevo. Then, as now, Russia backed the Serbs as they faced off against larger European powers. That particular confrontation didn't go well for the Serbs in the end, but by the end of WWI Austria-Hungary had also collapsed, giving independence to Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Austria's western Balkan possessions, which grouped together with Serbia to form Yugoslavia - Land of the South Slavs - under a monarchy until WWII, and then as a communist dictatorship afterwards under the prickly Tito, who kept his distance from the USSR. Yugoslavia began to break up in the 1990s when Slobodan Milosevic came to power and firmed up his base with fiery calls to Serbian nationalism. In rapid succession, Slovenia, Macedonia, and - more painfully - Croatia and then Bosnia-Herzegovina broke away from Yugoslavia, reducing it to the rump federal state of Serbia & Montenegro, which dissolved after Montenegro voted for independence in 2006.

Kosovo fits into the story of Yugoslav disintegration rather differently: unlike the other nations which broke away, Kosovo has always been a province of Serbia, rather than a separate Republic in a federal relationship. So whereas the other countries simply tore up their federal agreement with Serbia to declare independence, Kosovo's declaration has the effect of actually dismembering the Serbian state.

For the Kosovars, this is little more than an unfortunate product of history. They also had autonomy under Yugoslavia, but as a province rather than a distinct part of the federation. They are ethnically Albanian rather than Serbian (borders couldn't keep pace with the cosmopolitan ethnic mixing of the Ottomans, as we see today in Cyprus, Lebanon, Iraq and Israel/Palestine as well), and Muslims rather than Orthodox Christians. As a result, they see themselves as a distinct nationality from the Serbs, as deserving of their own state as any of the other breakaway parts of Yugoslavia. The Serbs, however, see things differently: Kosovo itself - the land, that is, rather than its people - is the site of important events in Serbian history, and they would much prefer a return to the autonomy that Kosovo had under Tito than to allow their nation to be wrenched asunder.

If the country suffering the conflict hadn't been Serbia, the outside world might not have paid too much notice - it would just have been one of those unpleasant little conflicts which eventually stagger to some sort of political reconciliation. In the nasty atmosphere of Milosevic's Yugoslavia, however, Kosovo Albanians suffered severe discrimination, prompting the formation of various militant (or terrorist) groups such as the Kosovo Liberation Army; the activities of such militias eventually brought the Serbian army in. Rather than just rooting out the KLA, however - perhaps in the way that Turkey mostly rid itself of the Kurdish PKK in the 1990s - Serbian forces engaged, in 1999, in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, resulting in widespread murder, rape, destruction of property and mass expulsions. Large waves of Kosovar refugees arriving in Macedonia and Albania persuaded the West - which felt as if it had sat on the fence for far too long during similar brutality in Bosnia in 1994-96 - to intervene forcefully. Russia promised to veto any Security Council resolution authorising intervention, so the NATO alliance unilaterally attacked Serbia with an eye to whittling down its military capacity and stopping the ethnic cleansing. After a two-month air campaign, Milosevic backed down and withdrew Serbian forces, and international troops under a UN mandate - including the Russians this time, who memorably flew in to secure Pristina airport ahead of the advancing British - occupied the province and set up a UN administration. Kosovo has essentially been a UN protectorate ever since.

What has happened now is that the political process of moving towards independence has been exhausted. Serbia is unable to offer anything more than "extreme autonomy" - it will not acquiesce in its own partition. Kosovo, however, now run by a democratically elected government with significant UN assistance, will not accept anything less than independence. Talks have dragged on for years, and there is no prospect of their ever succeeding, so Kosovo's western backers came to agree this month that a move towards independence was the only way forward. In the absence of UN recognition of the newly-independent Kosovan government - Russia's veto will prevent Kosovo being admitted to the UN, along with any fresh resolutions on the matter - the UN administration will hand over to a European Union one. Kosovo's status, then, will not so much be that of an independent state as that of a European Union protectorate, with an element of self-rule being tempered by a powerful viceroy in the shape of a Dutch diplomat. This is a similar arrangement to that which has imposed a degree of stability on Bosnia since the conflict there.

The problem with recognition is the fear of precedent. Having ethnically or culturally distinct bits of your country delcare independence unilaterally is a worry for many nations. Cyprus worries about Northern Cyprus, which is already under a separate, Turkish-backed administration. Russia points menacingly to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions in Georgia which it has been propping up and may now encourage to declare independence, and it may well start mentioning Transdniestria in Moldova - and even Russian-majority areas in the Baltics - in the near future. China hates the idea of recognition providing momentum to Taiwanese movement towards independence, or encouragement to the Tibetans or to its restive Muslims in Xinjiang. Spain is worried of the impact on its Basque and Catalan provinces, and dislikes the idea of seeming to support a principle that might validate British sovereignty over Gibraltar. Pretty much every country in the world can see some way in which its interests might be damaged by global recognition of the emergence of Kosovo.

This worry over precedent is, however, entirely overblown. The nations protesting the loudest are being somewhat hypocritical. Spain, which worries about encouraging Basques, is oblivious to the encouragement it would receive in its own claims to Ceuta and Melilla, enclaves on the North African coast whose status is disputed by Morocco. Russia, which threatens to use the precedent to destabilise its neighbours, displays a wilful obliviousness to the fact that the precedent will also largely invalidate the legitimacy of its brutal repression of separatism in Chechnya, Dagestan and North Ossetia. It may encourage the Transdniestrians, but it would also encourage the Tatars. And Greek Cypriots have no leg to stand on if Turkish Cypriots take heart, after their 2004 rejection of the only reasonable compromise deal for their partitioned country ever to be mooted (which the Turkish Cypriots had agreed to). (Amusingly, Cypriots booted out the architect of that deal's rejection, President Tassos Papadopoulos, in the first round of last week's presidential election - even as Cyprus took its stand against Kosovan independence for reasons of precedent.)

In any case, even a cursory survey of recent Kosovan history reveals that the precedent being set is not one of callous disregard for territorial integrity: rather, it is a precedent involving repression, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, multinational intervention, international occupation, and protracted final status talks which prove irresolvable. This is not a precedent which will be widely applicable. For that reason, most countries in the world will recognise Kosovo, even as a few key ones fail to (and as the UN adds the territory to the small but important list of peoples who are not represented by any government at the organisation, joining Taiwan, Palestine, and Western Sahara).

Most of the damage, in fact, will be confined to the Western Balkans, and will not take place in Kosovo - now safely tucked under the arm of Europe, and thus guaranteed security, aid, decent governance, and a fast track to EU membership in 15-20 years time - but in Serbia. Europe's priority now that Kosovan independence has been granted must be to mollify Serbia as quickly as possible and ease the path towards Serbian membership of the EU. Serbs voted in a second-round presidential election this month in which they had two choices: the right, and the extreme right. The extreme right party - whose nominal leader is on trial in The Hague for war crimes - could have met Kosovan independence with force if elected, would have aligned Serbia closely to Russia in foreign affairs, and would have been an unmitigated catastrophe. The rightist candidate, Boris Tadic, is also implacably opposed to Kosovan independence - but is widely known to be willing in the event to swallow his pride and focus on the more important tasks of boosting the economy and getting Serbia ready for Europe. Even knowing this, Serbs voted for him in greater numbers and he won. A wellspring of moderation exists in Serbia and must be encouraged. Serbia faces incredible challenges, including a dysfunctional economy, a virulent nationalist streak in its politics, and the continuation of a nexus of paramilitary violence and organised crime which conspired to assassinate Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in 2004.

Demanding that Serbia tackles these problems without any sort of compensation - or reward - for not blowing its gasket over Kosovo will only serve to alienate it. Serbian intransigence in the past has been unpleasant for its European interlocutors, and its continuing failure to send certain villains to the ICTY in The Hague to be tried for war crimes is shameful, but now is the moment when geopolitics must take precedence over moral scruples. The objective of navigating Kosovo to independence has been achieved: if the West wants to cement good governance in Serbia, firmly establish the rule of law in the long-term, help to root out corruption, and encourage economic reform, then it must make clear that a road exists to the membership of NATO and the EU which will reward Serbs for their efforts. This sort of encouragement is the most powerful catalyst that the West has for driving change and encouraging reform in those European countries in the balance between Europe and Russia, and the sorts of changes that will be encouraged will lead to bigger gains for justice and freedom than insisting on the apprehension of individuals. Offering an agreement that would lead Serbia to accelerated progress towards EU entry talks, as the EU tried to do two weeks ago, is the right approach. Vetoing such an agreement because of continued lack of cooperation with the ICTY, as the Dutch did, is not. However Serbia ultimately manages its response to Kosovan independence, the important relationship now and for the future is the binary one between Serbia and the European Union, and the EU must ensure that it manages that relationship in a responsible way. Otherwise, cementing good governance in Serbia, and even, one day, Serbian recognition of Kosovo, will continue to be a pipe dream for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

 

Obama Gathers Pace

Everybody knew that Obama was going to do well in the sequence of primaries between February 5th and March 4th, but a press corps eager to lionize a winner has nevertheless decided that it can smell victory gathering around him, and has swung behind him accordingly. The Economist – always a paper that firmly places itself ahead of the curve – has already moved past “can he succeed” and onto “can he deliver”, an indication that the balance of probabilities has now moved in his direction sufficient for him to be confident of success, but not yet sufficiently obvious for everyone to agree on it yet. Time magazine, which has leant towards Clinton in its editorial stance, has even gone so far as to make a dreaded comparison between her and George W. Bush, in the sense that she valued loyalty over competence when forming her campaign staff prior to last week’s shake-up. The comparisons between Bush and Obama – both “outside the Washington establishment” candidates, both calling for bipartisan reconciliation, and both highly inexperienced in foreign affairs – have yet to be made.

