Wednesday, May 28, 2008

 

Republican voting in the Gem State

Idaho is well known for its potatoes. It is also known as the home of Lou Dobbs (famous for his bilious rants on television) and Larry Craig (famous for being the senator who propositioned a police officer for gay sex in an airport bathroom). In a bit of a stretch, the state is also notable for having given its name to a character in Frank Herbert’s Dune novels who eventually ends up being repeatedly cloned for several thousand years by a giant human sandworm.

But it was Idaho’s people who dutifully trudged out to vote yesterday in cloudy, 13 degree (centigrade) weather, and the reason that they were voting was that the state was holding its Republican primary. (State Democrats voted – for Obama – in their own primary on February 5th.) John McCain won every county, taking 70% of the votes to 24% for Ron Paul. It was a result that was fairly unimportant – and, indeed, largely unnoticed – but nevertheless the results show up some of the difficulties that face the candidates going forward.

The result was possibly most disturbing for John McCain, whose 70% victory was distinctly underwhelming given his status as presumptive nominee. In point of fact, his share of the vote was smaller than that which went to Obama, who beat Clinton in the state by 79% to 17%. Idaho is a fiercely conservative state, and the result very quietly served to highlight McCain’s ongoing difficulties attracting the sorts of conservative voters who really ought to be making up his base. Amusingly, the number of voters who went for Ron Paul, who has no chance of winning anything, was almost twice as large as the number of voters who went for Obama (29,741 to 16,880, according to CNN), who has a very good chance of winning the entire thing.

And this turnout figure is the scary thing for Barack Obama. Much of his lead in pledged delegates comes from his lopsided wins in Western states like Idaho, yet turnout in the Democratic primaries in such states is miniscule next to turnout for Republicans. In a competitive primary in Idaho, Obama won big with just 16,800 votes; in a practically non-competitive – even irrelevant - primary, John McCain still managed to garner 87,300 votes. This story is the same in much of the West – but because almost all other states in the region hold caucuses rather than primaries, the absolute vote tallies have been obscured. Idaho helps to make it apparent that Obama’s primary wins in such places will not translate into general election victories in the autumn. The upcoming primaries in Montana and South Dakota – which Obama will likely win – will make this clearer yet. Obama, in short, will be relying for his main base of general election support on states which voted for Hillary Clinton in the primaries.

One shouldn’t read too much into this – John McCain will easily win the Western states come November, and the big, reliably Democratic states which went for Clinton will swing behind Obama in due course. But as the two campaigns rush into the post-primary campaigns with the self-confidence that comes from their primary victories, Idaho provides a stark reminder that it will not be smooth sailing for either candidate.

Next Up: Puerto Rico votes in its Democratic primary on June 1st, followed on June 3rd by Montana’s Democrats, New Mexico’s Republicans, and both parties in South Dakota. These are the last of the primaries, bringing the primary season, after five long months, to a close.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

 

Hillary-bashing

Pity poor Hillary Clinton. She wins another state, lopsidedly, but still the headlines won't swing behind her. The reason? Everyone is impatient for this contest to move on to the next stage, especially Barack Obama, who picked up another line in his repertoire this week – that, despite Clinton’s first big clawing-back of his lead in delegates for a while (only by about 30, not enough to make a difference), he has now edged himself to the point where he has the majority of pledged delegates, his latest milestone in the grueling, neverending slog. This latest pronouncement – delivered in Iowa, in an unsuccessful attempt to look unifying and conclusive – provoked an inevitable comment from Bill Clinton calling it “dumb politics”, as the milestone only works if you discount Florida and Michigan. The two candidates appear to inhabit two different worlds.

I never thought I’d say that I wanted the primary race to be over, but this is getting silly now. Hillary Clinton’s win in Kentucky – 65% to 30% - doesn’t change the race’s dynamic, and this week’s are the last two states that really have any meaningful size. The Oregon result shows that Obama is now winning primaries in blue states by a big margin – 59% to 41% - while Clinton is not. Clinton can continue to argue that she better represents older, whiter, less educated voters; she can continue to argue that Florida and Michigan delegates need to be seated so as to avoid alienating those two states. But the mood has started to shift. In a context where the conversation should be about boosting Obama’s appeal to those voters – and how she can help her party out with that – her continuing campaign comes to appear more like obstructionism than anything else.

