Thursday, March 13, 2008

 

Time to start looking beyond the primaries

There comes a point in the campaign where smaller victories here and there really cease to matter. We generally pay attention to small states because of their function as bellwethers, with the candidates testing the waters and the results giving us a clue as to what might happen next in bigger places. Now that there are only eight Democratic states yet to vote, however (Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon, Montana and South Dakota), the outcome of the process is pretty much known, and eyes are naturally shifting towards the horizon, alighting first on the remaining big (or at any rate, big-ish) states – Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina – and then on the Democratic convention in distant August.

On the other hand, the fact that Guam and Puerto Rico are now starting to pop up on the list of upcoming states shows how close the race is getting. Every symbolic extra victory may play a cumulative role in convincing the superdelegates of one candidate’s heightened viability over the other. It is in this context that Obama’s 60% to 37% win over Clinton in Mississippi on Tuesday should be seen: as being more important in the sense of the one extra notch on his tally of states won than in the sense of the five notches by which he has extended his lead in the delegate count.

The Democratic campaign is rapidly coalescing into a war with three fronts. The first front is the push to win the remaining states. This effort remains the headline part of the campaign, and if Clinton wins Pennsylvania it will continue until June 3rd, when the last states vote. It’s now practically an impossibility for either candidate to win the absolute majority of delegates needed for an outright convention victory, and also near-impossible for Clinton to overtake Obama in the delegate count, so the key input that these remaining states provide into the nominating process will be in adding to the absolute number of states won by each candidate.

The second front is the revisiting of an old error – the Democratic National Committee’s refusal to recognize Michigan and Florida’s delegates as legitimate. Because these two states held earlier primaries than party rules allowed, the results were not recognized and their delegates will not be seated at the convention. No candidates campaigned in either state out of respect for the rules, but in Florida both candidates were actually on the ballot and their campaigns did do a fair amount of low-key campaigning, meaning that Clinton’s Florida victory is more legitimate than her Michigan one, where Obama (and Edwards) weren’t even on the ballot. It was expected that the other primaries would produce an overall winner, but now that they haven't the delegates from those two large states could be crucial, and could even overturn Obama’s lead in the delegate count. The Clinton campaign is therefore extremely keen to reinstate the delegates from both states, while the Obama campaign – much more quietly, not wanting to appear in opposition to a democratic result – is more in favour of sticking to the rules. The compromise way out which is now being explored is to re-run the primaries in both states, but the bill for primaries is picked up by the states themselves, and neither Florida nor Michigan is keen to stump up the cash for a re-run purely because of an internecine party dispute. In the absence of an agreement between the two candidates and the party leadership as to how best to re-run the election using private funds, this could eventually go to the courts – and the Obama campaign has no incentive to agree to such a compromise. Being a decent sort of chap, Obama may go along with it anyway and just take the hit, gambling that the results would be a lot closer now than they were the first time around in the absence of campaigning. He might emerge from fresh primaries in the two states still in the lead.

The third front, and by far the most important, is the battle to win over superdelegates. These party elders, who form a bit less than a quarter of the voting delegates at the convention, were given a say at the convention so as to allow the party leadership to steer the nomination in a responsible direction in the absence of a clear popular mandate one way or the other – precisely the sort of situation that we now have. The problem is that this sort of behind-the-scenes maneuvering (the metaphorical smoke-filled room, out of which a candidate would mysteriously emerge in times past) goes against the grain in modern democratic times. The way out, then, is for the superdelegates to follow some sort of principled method in choosing which candidate to flock to. Unfortunately, no such principle exists. If they want to follow the popular will, they could vote for the candidate who won the most pledged delegates, thus respecting the outcome of the pledged delegate system; or they could vote for the candidate who won the most votes nationwide, respecting the popular will; or they could vote for the candidate that their own constituency voted for, respecting the will of their own electors. Alternatively, they could weigh up the pros and cons and think for themselves, and pick the candidate who has the best chance of winning in the autumn.