Comparing either candidate to Bush may be a fatuous exercise, but what has become unambiguously clear is that the Clinton campaign has stumbled. Her money troubles and her weak performance in the post-Super Tuesday states are united by a single root cause: she was playing towards a February 5th endgame, and genuinely expected everything to be over by Super Tuesday. She has thus been caught completely off guard by the continuance of the race into states which don’t normally matter for the primaries, and as a result she didn’t have the finances or the state organizations in place to deal with them. Obama, in contrast, had made financial plans with sufficient contingency to continue beyond February 5th and had people working in campaign offices on the ground; as a result, he has been able to outspend and out-organize Clinton in the states which followed Super Tuesday while she scrambles to get back on her feet in time for the next big states.

Was this a stroke of organizational genius on the Obama campaign’s part, as so many are now claiming? Not as much as you might think. Both candidates formed their plans around achieving the results that they needed: Clinton needed a knock-out on Super Tuesday, whereas Obama needed to not be knocked out. The Obama strategy thus involved preparedness for the February states, whereas the Clinton strategy did not. It just so happened that Obama got the result he needed on Super Tuesday and Clinton didn’t; the campaign is now playing out the result. The extent to which Super Tuesday was thus a victory for Obama was partly obscured at the time by the fact that the two candidates seemed to have drawn each other, but it is now apparent that February 5th was really an Obama victory after all.

This isn’t to say that Obama hasn’t run his campaign well. Getting to the stage where Super Tuesday gave him the result that he needed took enormous organizational acumen, particularly given that Clinton had long since hired the best organizers in the early states. He won more states than had been expected on Super Tuesday, and he has since played a strong hand extremely well. His glide towards inevitability has been expertly managed, and continues to contrast greatly with the clumsy attacks on him from the Clinton campaign, which have ranged from getting Bill Clinton to put him down to attempting to ridicule him based on his kindergarten schoolwork, and has extended into the highly distasteful realm of dirty tricks, as with the shameful attempt to paint him into a racial corner in South Carolina, and now the rumours going around that Clinton will attempt to convince delegates assigned to Obama on the basis of his primary victories to back her instead.

The results in Wisconsin, Hawaii and Washington after yesterday’s primaries help to back all of this up, fitting the pattern of recent weeks, but don’t change the prognosis that the Clinton campaign is now hanging on the thread of a March 4th victory. Hawaii, a caucus state where Obama spent some of his childhood, plumped for him by a crushing 76% to 24%; in Wisconsin, the margin of victory was 58% to 41%. Obama will probably pull another 20-30 delegates ahead of Clinton as a result of the day’s voting. Wisconsin was the most important state which went yesterday, and the press have played it up as being a litmus test for Clinton's support base: mainly white, full of blue-collar unionized workers and anxious about the economy. (Topping off an increasingly uninformative string of election reports, the BBC, daftly, was even reporting that half of voters there were women. Indeed.)

This is a convenient angle if the story is a significant Clinton defeat, and indeed, the numbers do play to that: Obama did well amongst unionized workers, and drew Clinton amongst women. On the face of it, her only safe constituency is now the elderly. In reality, however, the results aren’t really a surprise. Obama has been doing well in Winsconsin polls ever since emerging as a serious challenger, and he has done extremely well in a number of nearby states elsewhere in the mid-west, including in neighbouring Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. In both Illinois (his home state) and Minnesota (a caucus state), he actually won by much larger margins, long before any momentum was hitting the headlines. The region is swinging in his direction, so, as with all the other states he’s won since Super Tuesday, the Wisconsin result doesn’t tell us all that much about Clinton’s prospects.

Nevertheless, with all the predictions of Obama victories in February coming true, it is rapidly becoming clear that Clinton will need to win by double-digit margins in Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania if she is to remain viable. It’s tough to see this really happening. Momentum is as real as people think it is, and it is attaching itself to Obama in large quantities. Clinton, it is increasingly apparent, has to win big on March 4th if she’s going to pull off an extension of her campaign all the way to the Democratic nomination; outright victory is coming to look more and more beyond her grasp.

The Press

The combination of Obama’s string of wins, stumbles by the Clinton campaign, and Clinton’s increasingly unpleasant gaffes have had a curious effect on the liberal press. The senior writers at institutional magazines like Time, the New Yorker and the Atlantic are as much a part of the liberal establishment as Hillary Clinton is, and mostly remember the 90s under Bill Clinton fondly. As a consequence, they have been torn between Obama’s appeal to their hearts and their guts, and their firm conviction that, on paper, Clinton is by far the better candidate. The general result has been breathless coverage of the Obama phenomenon coupled with a weary sense that Clinton was the more experienced candidate who would be able to get things done better.

What’s happening now, as Obama gains momentum, is that some writers seem to be feeling increasingly liberated from their rational convictions in favour of just following their hearts. If voters have made the hard choice to pick Obama over Clinton, then journalists can finally put their scruples aside and begin to get excited. Regardless of whether you think he was the best candidate or not, once the choice has been made it’s fairly easy to move on.

The Republicans

Not quite an afterthought, but John McCain won in Wisconsin as well, winning 55% to Huckabee’s 37%. This result, although strong, is nowhere near as strong as you would imagine it should be for the presumptive front runner. Huckabee isn’t going to get the nomination, so his continuing presence, with not insignificant levels of support, is a constant reminder that John McCain has yet to win over vast swathes of conservatives. McCain now has 918 delegates, putting him within 300 of the finishing post at 1,191: strong results in Texas and Ohio could finally bring him some closure.

The more important developments this week for him were endorsements. Mitt Romney reversed his earlier pained lack of an endorsement with strong words in McCain’s favour; given that Romney’s voters were the conservatives currently being wooed by Huckabee, that could help him continue to smack away Huckabee’s challenge. More importantly, he asked his 285 delegates to vote for McCain: some are constrained by state rules not to do so, but this is still a big bump that puts McCain within a whisker of wrapping the nomination up. The other big endorsement was that of Bush the Elder (or, as he’s known in the parlance, 41), who decided to go ahead with issuing public backing despite Huckabee still being in the race (but declined to call on Huckabee to pull out), and offered strong words of rebuke to anyone claiming that McCain isn’t conservative enough. This is just the latest sign that the Republican establishment – including the hugely effective Bush the Younger (that is to say, 43) fundraising apparatus – is swinging behind McCain’s candidacy. If only the party’s voters would hurry up and do the same.

Washington’s Primary

Anyone trying to figure out what’s going on in the primaries on a state-by-state basis will be more than justified in asking, “what the devil is going on in Washington state?” For a state which doesn’t normally have any bearing on the outcome of the nomination battles, they sure have designed a humdinger of a primary system.

Essentially, the state always used to be a caucus state, but decided a few years back that the caucus system was holding people back from participating – a reasonable conclusion. Rather than abandoning caucuses in favour of primaries, however, they decided to add a primary in addition to their caucuses. As a result, the state now organizes both primaries and caucuses, and holds them on different days.

The recipe for confusion gets thicker when taking into consideration that it is up to the parties to decide how to allocate their delegates. The Republican party shrugged its shoulders and decided to allocate half its delegates via the caucuses and the other half by the primaries; the Democrats, however, reasoned that it was good for state party engagement to have people attending caucuses, and refused to change its rules to allow delegates to be chosen by the primary. The result is something of a mess. Democrats charge Republicans with conniving in a massive waste of taxpayer resources, and indeed, with around 20 Republican delegates available and the primaries costing about $10m to run, the price tag of over $500,000 per delegate does seem a little steep. Republicans, on the other hand, accuse Democrats (with some justification) of persisting in supporting a caucus system that is profoundly undemocratic and unrepresentative. (To which the Democrats can charge that they, at least, split their state’s delegates on the basis of the proportion of the vote they received, whereas the Republicans apportion delegates on a winner takes all basis.)

The upshot of all of this? The Democratic primary yesterday didn’t count for anything and was essentially a straw poll, so no-one is paying attention to its result. And McCain won the Republican primary, and its delegates, by 49% to 22% for Huckabee. Just to add to the surreal nature of the proceedings, Mitt Romney managed to take 20% despite withdrawing ages ago. To put this in perspective, the state only allocated 78 Democratic delegates and 37 Republican ones.

There is one important point to bear in mind, however. The dual structure offers us a rare chance to see how different electoral systems produce different results from the same electorate: an obvious point, but one which is often overlooked. McCain won both the primary and the caucuses, but his margin in the caucuses was just 2 points, as opposed to 27 points in the primary. A clearer indication couldn’t be found to demonstrate the distorting effect of the caucus system – but then, in so dysfunctional an electoral system as the American one, this is but one of many problems with little prospect of resolution.


Next Up: A bit of a break, with some frantic campaigning. Both parties will vote on March 4th - a week next Tuesday - in Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, and Vermont.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

 

Wii Fatigue

I finally finished Super Mario Galaxy last night (taking a break from using my Wii to read election coverage from the sofa). Mario Galaxy was, unambiguously, billed as one of the Wii’s killer games, taking the “Zelda” slot as the premier Nintendo brand arriving late to the party. It garnered rave reviews, including a highly-coveted 10/10 from Edge magazine, which is the video-game bible for everyone who can’t read Famitsu. So how was it?