It is very difficult for Hillary Clinton to let go, it seems; it is also frustrating and unfair. Had the Democrats retained their rules from previous primary seasons, or used the same rules as Republicans, not only would some of her delegates from Florida and Michigan be seated, but the winner-takes-all system would have delivered her a resounding victory months ago. On a more fundamental level, if more states used the more democratic primary system instead of caucuses, she would have a big lead in delegates and might even have won by now. But the rules are the rules, and she wasn’t challenging them back when they were being made; however stupid the Democratic rulebook is (and it is very, very stupid), that’s the deal, and she will have to live with it. It must be tough to go from juggernaut to sideshow, but that’s just the way it goes.

Does she have some sort of plan for using the party rules committees to somehow swing victory her way? If so, it won’t work – imagine the outrage if that were to happen now that Obama is widely perceived to have won. Not even the Democratic party could be so stupid. Perhaps she is motivated by a Huckabee-like stubbornness, intent on at least finishing the race, or waiting for Obama to just cross that finishing line? If so, she is being damaging without possibility of being constructive, and ought to be told by her advisers to stop. Is she, as the press is speculating, bargaining for a position on the Obama ticket, a seat in his cabinet, or even just the adoption of some of her policy positions? She should do so behind the scenes; none of this will help the Democrats in November if she continues her attacks.

Barack Obama can be forgiven for trying to rise above the Democratic fray now, avoiding campaigning in West Virginia and Kentucky almost entirely, moving on to general election states to campaign, focusing on McCain and only mentioning Clinton in terms of faint praise that make it sound like she’s gone already. And the press seems to be right – finally – in letting him get away with it. But it will continue to ring false until his opponent gets out of the way and stops being a spoiler for her party and, indeed, her country. Hillary Clinton’s time in the sun has now gone, and even if she pulls some sort of comeback out the hat now – which, given her track record, still seems possible – she will do so in a context where she has damaged her own reputation and that of her party in an unnecessary way. She can no longer win the nomination for the presidency.

John McCain finally broke the 80% barrier on Tuesday’s primaries, taking in 85% in Oregon next to 15% for Paul. He is just the sort of unconventional candidate that a state like Oregon might go for; Obama is right to focus on him rather than Clinton there. He also won Kentucky, but with only 72% of the vote.

Pundits may be right to see Hillary Clinton’s campaign as coming to resemble the title of her memoir, Living History, in the sense that it really should be history yet stubbornly refuses to die. She may well have something up her sleeve. But this is now moving beyond healthy competition into the realm of the painful, and it is to be hoped that she will hurry up and reach the obvious conclusion as soon as possible.

Next Up: Republicans in Idaho will hold their primary on May 27th (next Tuesday).

Monday, May 19, 2008

 

Hawaii, McCain

Sunday saw the conclusion of the Republican state convention in Hawaii, a state which is about as blue as could be, and also happens to be Barack Obama’s childhood home. State Republicans have been doing moderately well in recent years, but the fact that the current Republican governor is the state’s first in 40 years gives you a clue to the local political tendencies. Because of this reason, Hawaii will likely be irrelevant to the Republicans this year, and the media have therefore ignored its primary delegates appropriately.

There is another big reason for the media to ignore the result, and that is that the result itself is obscenely complicated, with even Hawaii’s local newspapers struggling to make sense of it. Hawaiian Republicans vote for delegates rather than candidates; they chose their state convention delegates in a protracted series of caucuses in February, and those state delegates then chose the delegates to the national convention over the weekend. Those national delegates are under no obligation to vote for any given candidate. As it happens, Ron Paul had very good fundraising and an excellent presence in the state, but through clever management of the voting the state party leadership has probably secured mostly McCain supporters to head to Minneapolis-St Paul in September.

Hawaii is the least of John McCain’s worries at the moment. With the Democratic nominating process drawing to a close, he has certainly established himself well as the party’s candidate, but rather than enabling him to tour around drumming up support while the Democrats self-destruct, their ongoing fight has actually had the effect of drawing attention away from him in a big way. He has been happily chugging along in the background, but hasn’t exactly been grabbing the headlines. Meanwhile, a number of trends seem to be making themselves apparent which do not bode well for him – namely, his continuing problem appealing to conservatives, the potential that an Obama candidacy has for pulling the rug out from under his feet, and his liabilities related to other Republicans.