Obama wants them to back the candidate who won the most regular delegates. Clinton wants them to vote for the candidate they think best equipped to win. Neither position is self-evidently superior to the other, and superdelegates can change their minds at any time about who to support. There is still a chance that the party leadership could broker some sort of agreement amongst superdelegates for who to support – possibly within the next couple of months, thus forcing the loser to drop out of the race early – but in the absence of that unlikely event, what we will probably see is continuing horse-trading between the campaigns and the superdelegates all the way up to the convention in August. Inevitably, the outcome will be suffused with the stench of that smoke-filled room regardless of how things now resolve themselves.

There is one chance for the Democrats to avoid that outcome – and one chance only. Barack Obama has done well enough to remain in the campaign regardless of what happens. But if Hillary Clinton loses in a big way in Pennsylvania, followed by Indiana and North Carolina, that may be enough to prompt her to withdraw from the race – more so if her efforts to reinstate Florida and Michigan delegates go nowhere. This probably won’t happen – Pennsylvania is a natural state for Clinton to win, and its governor is firmly backing her – but you can never quite tell what will happen. Practically everything now hinges on Pennsylvanian voters.

John McCain has now been endorsed by all meaningful Republican elders, and the party apparatus has swung behind him. He sat out his symbolic 79% victory in Mississippi as he is currently on a fundraising drive to boost his available money for the general election in November. He will shortly be picking a Vice Presidential candidate to share the ticket. And the Democrats’ continued pummeling of each other is starting to furnish him with some excellent attack lines for the general election. For anyone who wants to see a Democratic party ready to take on the Republicans in a year when their chances of retaking the White House are about as good as they ever will be, it is time to forget the merits of the two candidates, and hope fervently that Pennsylvania voters will plump for Barack Obama in great numbers in six weeks’ time. The alternative – which remains a likely outcome even if Clinton loses in Pennsylvania – is for the Democratic party to spend the next six months tearing itself apart.

Next Up: The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania votes in primaries for both parties on April 22nd – the biggest gap in the primary calendar yet. Both candidates will be saturating the state with events and advertising until then.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

 

Wyoming, part II

Needless to say, nobody ever thought that Wyoming would end up in the spotlight during this campaign, especially after its Republican caucuses (which came at a fairly crucial time) faded into the background. The Democrats, however, are currently down to the wire, with every delegate counting. The state thus saw not just media attention - some of it fairly considerable - but even visits from the candidates, with all three Clintons personally campaigining in the state. For a state where most Democrats are afraid to reveal their political affiliation (or so the coastal-based mass media would have us believe), and where they are outnumbered in places by 10 to 1, this is a remarkable development. Turnout, accordingly, was huge - Laramie County, for example, saw ten times as many people show up for their caucus as they did in 2004. In Niobrara County, turnout was slightly under 20% - meaning that 20 people showed up out of a total population of 101 registered Democrats.

Obama won by 61% to 38%, but the contest should be worrying for the Democrats in several ways. He won, again, in large part because of the caucus system which historically favours him, but also because he had a big presence in the state for much longer than his opponent, with five local offices next to two for her. He also set up shop there two weeks earlier, and had the media markets covered. But the victory is slightly hollow: however much skill or foresight he may have demonstrated, and however strong it shows he is in the West, there is no way that a Democrat, not even one as appealing as Mr Obama, is going to win Wyoming come November. Bizarrely, that means that the media attention is now, if anything, disproportionate to the state's low importance - a nice swing of the pendulum.

In any case, if anyone was wondering which way this blows the momentum of the various campaigns, the outcome means that Obama pulls a whole three delegates further ahead of Clinton. The draw continues.

On the Republican side, Ron Paul made a widely-anticipated announcement on YouTube this week. Although he did make the surprise revelation that there was no way he could win the nomination "conventionally" anymore, his campaign won't be winding down entirely. So we can't quite put the little "out" button next to his picture. Sigh.

Next Up: The next state to vote is Mississippi, on March 11th (Tuesday). Both parties will be voting.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

 

And they thought it was all over!