Gruelling.

Sure, the game reels you in very effectively, smoothly gliding through a complex introduction to the game’s various parts that could have been very confusing, and before too long providing sheer, infectious joy in rather large quantities. The game is organized into sections, only the first of which is available to begin with, and each section contains a number of levels sorted into themed “galaxies”, which you can tackle in any order you choose. You unlock the next section by beating the boss level in the current one. For the first two or three of these sections – represented by “rooms” on a mysterious floating island – you simply can’t get enough. You bounce from one spherical level to another in a cacophonous medley of excellent ideas stylishly executed. Time and again, the quality of a set-piece has you laughing out loud at how much fun the whole thing is. The graphics are fabulous, styled to perfection to hide the fact that the Wii doesn’t pack the same graphical punch as its competitors, and all of the character design and music contribute to a seamless impression that the entire enterprise is thoroughly charming. Myriad little touches – enemies which start running away in fear when they see you approach, sly references in graphics or sound effects to earlier Mario games – showcase the care and attention to detail that characterize the Nintendo difference.

By the time you get to the second half of the game, though, joyful laughter is not the sound that you’ll be emitting. The problem with having spherical levels is that the control scheme and the camera need to be able to intuitively keep up with the physics, and by the time you lose a twelfth life at the same damned point where you can’t get Mario to go where you want him to and do what he needs to, frustration becomes the dominant key, and once that’s in place it is very difficult to switch off. The fun minigames with their cute music which were so entertaining when they were easy lose their charm when you find yourself navigating the same maze in a bubble for an hour because something goes wrong every single time and you're sent plummetting to your doom in a black hole. Generosity with extra lives somehow doesn’t make it better. If I hadn’t been so pig-headed about getting to the end of the (predictable) story, I rather think I would have given up a long time before.

Getting to the end was particularly trying, even after I gave up seeking out the challenging bonus stars (you get a “star” when you beat a level, and you can revisit previous levels and beat certain challenges to get extra stars) and just focused on getting through the core levels. Armed with 93 stars, I felt that I had definitely had enough. But after you decide to take on Bowser at the end, you have to play through three levels of combat with him which, rather than just being challenging, make you mad as hell that you can’t navigate all the crap flying around to give him the thrashing he deserves. Whereas Zelda has you carefully exploiting patterns and using skills against the final boss, and then eventually waiting in trepidation for the inevitable reincarnation of the bad guy for the second round of the battle, you never have to do it more than three times before getting it (and often you can succeed on your first go). Mario, in contrast, provides a maddening, chaotic finale which has you holding your breath and praying that there won’t be a second round after you finally kick Bowser into the molten centre of the universe. It’s lucky that no-one was home last night, because I was hurling volleys of invective at the television each time I lost a life and had to start over. The colleague who came with me to buy the game back in November (and picked up a copy herself) reported that her boyfriend actually resorted to smacking the Wii with its controller in certain moments of boiling rage. (Herself irritated by the amount of time he spent with his Wii, she later took that precedent as permission to kick it, thus proving – luckily, not irreparably – that there is a right way and a wrong way to abuse your hardware.)

And what is your reward, apart from a bizarre cutscene and a certain amount of grudging satisfaction, for getting past the final boss? Well, I got deposited back to the hub world. And lo and behold, they told me, further rewards await – if I could just garner another 27 stars. My face was a picture. The game is now firmly back on the shelf.

I’m not sure if I would care to draw any more generalized conclusions from this about the Wii. Much as I love it, my continued adherence to Nintendo platforms from the N64 onwards is leaving me with the feeling that it might be time for a break from the usual formulae. Nintendo’s success with the console has come from growth in the casual game space, and developers appear to see the Wii as an opportunity to do something less serious rather than a format that they would produce a blockbuster game for. This certainly has its advantages – and is a big improvement over the Gamecube and the later days of the N64, when Nintendo was practically the only company developing seriously for its consoles. But when Nintendo’s blockbuster games adhere to a formula (as Wii Zelda certainly did), you start getting the impression that reaching out to a broader audience isn’t leading to game developers producing meaningful works of art with a broader appeal. For all of Nintendo’s extension of the videogame market, then, it may still be incumbent on the Microsofts and the Sonys of this world to incrementally push serious, story-based gaming into a format with a wider fan base. That would be a shame given the commercial success of Nintendo’s experiment to date. But I have to say, my imagination was captured far more by the immersive, cinematic narrative of Halo (now a venerable classic) than it was by Mario's latest.

But really. Honestly. Where is it written in stone that a game has to get harder as you get towards the end? How does the difficulty spike really deepen your engagement with the material? I felt like I was playing a 16-bit game on the sections that I had to repeat time and again until I broke them down through sheer force of will. It might be sticking to a beloved formula that gets Edge all excited, but I enjoyed the game the most when I was free to bound along greedily sucking in all of the fun that it had to offer me, rather than being punished with infuriation as a prize for progression.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

 

Potomac Results

Potomac Democrats

The Potomac is a pretty nice river, flowing grandly along the southern border of Washington, DC. I still have fond high school memories of visiting a friend there, whose incredibly generous family took me on my first “Duck Tour”: driving in an amphibious car around the city’s sights, before plunging into the river for a sedate paddle downstream. I still have my quacker.

The river used to flow through the middle of the District of Columbia, until Virginia got irritated about having ceded land for the federal city and took its half of the square back in 1847, after a referendum. Upriver, the Potomac marks the boundary between Maryland and Virginia, and thus the northernmost border of the South. By strange coincidence, both states and the District voted in their primaries yesterday, leading to the nickname: the Potomac Primary. (Some sources have run with Chesapeake Primary, after the bay that runs alongside the two states, but Potomac Primary just has a better ring to it.)

In any case, Virginia, DC and Maryland conformed to the pattern for the mid-Atlantic states in Democratic primaries (set by South Carolina and Georgia previously) and went to Obama by large margins. He won by 75% in DC (to 24% for Clinton), by 60% to 37% in Maryland, and by 64% to 35% in Virginia. Such convincing results were strong, momentum-building – and utterly predictable. The struggle now is for the Clinton campaign to avoid the equally predictable press reports casting Obama as the ordained front-runner. By rights, the race is still wide open, but a number of events are conspiring to give the impression that the game is up already.

The first item giving that impression is Obama’s run of wins. After winning more states than Clinton on Super Tuesday, Obama picked up four states (and an overseas dependency) over the weekend, and another three yesterday. This many states in a row hasn’t happened yet in the campaign, so it’s looking like he’s going ahead full steam. Indeed, he has now overtaken Clinton in the delegate count for the first time, by most estimations.

Second, he seems to be gaining support among core Clinton supporters. As well as his usual big margins amongst blacks and the young, Obama drew Clinton among white men, and her usual lead among white women and older voters was much smaller than usual. This gives the impression that Obama is now starting to eat into Clinton’s usual supporters – foreshadowing supporters deserting her in other states.

Third, Clinton continues to have campaign problems, with her deputy campaign manager now joining her campaign manager in stepping down. This impression of crisis in the campaign, following her recent money trouble, gives an impression that her campaign is weakening.

Fourth, in anticipation of a drawn race, the superdelegates have come under the glare of public scrutiny. These prominent Democrats make up about 20% of delegates to the convention, and were intended to ensure that party elders could step in to confirm a candidate if the primaries themselves didn’t produce a winner. Democrats are terrified, however, of appearing to choose a candidate behind closed doors after such a long primary campaign: as a result, confusion now reigns amongst the superdelegates. Should they vote for whoever won the popular vote nationwide, as Obama is suggesting? Should they vote the same way that their constituents did? Or should they vote with their consciences, for the candidate they personally support, as Clinton wants? There are no rules about this sort of thing, so no-one knows how they’ll go. Clinton has a lead amongst pledged superdelegates that she received from endorsements when she was the assumed front-runner last year, but fresh endorsements have dried up now that no-one knows who will win, and superdelegates can change their minds whenever they want to. This sudden threat in an area that Clinton had long counted on is contributing to the impression that her campaign is in trouble.

In actual fact, however, the emerging media narrative of Obama’s lead is mostly smoke and mirrors. Obama’s wins are coming thick and fast because the states that vote in February are all states that fall into his camp naturally, and fit the pattern of support that was set through to Super Tuesday. His margin of victory – and inroads into Clinton supporters – also fit the pattern of large-margin victories that he achieved in some of the states he won on Super Tuesday. And overtaking Clinton is less tough than it sounds, as the distance between them wasn’t terribly large in the first place after February 5th. None of the states voting between February 5th and March 4th have enough votes to give him a decisive advantage.

The other two points are slightly more serious. Clinton may lose her edge among superdelegates for the moment, but ultimately whoever takes the most regular delegates will most likely win the nomination – no senior Democrats want to see backroom machinations depriving the front-runner of their victory. That means that superdelegates are still to play for. Which leaves only Clinton’s campaign troubles, which are unambiguously bad news. People will stop paying attention to them if she gets some more successes – in the same way they forgot McCain’s earlier campaign troubles after his New Hampshire win – but that isn’t likely to happen for a while.

So what’s really changed after the Potomac Primaries is only perceptions. The decisive delegate boosts will come from Ohio and Texas on March 4th, and Pennsylvania on April 22nd. If Clinton wins those states decisively, she will pass Obama again by a large margin. And as her campaign points out, she bounced back quite nicely after seemingly important defeats in Iowa and South Carolina.