John McCain has yet to win a Republican primary with more than 80% of the vote. This, quite frankly, is astonishing: his has been the only viable name on the ballot for quite some time, and yet still Huckabee and Paul – who have both admitted defeat – draw those primary votes. His sweeps of all the delegates obscure the fact that his best result yet has been in Mississippi, with 79%; although he has jumped to the 70s since his March 4th wins, nowhere has he drawn the vote tallies to reflect his delegate gains. The reason why is fairly clear: he simply does not resonate with conservatives, who have subjected him to a great deal of bile and are wary of his western, small-government ways. After spending an awful lot of time arguing against the way that President Bush has been conducting the war on terror, he didn’t have the best rep with southern conservatives to begin with; now, he is going to be facing a fight for turnout amongst a group that propelled the current president to office. There isn’t very much he can do about this given that his independent thinking is a big part of his appeal, but a continuing refusal to give the pack some red meat will continue to hurt. Developments this week aren’t helping. The California Supreme Court has ruled restrictions on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional, and the moderate Californian governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has welcomed the ruling and pledged to support it. McCain is in the Schwarzenegger camp. He thinks that marriage is an affair between a man and a woman, but more importantly, he thinks that its definition is a matter for the states, which is why – another heresy – he voted against a federal constitutional amendment to ban the practice. This position is near-identical to those of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, right down to thinking that gay partners should have civil rights equal to those of heterosexual couples. This moderation endears him to moderates, but not to the conservatives who are supposed to be his base. McCain has been in Virginia this week addressing the NRA; having decided to do a walkabout in a sports (euphemism for “guns”) store, he actually avoided the gun aisles (he doesn’t own a weapon himself) and made for the fishing rods. Firing up the ravening hordes of gun owners, he isn’t.

All of these problems with his base are being compounded by challenges from both right and left. On the right, the former Republican congressman Bob Barr is going for the nomination of the Libertarian party, and may capture votes from die-hard conservatives. Barack Obama, meanwhile, is potentially transforming the region’s politics. The Democrats have shown a knack recently for taking heavily Republican congressional seats in by-elections in the South; in the meantime, the ongoing Democratic campaign has ensured that vast tracts of the South have been involved in Democratic primaries in an active way for the first time in years. Even in states where the Republican primary was competitive, turnouts for the Democrats have been higher, for example in conservative states like Arkansas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. And black voters are energized like never before. It remains doubtful about whether these will really be enough to put the South in play for the Democrats – after all, the key to winning remains the white voters who may have been tempted by conservative congressional candidates but will stay away from Obama – but what they will mean is that McCain will have to keep a steady eye on his own back yard. Now that he is opting into the federal campaign funding for the general election, he will have much less cash to throw around than his rival, and if he is forced to throw it into safe states in the South to keep up morale and turnout, then he will have less available for the swing states.

In the meantime, to have any chance at all of victory, he is having to preserve his outsider status by staying away from other Republicans, both in the White House and Congress. Congressional Republicans aren’t exactly popular, and the sitting president is one of the most unpopular in history, so this may, at first glance, seem wise; indeed, it would be accurate to say that McCain has no choice in the matter. But a general election is a coordinated effort by a single party at the levels of state legislatures and governorships, Congress and the Presidency, and the relationship between the Presidential nominee (as a standard bearer) and the rest of the party (as the troops) is an important one in ensuring that the message makes it through. Avoiding other Republicans is thus not a good way to win in the end. The problem is that associating with them will hurt him. In Israel this week for that country’s 60th anniversary celebrations, President Bush lambasted those who were in favour of negotiating with extremists calling for Israel’s destruction as appeasers, invoking a comparison to Hitler; the Obama campaign immediately struck back at the President, leveling the fairly grave accusation that the President had used a foreign policy trip to score political points domestically, which is a pretty serious breach of decorum. When McCain then chimed in agreeing with the President’s comments and leveling the relevant accusations at Obama, this was supposed to have the neat effect of taking a statesman-like statement and focusing it on a candidate; the move backfired immensely, with the Obama campaign practically ignoring McCain altogether and going directly for the President himself. The more that McCain is associated with Bush, the easier it will be for Obama to attack the president directly; this is a much easier line of attack than those against McCain himself.
It is a remarkable thing for the candidate from the governing party to be afraid of appearing with a sitting president for fear not of being overshadowed, but of being tainted. McCain will be burned, and will keep his distance more in future.