So, here's what happened. Obama won - by some counts - 11 states in a row, and polls showed him nipping at Clinton's heels in Texas and Ohio - so everyone decided that he would pull a victory out of the hat and wrap up the nomination on Tuesday. Tempting as it would be to crow after my two months of hedging and warning against reading too much into his recent victories, in recent days even I was drawn into predicting victory for him. Bill Clinton actually said several weeks ago that his wife needed to win in Texas and Ohio to stay in the race. The Obama campaign leapt on this gleefully, saying: "Three weeks ago, when they led polls in Texas and Ohio by 20 points, the Clinton campaign set their own test for today’s primaries." They did indeed.

And lo! Hillary smote him.

Here are the results: Clinton won Ohio by 54% to 44% for Obama, she won Rhode Island by 58% to 40%, and she won Texas by 51% to 48%. Only in liberal Vermont - home to last election's inspiring maverick, Howard Dean - did Obama win, 59% to 39%. The Texas caucus results are still being tallied, but Obama appears to have won those too, by 56% to 44%, showing a Washington state-like gap between primary and caucus results. (Texas's primaries allocate two-thirds of the delegates, the caucuses one-third.) So, after all those wins, Obama failed for the second time to glide from being the front-runner into landing a knockout blow. (The first time was in New Hampshire after his Iowa win.)

How did she do it? She enjoys her existing strengths amongst her usual core constituents. She also had her back to the wall, meaning that she went all out. Her campaign shifted tone markedly, accusing Obama of being unprepared and unqualified to lead America in a crisis and calling attention to Obama's lack of activity in his Senate subcomittee chairmanship (somewhat unfairly: he only got the post recently, and has been rather busy with other things). She also blasted the media for not covering Obama rigorously enough, an attack which could easily have backfired ("biting the hand that feeds" comes to mind), but which actually prompted some media soul-searching followed by greater scrutiny on her opponent. This attention quickly brought to light that Obama's chief economic advisor was sneakily telilng the Canadians that they shouldn't worry about his loony rhetoric on NAFTA, as he was only saying it to win the election and actually still believed the more sensible trade policies he had espoused earlier. Together with the looming corruption trial of a former major contributor, the sheen surrounding Obama has been slightly diminished. Voters who decided at the last minute plumped for Clinton by a big margin.

Did Hillary win big enough for it to be a comeback? This is where a reality check comes in handy. She will likely make a net gain of only about 15 delegates from her wins. In order to claw back a lead from Obama, she needed big double-digit wins in both Texas and Ohio, and she didn't get them. Obama still leads in the delegate count and has about twice as many individual victories as her. So the results don't change the electoral arithmetic, and rumours are starting to swirl that it is now mathematically impossible for her overtake him in the delegate count without relying on superdelegates. Unless, that is, the Democratic National Committee can be persuaded to seat the delegates from Florida and Michigan, big states where she won heavily (and without competition, in Michigan's case).

Unfortunately, it is also becoming clear that Obama won't get an absolute majority of delegates from the primaries either. So what yesterday's results mean is: no change in the electoral calculus, but Clinton stays in the race. As Bill said, she would have had to drop out if she'd lost either Ohio or Texas, but having won both she has proven her ability to overcome Obamamentum and keep on winning the big states. She can now stay in at least until April 22nd, when she needs to win Pennsylvania. So the only real outcome of yesterday's votes is that the race will continue for another month and a half. Obama will probably win both Wyoming and Mississippi - the next states to go - but that won't be enough to restore his momentum before Pennsylvania. The candidates are, it seems, once again at a draw.

In other news, the Republicans saw John McCain win all four states: Ohio by 61% to 31%, Rhode Island by 65% to 22%, Texas by 51% to 38%, and Vermont by 72% to 14%. The upshot: he now has 1,289 delegates in his camp, which is a goodly chunk more than the 1,191 he needed for an absolute majority. His nomination is now assured. Mike Huckabee, accordingly, has dropped out and urged the party to get behind him; President Bush has endorsed him. The Republican race is over (Ron Paul's increasingly eccentric campaign aside), and the party establishment is coalescing firmly behind him; for the Republicans, the general election campaign starts now. From being the party with the most confusing field of candidates, they now have a major strategic advantage.

Next Up: Everybody's favourite state, Wyoming! Wyomingites in the cowboy state vote in their Democratic primary on March 8th (Saturday).

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