Those perceptions matter though. Everything was still to play for after Iowa and South Carolina; now that most delegates have been assigned, the window for comebacks is narrowing. Regardless of why he’s winning, Obama is building up serious momentum and will continue to do so: it may yet crescendo to a level that’s enough to win in Ohio or Texas, blue-collar states (with a big Latino population in Texas) which tilt naturally to Clinton, and where she is campaigning heavily. Clinton still looks likely to win in those states, and if she does then we will probably head towards the August convention without a winner. That late swing towards Clinton is what she is now playing for. Obama’s big test comes first. If he can break through and win in Ohio and Texas, then Clinton will be weakened and probably defeated: those states are now turning into her “firewall”. If she loses there, then the Democrats may end up choosing a candidate in the spring after all.

The View from Boston

A young, inspiring, black, post-racial candidate who campaigns on a platform of hope, change and aspiration: it’s certainly been a recipe for electoral success for Deval Patrick, Mitt Romney’s successor as governor of Massachusetts. Yet his biggest agenda item since winning is apparently a campaign to liberalise laws governing slot machines, and Massachusetts voters plumped decisively for Hillary Clinton on Super Tuesday despite state Democratic aristocracy backing Obama. A reader sent in an interesting piece from the Boston Globe discussing impressions of what went wrong for their unfortunate governor.

Now, this doesn’t actually mean anything: Patrick is not Obama. But it does highlight the challenge ahead for the Illinois senator. Winning on a platform of change will be easy next to governing on a platform of change, and actually getting stuff done in a brave new way might not succeed particularly well. Nevertheless, as Mike Huckabee said this week, a lot of people don’t want a president who can fix a carburetor: they want someone who can drive a car. To turn that around, though, you won’t get very far without a certain knowledge of how cars function – an advantage unambiguously (albeit metaphorically) held by Hillary Clinton.

Potomac Republicans

John McCain won the Republican primaries nicely on Tuesday, and is now under 400 delegates away from having the nomination locked up. After a fair amount of confusion amongst pundits (all those numbers), they have now decided that it’s mathematically impossible for Mike Huckabee to gather enough delegates to beat him and win. In that context, though, it’s difficult to see the continuing votes for Mike Huckabee as anything other than a bit embarrassing for the presumptive nominee. McCain won big in DC (68% to 17%), not quite so big in Maryland (55% to 29%), and not as big as he would have liked in Virginia (50% to 41%).

Nevertheless, lashing out against the persistent Mr Huckabee would be a bad idea – the last thing that you want to do is further alienate those conservatives wielding their protest votes against you by poking their candidate in the eye, especially when he’s such a nice chap. So McCain continues to salute Huckabee, as with his gracious victory speech last night.

For a man with such a famous temper, this is a grand opportunity to be magnanimous. Normally a legal challenge to one’s victory in a given state would be a chance for some fiery rhetorical defiance. So what did McCain have to say about Huckabee’s court challenge to his Washington state victory? “He certainly has the right to challenge if he chooses to. It’s pretty clear that we won.”

And why do people keep on voting for Huckabee, despite the futility of it? “Because they like him.”

How nice.


Next Up: Both parties in Wisconsin and Democrats in Hawaii vote next Tuesday, February 19th. Washington state, bemusingly, also has its primaries that day, despite having caucuses last weekend.

Monday, February 11, 2008

 

Maine, Part II

As if we needed a reminder of how close the Democratic race has been getting, it’s instructive to contrast the media reporting of the Republican Maine caucuses (the week before Super Tuesday) and the Democratic ones (the week after Super Tuesday). The Republican result was largely ignored, practically even by the candidate who won it (the unlucky Mitt Romney). The Democratic result, however, is front-page news: Obama makes a clean sweep of the weekend’s primaries! Four more states added to his tally!

Truth be told, Obama did well to win in Maine, especially by so clear a margin (59%, to 40% for Clinton). The only other state he’d won in New England was Connecticut, and the region is Clinton’s home turf after years serving New York in the Senate. Moreover, Maine’s blue-collar voters fit the demographic profile of people who’ve largely supported her previously. Does this mean that Obama is breaking into her core demographic? That’s possible, but not too likely. More plausible is that Obama received a boost from the fact that Maine is a caucus state rather than a primary one, and Obama has won every single caucus state (apart from Nevada) thus far. Caucuses are won by highly-motivated voters not just turning out but actually sitting in a room for several hours, and the Obama wins in such states showcase an enthusiasm gap that doesn’t necessarily reflect broader support. But that said, he won big.

It’s a token of how far we’ve come that no-one had even bothered to poll in Maine prior to the vote – everyone expected it all to be over by Super Tuesday. Even now, Obama’s string of victories give him a fairly piddling number of new delegates, and because of the Democrats’ proportional allocation system, Clinton is still picking up a fair few delegates even in defeat, meaning that Obama only edges closer to her. Nevertheless, Clinton exhibits all the signs of a campaign in distress, with her money problems now confounded by an organizational shake-up: her campaign manager, Patti Doyle, has resigned and been replaced with another long-time Clinton aide, and Clinton has been avoiding mentioning this weekend’s primaries – not a sign of a confident candidate. It’s possible to read too much into this – if Clinton was going to make changes to her campaign, now, when the attention is on Obama, is the time to do it. The new campaign manager was actually brought in after the Iowa loss (then put on hold after the unexpected win in New Hampshire), so has pretty much been in the role for a month already. And in any case, John McCain is an embodiment of how an overhauled campaign can romp to success in the end. But still, it all adds up to a reasonably troubling picture for her. As both candidates stump on, however – and make time in their schedules to court John Edwards, a sign that an endorsement might be coming – it’s far too early to say that she won’t be bouncing back shortly.

Next Up: The so-called Potomac Primary – Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia sandwiched in between – will be held on Tuesday, February 12th.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

 

Obamamentum builds

There are various different ways of looking at the Democratic campaign up to now. You could view it as being a series of essentially local contests which the two candidates have done well in depending on local factors: caucuses vs primaries, religious states vs more secular ones, personal connections to the candidates, etc. Or you can view each candidate as having its core constituencies (Clinton with the white women, the old people and the hispanics; Obama with the wealthy, the young and the blacks) and succeeding depending on demographics and turnout. Despite the media frenzy, however, one way that you would have real difficulty seeing the Democratic race looking is as a narrative of one candidate beating the other, or even of one candidate pulling away from the other. Despite Clinton's studied attempts to keep that front-runner attitude, and Obama's preference for being seen as the scrappy insurgent, the two campaigns are remarkably evenly matched and have remained so throughout. Is Obama building up steam? No - he won in the very first state, and has kept on picking up states ever since. Has Clinton cemented enough of a lead in the big states to make Obama's wider gains meaningless? No. The two candidates are drawn.

Obama now has a chance to overhaul that narrative and give himself the real momentum once and for all - if he's going to get this thing then the next few weeks are what's going to give it to him. Two things point to his pulling ahead: the money, and the next month's line-up of states. The news on the money side has been bad for Clinton since the new year, the first trip-up in an otherwise highly polished campaign. After Obama outraised her in January by nearly 3 to 1, she had to lend $5m of her own money to the campaign, which was hugely embarrassing, both because it looked bad that she was running out and because no-one really appreciated that she had five million bucks lying around. Her campaign tried to put a positive spin on things: apparently, after her donors found out (to their surprise) that she was out of money, the campaign pulled in $7m in no time at all. Unfortunately, that cute narrative was undermined by the Obama campaign pulling in a comparable figure in the same time-frame, despite not having the same issue. Red faces all round. Perhaps more importantly, the line-up of states over the next month are mostly in Obama's favour - and yesterday he got off to the best possible start.

Four states voted yesterday, three Democrat and three Republican. In the Democrat races, Obama picked up Louisiana in the deep south by 57% to 36% for Clinton; he won Nebraska in the mid-west by 68% to 32%; and in the Washington caucuses (which are more confusing than most - the state also holds a primary next weekend) he won by 68% to 31% in a state where Clinton had hoped to do well. He even picked up the US Virgin Islands. (You can tell things are getting desperate when people start paying attention to the overseas dependencies. If it goes right down to the wire, we may actually see campaigning in Puerto Rico, which is the last place to hold a primary, on June 7th.)

Was any of this a surprise? Even taking into consideration Clinton's hopes for Washington, the answer ranges from "not at all" to "not really". Obama's been doing well in southern and midwestern states all the way through. The northwest, with its heavy concentration of the young and the well-educated, is natural Obama territory. This boosts his delegate count a bit - he is ahead of Clinton on pledged delegates won from states, but behind her overall because of her lead in pledged superdelegates made up of party grandees. But the results don't make that much of a difference in absolute terms because of the small number of delegates actually in play from them. The key factor, however, is that he gets all the limelight from today's victory. Even if he doesn't pick up the minor prize of Maine in today's caucuses - he's in with a shot, but it's Clinton territory - he looks set to do very well later in the month in Maryland, Virginia and DC on the 12th and in Hawaii and Wisconsin on the 19th. A clean sweep on all four dates would get some serious momentum behind him after both candidates were ground down by the Super Tuesday draw. If that were enough to carry him to wins in Texas and Ohio on March 4th - the next big date - then he might start to look uncatchable. In this race, though, that would take some doing. Today gives him something to savour nonetheless.