(As for the truth amongst all the allegations flying backwards and forwards, the jury will remain out on whether Bush was actually targeting Obama; the comments are a fairly typical thing to say in Israel, and could apply as much to other nations as to politicians at home. The White House has alternated between snide remarks – along the lines that the world does not revolve around presidential candidates, much as they would like to think so, and the comments weren’t aimed at Obama – and bewilderment, with it emerging that White House speechwriters actually had Jimmy Carter – who has met with Hamas – rather than Obama in mind. As for the allegations being leveled at Obama, he hasn’t called for talks with Hamas or Hezbollah and wanted to talk to Iran primarily in the nuclear context, meaning that his position on Israel is actually pretty clear and showing the Republican tactics as something of a smear.)

What all of this adds up to is that John McCain has actually been getting a fairly easy ride so far. As soon as the Democrats make their decision and turn their attentions to him, he will find himself in a very difficult position indeed. It is indeed possible that the renewed publicity will buck him up, and that the course of the campaign could see a big swing in his favour. But due to his weaknesses with his base, his ties to his unpopular party, and his often prickly and individualistic policy positions, he may turn out to be a much weaker candidate than anyone now supposes.

Next Up: Both parties vote in Kentucky and Oregon - medium-small states - on Tuesday, May 20th.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

 

Beginning of the Endgame

The mood has shifted in America, and in a big way, since the results last week. Clinton may not have done as badly as everyone seems to think, but it was still nowhere near the breakthrough that she desperately needed. It’s as if a giant trip-switch has flicked amongst Americans: having gone from bemused tolerance of her continued run before Pennsylvania to a kind of breathless excitement after her victory there, it has now abruptly decided that her chances of actually winning are gone forever, and that the remaining campaign is near-guaranteed to be futile.

And no wonder. Her campaign is now $20m in debt, despite her having loaned a total of $11m to it so far. The very act of competing is serving simply to deepen the financial hole that she operates in. Donors are backing away, unwilling to continue bailing a sinking ship. She is no longer irrevocably behind only in the pledged delegate count; she can no longer reasonably expect to be able to win the popular vote, with the prospect of Michigan and Florida being counted fading away completely. Worse, her long-shrinking lead in the pledged superdelegate count finally disappeared this week, with Obama now counting 284 superdelegates to Clinton’s 273. The momentum is with him: most of her superdelegates pledged for her long ago, before Obama became seriously competitive. He has been picking up increasing numbers of them ever since, including several who had previously come out for Clinton, and even one pledged delegate from Maryland who apparently decided that he couldn’t in good conscience vote for Clinton despite having been elected to do so. Even James Carville, one of the Clintons’ closest advisors, as much as admitted this week that it was only a matter of time now before she dropped out.

Amusingly, it is amidst this murky doom and gloom for her campaign that she marked another victory, winning a massive 67% of the vote to Obama’s 26% in West Virginia, sweeping every county. This was comparable to McCain’s 76% in the state’s Republican primary, which he also swept (although most of the state’s delegates will go to Mike Huckabee following the earlier Republican convention there on February 5th). She thus picked up 20 of the state’s 28 delegates. This gain of 12, however, will not make a dent.

The Clinton aim now has to be to win as many more states as possible to bolster her argument to the superdelegates. West Virginia, however, will not help with that, as the victory is not a pretty one. In the run-up she voiced for the first time one of her key selling points: that she does well among the white voters that the Democrats will need to woo in the autumn, and that superdelegates should thus vote for her. While it is dubious if this was actually racist to say – analysts have been saying it all along, after all, without much controversy – it wasn’t very wise for the candidate herself to say so. The ensuing focus on race in overwhelmingly white West Virginia led on to revealing opinion polls showing that fully one in five of voters thought race was an important factor in making their decision, and that 8 in 10 of those voters went for Clinton. “Elitist” Democrats elsewhere in the country are thus able to sneer (privately) that Clinton won West Virginia because it’s full of racist hicks – hardly a great endorsement. This is all a far cry from the distinction Clinton would prefer us to draw – that no Democrat has been able to carry the general election without taking West Virginia since 1916.