On the Republican side, it's worth keeping an eye on what's happening despite their having an anointed front-runner: in The Economist's irresistable metaphor, McCain may be striding towards victory, but he does so with a rival clinging to his leg. Mike Huckabee had some good results yesterday, an outcome which doesn't change the electoral arithmetic at all - Huckabee still hasn't overtaken Romney in the delegate count - but is still good news for him. He won Kansas by 60% to 24% for McCain and 11% for Paul, he won Louisiana by a narrow 43% to 42% for McCain, and he only narrowly lost in liberal Washington where McCain would have been expected to do well. (McCain won by 26% to Huckabee's 24%, with Ron Paul taking 21% and Romney taking 16% despite having dropped out. That's an odd one, since the caucus system doesn't allow for early voting: people voted for him knowing that he wasn't running any more. These results may still change though, as Washington Republicans, unlike Democrats, award delegates based on primary returns and not just caucus returns, so more results will come through next weekend.) McCain may not be under any pressure - he will be if he loses Virginia, Maryland and DC, though that looks unlikely - but nevertheless, the results give Huckabee a fillip. Regardless of whether the southerner is keeping on going in order to lay the groundwork for a third party run, to put himself forward for a Vice Presidential place on the ticket, or just to keep the Republicans in the news as the Democrats grind on, yesterday's results gave him a hand.

Next Up: Already today, Maine Democrats have started voting in caucuses - results will be known by tomorrow morning.

Friday, February 08, 2008

 

Things get easier - and harder - for McCain

Mitt Romney came out of Super Tuesday promising to keep on fighting. This seemed in character – having gone all out to win and carried on even when things were looking pretty grim after New Hampshire, he was certainly a man with determination. Analysts sniffily pointed out that there was no plausible way that he could any longer win enough delegates to be nominated, but did that miss the point? Could he push all the way to the convention, where he could use a split ballot to woo true conservatives to a Romney nomination? Maybe it was possible.

Except, of course – as with John Edwards before him – it wasn’t. Romney dropped out of the race yesterday – without endorsing John McCain – after grudgingly admitting that the only effect he would have by staying in would be to divide the party further. McCain’s run to the nomination is now clear – except for two problems, one large, one small.

The small one is Mike Huckabee. Media rumours circulated on Wednesday that Huckabee was only staying in the race to spite Romney and help McCain; these now seem to be wrong, as Huckabee sticks around after Romney has departed. Journalists are now falling over themselves to correct the impression that they gave before Super Tuesday that the Huckabee campaign was dead – he won 6 states and, it seems, is now firmly back in the race. This revising of opinion is also wrong. Huckabee doesn’t have the faintest chance of winning the nomination – he is yet to demonstrate any sort of viable support outside of the South. The problem is for McCain that the South has some big primaries coming up – in Louisiana and Kansas (well, Kansas is at least further south than Iowa) on Saturday, in Virginia on the 12th, and then in Texas on March 4th – and that Huckabee is in with a very good chance in all of them. Thanks to the wonders of the delegate system, Huckabee isn’t going to overtake McCain, so McCain will be the Republican nominee – but having an ultra-conservative thorn in his side for the next month (at least) will prove hugely irritating.

More to the point, it will also be divisive, which is McCain’s big problem. McCain doesn’t like to pander, but the more conservative elements of the Republican party are pouting about as hard as they can. McCain doesn’t buy into the Bush freedom agenda in foreign policy. He put his name to a campaign finance reform bill which conservatives see as a blow to freedom of speech. He opposed the Bush tax cuts (although he now wants to keep them). He’s in favour of the use of embryonic stem cells for research, and despite his opposition to abortion he isn’t going to prioritise rolling back Roe vs Wade. Worst of all, he is steadfastly in favour of a sensible immigration reform driven by economic reality and compassion – a position which led him to be booed at yesterday’s (supposedly triumphal and conciliatory) speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee. (Romney announced his withdrawal before the same audience. They cried out “Nooooo!”.) So he’s in favour of keeping assault weapons available for purchase. Big whoop. He certainly is a conservative, but in terms of championing conservative ideas he is very much the maverick, and being a Reagan conservative doesn’t cut the mustard any more in a party whose centre of gravity has shifted from the West to the South.

McCain urgently needs to mend fences – and he can’t. Huckabee sits to his right and will continue to draw attention to his lack of conservative credentials. More to the point, McCain has built his credibility on his straight-talking persona, so if he starts moving rightwards he’ll open himself up to the dreaded charge of flip-flopping which helped to do in Mitt Romney. More than with other candidates, he has low flexibility here. He carefully learned the lesson that it was his first pandering to the religious right in 2006 which started to destroy his original status as a front-runner.

So what happens next? If he swings right, which he may well end up having to do, then he risks associating himself more closely with the Bush position and drastically alienating the moderate voters who propelled him to his primary victories, as well as opening up a great opportunity for Democrats to attack him. Not moving to the right may be the better option, as staying where he is will keep him sure in his policies, and safe Republican states will probably vote for him anyway. But this appeal to moderates might backfire in several ways. If conservative turnout collapses in November, then those safe Republican states in the South and Midwest might come into play, especially for an Obama candidacy. Worse, Huckabee is still out there and has clearly found a niche as a regional and religious candidate, while many conservatives are casting about for someone they can believe in. It looks like a good fit – raising the spectre of an independent Huckabee run in November which would destroy McCain’s chances in the south and the more conservative states in the Midwest.

That probably won’t happen, because such a run by Huckabee would be tantamount to handing victory to the Democrats. But it wouldn’t be the first time that a candidate of the South ran a hopeless campaign to make a point. So, contrary to expectations that he would now be able to rally Republicans and get some early blows in against the Democrats, McCain now finds himself between a rock and a hard place: turning right could destroy his credibility, whereas not turning right could bring catastrophe (or just catastrophic apathy). Huckabee may well come to see the light and follow Edwards and Romney in excusing himself for the good of the party, but if he doesn’t, this unpredictable spectacle might not be over yet.

A few last words about Romney. Mitt Romney was a curious fellow. On paper, he was an outstanding candidate. As a former management consultant and CEO of Bain Capital, he was smarter and better organized than most politicians, and unlike all of the Senators in the race he had actually run things: a large company, where he made vast amounts of money; an Olympics, with great success; and a moderate state, where he won a lot of support and managed to achieve universal health care. Clever, high achieving, moderate and presidential, he was the perfect candidate except for his religion – and even that would have ceased to be an issue (as it largely has since the voting started). But, like another former Republican front-runner, he made an appalling lapse of judgement when he decided to bring his consulting skills to bear on designing the perfect campaign, focus-tested to perfection so as to be pitch-perfect for conservative primary voters, and edged with a strategy based on a clear understanding of how campaigns generally tend to succeed.

This backfired in too many ways. In business, what’s important isn’t the position you had yesterday but rather the position you hold today – but in politics, you’re not talking about business dealings but convictions and beliefs, and if you change those beliefs purely for the purposes of the election – which Romney clearly did – then you come to be perceived as insincere and of insubstantial character. This, more than his religion, is what did in his campaign. He couldn’t dodge the accusation that he was a flip-flopper. In terms of strategy, too, he set himself up to fail. The overall goal of winning Iowa and New Hampshire was a good one, and I think that he would have won the nomination had it worked; moreover, his recovery after failing to win those states was impressive, even if he did only achieve it in Michigan through yet more brazen pandering. But his conduct on the campaign trail ruffled too many feathers. In an outstandingly polite campaign – the first in years, after the nastiness of the Lewinsky affair in the 90s, the smearing of McCain in South Carolina in 2000, the Swift-boating of John Kerry in 2004, and many other incidents involving general demonization of opponents – Romney followed the script of how to succeed a bit too closely. He was the first to use negative ads, but rather than responding in kind (at least at first), the other candidates turned on him and managed to portray him as the nasty one. What he managed to achieve in the end was to make himself into the sort of political animal that voters don’t really care for too much: insincere, nasty, and extremely rich and well-connected. Given this context, he did very well indeed to be as successful as he was; but given his history, it was a very sad end for a man with a great deal of intelligence, experience, and achievement in government. All in all, a bit of a waste.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

 

Super Tuesday!

OK – So I’ll use my lunch break instead of waiting.

The votes are in! That’s right – the most keenly watched day of all in the most hotly contested campaign in living memory has now gone by. And was it as decisive as we’d thought it would be? No. This campaign will keep on running.

The best place to start in analyzing the complex outcomes is to check the numbers themselves on a state-by-state basis; we can then spot a few trends and make some predictions for what happens next.

In Alabama, Obama picked up 56% of the vote to Clinton’s 42% - but they seem likely to pick up the same number of delegates. Huckabee won for the Republicans with 41%, beating McCain with 37% and Romney with 18%. As a Southern state, victories for Obama and Huckabee help to define a regional dynamic after the results in Iowa and South Carolina.

In Alaska, Obama won heavily with 75% against 25% for Clinton. In a tight four-way Republican race, Romney came first with 44%, beating Huckabee (22%), Paul (17%) and McCain (15%).

In Arizona, Clinton took 51% of the vote to 42% for Obama, taking about 5 delegates more. McCain won all 50 Republican delegates in his home state, winning 48% to 34% for Romney and 9% for Huckabee.

In Arkansas, Hillary Clinton’s home for years while Bill was governor there, she picked up 69% of the vote to Obama’s 27%, confirming that she does better in states where voters know her (see New York below). Huckabee, one of Bill Clinton’s successors as governor, took a similarly strong 60% of the vote to beat McCain with 20% and Romney with 14%.

California was one of the chief prizes of the day, with a giant treasure-trove of delegates and a vast amount of personal attention from the candidates. Polls were showing it too close to call for the Democrats and with Romney having a slight lead for the Republicans. The results were thus surprisingly decisive. Clinton seems to have taken 52% to Obama’s 41% (with double his number of delegates), while McCain actually beat Romney by 42% to 33%, with Huckabee a poor third with 12%.

In Colorado, a Rocky Mountain state, Obama won strongly with 67% to 32% for Clinton. Romney ran away with 60%, leaving McCain and Huckabee in the dust with 19% and 13% respectively.

Connecticut was one of the north-eastern states which was a key battleground for the Democrats, the region being Clinton’s main political support base but also a key state with a higher-than-average proportion of college-educated voters, which should benefit Obama. Obama won Connecticut by 51% to 47% for Clinton, picking up a handful more delegates than her. McCain took 52%, next to 33% for Romney and 7% for Huckabee.

In Delaware, on the Atlantic seabord, Obama took 53% to 43% for Clinton, while McCain had 45% of Republican vote to 33% for Romney and 15% for Huckabee.

Georgia was the biggest of the Southern states available, and Obama confirmed his lead in the South with a 67% landslide to Clinton’s 31%. Huckabee won it for the Republicans in a tight race, taking 34% to John McCain’s 32% and Romney’s 30%.

Idaho was won by Obama with 79%, leaving Clinton in the dust with 17%. The state’s Republican primary is in May.

Illinois is a large, delegate-rich state which is often overlooked. It’s also Obama’s home state, and he won it strongly with 65% next to 33% for Clinton. John McCain also won here with 47%, next to 29% for Romney and 17% for Huckabee.

In Kansas, Obama romped home with 74% to Clinton’s 26%. The state Republicans vote on Saturday.

Massachusetts is also a key state in the North East, and one whose leading political clan, the Kennedys, had swung behind Obama with great enthusiasm after South Carolina. Gallingly, Clinton carried it with a strong 56%, leaving Obama on 41%. Mitt Romney, a former governor there, won it for the Republicans with 51% to 41% for McCain and 4% for Huckabee.

In Minnesota, a large mid-western state, Obama won for the Democrats with 67% to 32% for Clinton. Romney won it for the Republicans with 42%, with McCain and Huckabee closely tied in second place with 22% and 20% respectively.

Missouri, another large mid-western state, was also picked up by Obama with 49% next to Clinton’s 48%, an unusually close finish for the Democrats in the mid-west. They both take 30 delegates, making it effectively a draw. John McCain also won narrowly, taking 33% to Huckabee’s 32% and Romney’s 29% - but as the Republicans run a winner-takes-all system, McCain gets all 58 of the state’s Republican delegates.

In Montana, Romney won with 38% of the vote. Ron Paul came second with 25%, with McCain on 22% and Huckabee on 15%. The Democratic primary is not until June.

New Jersey is another delegate-rich north-eastern state, and Clinton won it convincingly with 54% to 44% for Obama. McCain won even more convincingly, with 55%, leading Romney on 28% and Huckabee on 8%.

New Mexico confounded the south-western pattern, narrowly going to Obama with 49% to Clinton’s 48%. Clinton appears to have picked up one more delegate, though. Republicans there vote in June.

New YorkClinton’s home state – rooted for her by 57% to 40% for Obama. John McCain won there too, by 51% to 28% for Romney and 11% for Huckabee.

North Dakota, sparsely-populated in the mid-west, went for Obama by 61% to Clinton’s 37%. He won 3 extra delegates. Romney won for the Republicans with 36% to McCain’s 23%, Ron Paul’s 21% and Mike Huckabee’s 20%.

Oklahoma bucked the mid-western trend by going for Clinton by 55% to 31% for Obama. John Edwards won 10% despite having already dropped out. Republican voters there plumped for McCain (37%) over Huckabee (33%) and Romney (25%).

Tennessee also bucked the trend for southern states by going for Clinton (54%) over Obama (41%). Huckabee won it for the Republicans with 34% to McCain’s 32% and Romney’s 24%. Former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson won 3% despite having dropped out ages ago.

Utah, a heavily Mormon state, went strongly for Obama, giving him 57% to Clinton’s 39%. Mitt Romney romped home for the Republicans with an astonishing 90% of the vote, leaving behind McCain on 5%, Paul on 3%, and Huckabee on 2%.

In West Virginia, Mike Huckabee took 52% on a miniscule turnout, beating Romney with 47%. McCain had just 1%. State Democrats vote in May.


So there we go – that’s what actually happened. What trends can we discern?

For the Democrats, one of the most important ones is a pronounced regional divide. Clinton won on the coasts and in the north-east, picking up wins in the most delegate-rich states. Obama, however, swept through the mid-west and the south (with the exception of Clinton’s island of support in Arkansas and the neighbouring states) with large majorities throughout, picking up heartland votes in their thousands. Clinton’s wonky grasp of the policy detail clearly doesn’t go down as well in such places as Obama’s earnest idealism, which plucks all the right strings to melt America’s heart. This could have serious implications for the general election: the states that were won by Clinton (again with the exception of the island around Arkansas) would pretty much all go Democrat in the general election anyway, regardless of who was the candidate. Obama’s strength in the heartland would be enough to make the party strongly competitive in such places, especially up against a Republican moderate like John McCain who would attract more independent voters than Hillary Clinton. Although Clinton has won more delegates today, then, Obama emerges as the stronger candidate strategically.

For the Republicans, the key lesson lies in who votes for whom. In many of the states won by John McCain, Romney and Huckabee split the conservative vote down the middle. Places like Oklahoma, Missouri, Delaware and even California would have been won by a single conservative candidate if Romney and Huckabee’s votes had been pooled together. What this indicates is that a candidate who combined Romney’s business credentials with Huckabee’s religious conviction – in short, a George W. Bush – would still unite Republicans in a potentially McCain-beating way. As it is, however, Romney wins in places where his religion isn’t such a big issue – including several mid-western states – where either Huckabee’s support falls away, or the state is so conservative that McCain doesn’t get a look-in. Huckabee, conversely, enjoys precisely the opposite advantage: he wins in the South, where his religion is more attractive than Romney’s business background and Romney’s support collapses accordingly. Overall though, McCain’s strong wins in the delegate-rich states and throughout the country cement his front-runner position. Huckabee is definitively confined in his appeal to the south, while Romney has come second too many times – and in too many big states, including Florida, California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois – to still be viable.

In terms of what happens next, it appears that we’re in for the long haul. The delegate counts from yesterday are still being tallied, but for the Democrats it’s clear that Hillary Clinton will expand her lead slightly but come nowhere near a convincing blow to Obama. 2,025 delegates are needed to cement victory, and neither candidate is even halfway yet. This means that the next couple of months will continue to be a battleground – and will be crucial. There are four more primaries between now and March 4th, which is a mini-Super Tuesday featuring votes in Ohio and Texas, the last delegate-rich states left. This battle could go right up to the end – and the end is on June 3rd. The likelihood is that it will finish before then, but if the two candidates keep on effectively drawing with each other, then who knows when we’ll finally be done.

As for the Republicans, it’s now turning into a straightforward dash to the finish for John McCain. He won big yesterday, with Republican rules giving him all available delegates from some big states. He is well on his way to the 1,191 delegates a Republican candidate needs to win. He’s now confident enough – with good reason – to declare himself the front-runner, and even to take some time off from the campaign trail to fly to the annual international security conference in Munich this week – a nice touch of statesmanship that will remind voters that he is, actually, one of the most accomplished and well-respected Senators currently serving. The other big story for the Republicans was the Huckabee victory. After picking up five southern states, his campaign may be out of the running nationally but has regained some momentum and will be able to soldier on. This will build pace if he wins in Louisiana on Saturday and in Texas on March 4th. Romney is now the candidate in a pickle – he’s not done well enough to win the nomination, but by keeping going he might still be able to have a presence at the convention. Moreover, rumours are swirling that Huckabee is only continuing his campaign because he knows that he's splitting the conservative vote with Romney and wants to avoid a Romney victory, such is the level of antipathy that other candidates now attach to Romney.


That seems unlikely. Both Huckabee and Romney do have one thing to play for: the Vice-Presidential nomination. Traditionally, candidates use their VP pick to balance the ticket, and McCain is a very unbalanced Republican candidate with some high-profile party grandees on the religious right actively campaigning against him and a real danger that certain chunks of the party would refuse to back him. Even if this doesn't happen, if Obama becomes the Democratic candidate then the mid-western and southern states which are usually the Republican bedrock will move into play, and McCain will be boosted by having a conservative running mate to increase Republican turnout in such states. Both of the candidates now trailing would fill that role well, with Romney boosting him in the mid-west while strongly bolstering his economic credentials, and Huckabee helping him in the South while balancing his religious deficit. Huckabee might actually be the better fit, given the dislike between Romney and all the other candidates and Huckabee’s surprisingly liberal positions on some key areas while he was governor of Arkansas, including (strangely enough given his recent policy proposals) immigration. In the final reckoning, though, picking such a high profile running mate might be a bit too distracting given the policy differences aired on the campaign trail already – it might make more sense to go for a popular Republican governor (Charlie Crist or Arnold Schwarzenegger would be ideal, but the first has only just been elected in Florida and the second isn’t eligible) or a Republican congressman (Newt Gingrich, formerly of the House, has let it known that he is in the market and would be popular with conservatives). McCain might even decide that Republicans will swing behind him regardless when it’s a choice between him and a Democrat and go for someone moderate to bolster his chances in centrist battlegrounds like New York and California.

But that’s all in the future. Right now, we’re still in a race for delegates. McCain will win the sprint first, relatively easily, but still has to navigate the remaining obstacles posed by the leftover front runners; for Clinton and Obama, it will be a long slog with an uncertain outcome. Besides the upcoming results, the thing to watch for in the coming months is whether having a unified Republican party will be good for them or bad: it could be good if it gives McCain a platform to attack both Democrats while they continue to attack each other, but it could be bad if it means that the Democrats hog all the attention and the Republicans get less media exposure. Either way, the race looks set to stay interesting long beyond Super Tuesday!

Next Up: On February 9th (this Saturday), there are primaries for Democrats in Nebraska, Republicans in Kansas, and both parties in Louisiana.



UPDATE: John McCain has now cancelled his trip to Germany to focus on wrapping up the race. Also, after some confusion, it emerges that Washington state is also voting on Saturday.
FURTHER UPDATE: Although Obama narrowly led the polls in New Mexico right after the vote, it emerged nine days later that Clinton had actually carried the state by around 73,000 votes to 71,000. The result was delayed because turnout was higher than expected, leading to the use of ballots that needed to be counted by hand. Clinton gets about 14 delegates to Obama's 12.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

 

Meanwhile, in the courts...

Yes, it's Super Tuesday, as a number of (teasing?) text messages today have reminded me. Unfortunately, the results aren't out until tomorrow, and alas, I'm not staying up all night to see them, nor am I working from home tomorrow to blog about them in real time (as a colleague suggested). And I'm seeing a play tomorrow evening. So anyone eager to read the next installment of the election log is, unfortunately, going to have to wait until Thursday! Sorry about that. Let's stay on the other side of the Atlantic, though, for a slightly different story.

There's a great scene in the West Wing where the news breaks that presidential speechwriter Rob Lowe is romantically involved with a prostitute. Which news organization breaks the sordid news? Is it the Times? The Post? One of the networks? No - it's the Daily Mirror in London.

Americans tend to view the gleefully vicious pack of British tabloids with a mixture of amusement and revulsion, and rightfully so - while they're quite good at ferreting out celebrity scandal and purveying criminally misleading political opinion, it would take a brave man to argue that they raise the quality - or the tone - of British public discourse. What they do manage to achieve, however, is to give the strong impression that Britain is a country in which the freedom of speech flourishes.

It is thus discomfiting to hear a New York State assemblyman utter the following. "When US journalists and authors can be hauled into kangaroo courts on phoney-baloney libel charges in overseas jurisdictions who don't share our belief in freedom of speech or a free press, all of us are threatened and our war effort is weakened," said Rory Lancman. He's right - and he's talking about Britain.

The story goes thus. American writer Deborah Ehrenfeld wrote a book entitled Funding Evil, which was published in the US in 2005 and sought to cast light on the fundraising apparatus of terrorist organizations. One of the items she uncovered was that $270,000 made its way to Al-Qaeda from Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz. Mahfouz doesn't deny making a donation to armed Islamists, but he insists that it was in the days when the US government was also funding such groups to oppose the Soviets in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, he decided to sue for libel; but rather than doing this in the United States, he chose to do so in Britain, where the book hadn't even been published. High Court judge David Eady agreed that the case was within his jurisdiction because a few copies of the book had made their way to the UK from overseas, and subsequently found for Mahfouz, ordering Ehrenfeld to apologise and destroy all copies of the books. Two similar books have been pulped in the States following earlier Eady rulings, but Ehrenfeld's publishers decided to stand their ground and sought a court order in the US in December protecting her right of free speech under the first amendment of the constitution. In December, the New York court of appeals ruled that it does not have jurisdiction to protect Americans from foreign defamation judgements. Outraged American politicians are now bringing in legislation to effect such protection.

This is a reasonably serious case - surely, in this day and age, examining the funding of terrorist groups is very much in the public interest? And can it possibly be a good thing to set a precedent that effectively allows plaintiffs to sue for libel under Britain's notoriously poor libel laws for anything written about anyone, anywhere in the world?But you would never know that this was going on from reading the British press, who are so cowed by the threat of litigious claimants that they refuse to write about such things. Not only the tabloids have ignored the case, but all of the broadsheets too; even The Economist pulled a piece on the case following legal advice. Nor is this unusual: secretive tycoons and media barons routinely intimidate newspapers into avoiding embarrassing stories about them, as exemplified by the supremely hypocritical Barclay twins, who are happy to see others humiliated in the paper they own (the Telegraph) but react with extreme vigour even at the most mundane stories about them in other papers. The only way that any of this ever reaches the light of day on the national stage is thanks to the tireless efforts of Private Eye (the source for pretty much everything in this post), who seem to have a habit of only printing things they can prove and then standing by them.

The problem with having this sort of information only coming from one source, however - especially when the source is as idiosyncratic and opinionated as the Eye - is that there is no debate around such things, and it's hard to gauge the strength of counter-arguments and see the merit in alternative positions. As a result, one comes away from reading about the Ehrenfeld case feeling shocked. How is it that British courts can see books published exclusively in America as coming under their jurisdiction? How can one nutty judge come out with these rulings and not see them struck down by others? How can such stringent countermeasures be applied to writers who haven't actually written anything untrue? But one also comes away suspicious. Surely there must be some reason for the case to have been decided in the way that it was? Surely the British legal environment can't be as capricious and repressive as the case makes it appear?

It's at this point that my understanding of what's going on founders comprehensively on my lack of understanding of the law. So here's a challenge to all you lawyer friends out there (I know some of you read this) - can anyone explain to me (however briefly) what's going on? Is it as bad as it seems? Has Private Eye (and thus me) got the wrong end of the stick? Or is this something we should be worrying about? I would be keenly interested to hear your thoughts.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

 

The Maine Caucuses!

Hmm - have we been here before? Small state? Republicans only? Ignored by the media? Won by Mitt Romney? Yep, it's Wyoming all over again! Only this time, it's Maine.

I tried to find out some information about these Caucuses beforehand. Unfortunately, my cursory searches pretty much turned up a blank. Even the local press seemed to be ignoring the upcoming election. The last state poll seems to have been taken last October. Odd? Well, it's a pretty small state, but no smaller than Iowa or New Hampshire; but instead of headlines about Romney picking up speed, we get headlines about how he's running around trying to pick up some speed, with his Maine victory as something of a footnote. For the record, he ran away with victory, taking home 52% of the vote, next to 21% for McCain, who was only inches ahead of Ron Paul on 19%. (Mr Paul was the only candidate to actually campaign in the state, and seems to be working on the basis that remote states ignored by everyone else offer his best chance of victory. His next target is Alaska.) This is all very bemusing. It doesn't help his momentum because the media are ignoring it, yet the media's failure to pay attention to it is because it won't have very much of an effect. The circle is complete.

Anyhow, the state's complex process hasn't awarded any delegates yet, but Romney will pick up most of the few that it does allocate. This probably won't make all that much of a difference. All eyes are on Super Tuesday, and John McCain is picking up speed. Romney's appeals to the conservative faithful are sounding increasingly desperate - and provoking talk of how recent his conversion to conservative positions has actually been. He might yet pull a surprise out of his hat, but even if he does, Maine won't have had very much to do with it.

As if to cement the Wyoming comparison, it was a Romney son, Tagg, who was in-state campaigning and ended up making the happy statement afterwards. In a blog post, young Romney promised to carry on the good fight for the principles that have helped make the Republicans the grand old party - including "fiscal consevatism" (sic), which is an apt way of putting it given the recent Republican record in that area. We'll see how it turns out.

Next up: it's the big one. On Tuesday, February 5th, both parties vote in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah. The Democrats also vote in Idaho, Kansas and New Mexico, while the Republicans go in Montana and West Virginia.

Friday, February 01, 2008

 

Florida Earthquakes

John McCain - Frontrunner

So – after a wild month or so of back-and-forth victories, defeats, and hugely exciting campaigning, the race for the Republican nomination has now settled into a two-and-a-half horse race, just like the Democrat one: but unlike the Democrats, the Republicans have a clear front-runner. Tuesday’s primary in Florida will be remembered as a decisive moment in the 2008 election cycle – possibly even as the moment when John McCain cemented his path to the White House.

John’s McCain’s victory – he won 36% of the vote, against 31% for Romney, 15% for Giuliani and 14% for Huckabee – was improbable on a number of levels. Although he had been gaining momentum steadily with wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina, both of those states were open primaries where his wins relied on support from independents. Florida’s primary was a closed primary, meaning that only registered Republicans could vote – and McCain has alienated vast chunks of the Republican base through his various positions over the years, particularly over immigration. Romney even suggested that McCain was – horror of horrors – a liberal in disguise. (McCain seemed to find that suggestion more amusing than anything else.) In addition to that, McCain’s strengths lie in character and in expertise on national security and international affairs – factors of rapidly receding importance as the US economy’s slowdown gathers strength. Romney was ideally positioned as the candidate of the economy.

But somehow, McCain leapt all of the hurdles and made it through. Voters with a past association with the military – a large proportion of Florida Republicans – voted for him in droves. Cuban-Americans flocked to him after an endorsement from Mel Martinez, a prominent Cuban-American congressman; other Republicans were hugely reassured by his endorsement from Florida’s popular Republican governor, Charlie Crist. The stars were in alignment, and McCain walked away with a 5-point lead, which was much more than expected. He has now proved that he can win amongst the Republican base as well as with independents, and the momentum will now be firmly behind him going into Super Tuesday. It was just a little too early after South Carolina to really be able to call him the front runner, but that time has now come. The nomination is now definitively McCain’s to lose, and it is doubtful that Romney or Huckabee will ever be able to catch up.

Romney is probably the one remaining candidate with a hope of beating him. Romney’s public persona no longer attracts nervous comments about his religion. The overriding impression of him now is of a man who can actually win primaries, and of a man who is competent enough to take on big economic problems. If worries about the economy predominate over the next week, then he might still be in with a chance. But Romney’s personal credibility is still lacking; he is still perceived – rightly – as a politician who has changed his mind opportunistically on some of the biggest issues. McCain’s jibes about Romney being on the record supporting both sides of major debates are more harmful than Romney’s jibes at McCain’s liberal record (which isn’t really all that liberal, in any case). Unless Super Tuesday throws up a surprisingly strong performance in terms of delegates won, Romney may have to give up his race within the next week, although he’s more likely to keep going for as long as there’s a chance that he could pick up enough delegates to succeed. Florida’s winner-takes-all system means that Romney has now lost his hard-won lead in the delegate count to McCain, however – my prediction would be that it’s only a matter of time until Romney drops out now.

As for Huckabee, his chances continue to get slimmer. The momentum from his Iowa victory has now worn off, leaving him looking increasingly feeble: he will concentrate his efforts on the Southern states on Super Tuesday, but if he doesn’t win any of those states he will have to drop out. Ron Paul will probably soldier on for as long as he can afford to, possibly up until Texas votes on March 4th, but his efforts can’t possibly go anywhere now.

Big-names like Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger – defeated candidates, party grandees – are now coalescing around McCain, a sure sign that the Republican campaign now has an undisputed front-runner – and in all likelihood, it will soon have a presumptive candidate. This puts John McCain right back where he was a year ago, and it also means that the Republicans have come to their senses and chosen a candidate who might actually be able to secure them victory. Things will still change – McCain’s message will alter when he gets the nomination and picks a running mate, and when he finds himself up against a Democrat – but his appeal to independents is solid enough to show him beating either Clinton or Obama in the autumn, as things stand right now. This tendency will only get stronger if he emerges as the victor within the next week or two – potentially giving the Republicans 7-8 more months of unity and focus if the Democrats fail to pick a candidate until their convention in August. A lot can still change. But on Tuesday in Florida, the eventual course to ultimate victory for one candidate may - just may - have been set.


The Giuliani Meltdown– Or, how not to prove that your biggest asset is your good judgement

Which brings us on to the tragicomic tale of Rudy Giuliani. He benefited from being “America’s Mayor” – a Time Person of the Year – and his early lead in the polls was pretty impressive. But name recognition isn’t everything. The more that people saw of him, the less they liked him – liberals worried about his authoritatian tendencies and contempt for the spirit of the law, conservatives worried about his unpleasant personal life, and everyone worried about the venality, cronyism and outright corruption that seemed to swirl around him. His “strategy” of avoiding early states – conceding defeat in places where he had once campaigned hard, such as New Hampshire and South Carolina, once it became clear that he wasn’t going to win – was actually an artfully-executed act of political cowardice. He attempted to portray Florida as the moment when the Republican campaign would really begin; in reality, it was his last stand, and has become the place where the Republican campaign saw the beginning of the end.

One of the most amusing reflections out of the whole debacle is that one of Rudy’s strongest selling points was his famous good judgement – a strength of character that showed itself on 9/11. This became a kind of a mantra – a leading Democrat described his speaking style as “Noun, subject, 9/11”. This reason why his campaign can’t go on is that his strategy has now thoroughly debunked this assertion. Bad judgement doesn’t get much worse than so dramatic a foul-up in campaign strategy as Giuliani has given us. Giving the impression that he was skipping the early states was both dishonest and contemptuous, and was completely against the spirit of how these things work. Even if he’d pulled it off, he would have already alienated much of the country before the general election.

Now that he’s dropped out, the race has reconfigured itself heavily, not least because of his quick and strong endorsement of John McCain. Giuliani and McCain had the same group of moderate Republican supporters, and removing the competition in the moderate space leaves Romney and Huckabee both jostling for the conservative vote – and consequently nicking votes from each other. This opens up a serious opportunity for McCain to hoover up the biggest number of voters. All in all, Giuliani’s withdrawal is good news both in and of itself – the world is better off without him in contention – and for John McCain, and will hasten his path to the nomination. The Republican nomination gets more settled by the day. Victory for anyone other than McCain would now really merit the label of “comeback”.


The Democrats

In the meantime, things aren’t looking quite so great for the Democrats. As the Republican 5-person field of front-runners rapidly collapses down just one, the Democrats have still failed in their 2-person race to choose a presumptive nominee in either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. The nervous anticipation of a delegate-race producing a convention showdown has now switched from the Republicans to the Democrats, which any Democrat ought to worry about – if the Republicans choose someone now but the Democrats have to wait until August, then that gives the Republicans half a year to campaign against the Democrats while the Democrats continue to campaign against each other. That would be a disaster for their chances. An added urgency will now start to attach itself to their race, complementing the entertainment value that the race has been providing so far.

Florida didn’t make things much clearer for them, but may have a nudging effect going into Super Tuesday. Florida’s delegates were stripped from it when it decided to bring its vote too far forward. As in Michigan, all the candidates pledged not to campaign there. Unlike in Michigan, however, all the Democratic candidates were on the ballot; and unlike in Michigan, serious noises were made about revising its delegate ban.

The loudest noises on this have come from Hillary Clinton, who coincidentally was projected to win by a huge margin, and subsequently did. (She picked up 50% of the vote, next to 33% for Obama and 14% for Edwards.) This is an extremely clever move. Clinton needed to be back in the headlines quickly after her big loss in South Carolina and the negative publicity which attended it; flirting with defying the ban on campaigning in Florida provided those headlines. Moreover, it gives her a big chance to put a positive gloss on some of the more recent developments. Whereas in Nevada she was against expanding the number of polling places, in Florida she is very clearly in favour of allowing people to vote. Disenfranchising Florida was nutty in the extreme in any case, so it’s hardly a controversial position to take. Moreover, it puts Obama in a nasty position. By calling for Florida’s delegates to be seated, the pressure goes onto Obama to agree: together, the two of them could probably get the DNC to go back on its ban. But Obama, naturally, wouldn’t dream of agreeing to that when it would gift over 200 delegates to the Clinton campaign. Obama is thus forced to be nakedly political – hardly a position consistent with his usual spiel around inclusion. So – Clinton manages to simultaneously paint her opponent into a corner, recover the publicity initiative after her defeat, and – perhaps most importantly – regain some lost momentum by appearing at a victory rally. The race in Florida may not have counted for anything, but turnout was still record-breakingly huge for a Democratic primary, the campaigns did quietly forge ahead with campaigning, and the local press and political classes are very much of the opinion that the vote will eventually count for something. (One Florida newspaper even gave equal amounts of attention to both parties’ campaigns.) Last but not least, regardless of whether their delegates are reinstated or not, by giving Florida some respect Clinton will have gained some loyalty from voters in an absolutely key state in the autumn. If she goes on to win the nomination, the Florida primary may turn out to have been quite important after all.


John Edwards

And just as I write this, it emerges that John Edwards has now dropped out too, and just as the New York Times was cottoning on to my delegate-accumulation strategy idea. (In fairness, a fair few other people had been having the same thought.) The fact that Edwards has abandoned the cynical power-play that aiming for the convention would imply reflects positively on him: the knowledge that he would do more good for his party, and thus his country, by stepping aside and not being a distraction on Super Tuesday is a mark of humility. He has other priorities, in any case: his wife is battling incurable cancer, and he knows from the death of his son years ago that some things are more important than professional life.

This humility – he could have kept on going for a while – is a salutary reminder of how good a character Edwards is, and a useful reminder, since his non-stop campaign for the presidential nomination since the 2004 defeat has made him look like a bit of a cynical politico. His strategy of swinging leftwards came early enough for everyone to have forgotten his 2004 positions by the time 2008 came around, and his detailed proposals – particularly on healthcare – helped to nudge his competitors into producing more detail, and thus improved their offerings considerably. His campaign didn’t take off, in the end, because he simply wasn’t as heavyweight as Clinton or as charismatic and inspiring – his more natural space – as Obama. The bandwagons ultimately passed him by.

His withdrawal helps reduce the likelihood that the Democrats will end up with a convention battle for the nomination – indeed, it may even create the conditions in which a Super Tuesday win for one or other of the candidates could lead to ultimate victory. As to who he will benefit by withdrawing – well, that’s another matter. Clinton will pick up the white male votes who liked him because he was, well, a white male; Obama will probably pick up voters who were drawn to his charisma. Those who liked him for his policy proposals could go either way. In any case, a good candidate who wasn’t going to win did the right thing and quit the race, and for that we should admire him; Democrats should be thankful.


Next Up: The Republican caucuses in Maine are on Friday, February 1st.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?