Obama, however, may still win West Virginia in the fall; and therein lies the problem. Now that he is so far ahead, he can afford to avoid states that would embarrass him now, and indeed he chose to spend Tuesday in Missouri. Rather than heading to the next primary states, as Clinton has, he proceeded from there to appearances in Florida and Michigan, a neat reversal of the Clinton campaign’s association with those states up to now. (He will head on to some primary states a little later.) With the Obama and McCain campaigns now focusing largely on each other, Clinton is being left forlornly behind while Obama appears increasingly as the presumptive nominee.

And so it is that Hillary Clinton begins, finally, to fade.

While the Democrats finally begin to enter their endgame, the Republicans are getting on with the campaign, but naturally McCain’s overwhelming wins yesterday in West Virginia and Nebraska didn’t make much of an impression as he has already won the race. Worse still was the result from a Congressional by-election in Mississippi in which the Republicans had tried to diminish the candidate by associating him with Obama; the strategy failed to work (or even backfired) as the Democrats proceeded to win the heavily conservative seat. As the second Democrat win in a conservative district in as many weeks, congressional Republicans can only hold their breath for a landslide defeat in November. No wonder, as it was revealed today, they’ve borrowed their slogan (“Change you can believe in”) from an antidepressant.

Next Up: Republicans in Hawaii will be voting on May 18th (Sunday).


Correction: I have the antidepressant slogan wrong above - the Republican slogan is "Change you deserve", which also used to be used by Wyeth for its Effexor drug. "Change you can believe in" is associated with the Obama campaign.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

 

Hoosiers and Tar Heels; or Gas and the Reverend

After the huge build-up for Pennsylvania, the results from Indiana and North Carolina – the last major states to go – seem almost anticlimactic. To a certain extent, this is because they are. If Hillary Clinton had barnstormed her way to a North Carolina victory, Barack Obama’s days would suddenly have appeared to be seriously numbered. If Obama had squeezed a win out of Indiana, it would have shown that he hadn’t been hurt by all the recent scandalling and would have almost certainly knocked Clinton out of the race. As it is, the result was two tepid wins for the two major candidates that seemed to reflect growing disillusionment with the continuing race.

The two weeks between Pennsylvania and Indiana/North Carolina had been characterized by the Reverend Wright and by Gas Prices.
Obama had left Pennsylvania clearly hoping that he would be able to put the previous month of gaffes and misstatements behind him, but as it happened, all that he managed to do was to ricochet off the elitist tag and onto the angry-black-man tag. Such out-of-the-frying-pan maneuvers, in fairness, weren’t really his fault, as he is mischaracterized in both categories. On the elitist point, his thoughts on rural voters may have been unwise, but they were certainly in tune with the liberal thinking that Obama has consistently displayed throughout his life. An awareness of his biography – and the noble way in which he has spent his life – ought to discredit the notion of him as an elitist. (The Stephen Colbert joke skewers it pretty effectively. To paraphrase - Colbert: “So, tell me about your elite upbringing on the South Side of Chicago. How many silver spoons did you have?” Michelle Obama: “We had three spoons. Then my father got a promotion at the plant, and we had four.”) As for the angry black man tag, the outbursts of his former pastor were simultaneously ridiculous, hurtful to him personally, and representative of a way of doing politics that Obama is leading a generational rebellion against.

Nevertheless, both are sticking. The Harvard-educated lawyer with the high-falutin talk has always had difficulty appealing to the working poor, and now many such people think of him as not understanding them at all. Meanwhile, despite all of his lofty rhetoric about change, the confrontational comments of Reverend Wright have cast minds directly back to the anger of older black politicians like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and even Louis Farrakhan. Their (righteous) passion may have been heartfelt, but it certainly put off non-blacks in a big way, and Wright’s diatribes may have awakened a fear of a certain angry black stereotype that Obama had worked extremely hard – and extremely successfully – to avoid. As he lurches from problem to problem, it’s no wonder that he’s reportedly been looking glum and irritated recently.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has been chirpy and commanding, enjoying what will probably turn out to have been a swansong in which she briefly swung back into contention. With the Pennsylvania win, she carried momentum and renewed confidence into Indiana and North Carolina. She has certainly taken the initiative. And what, one might ask, has she done with this opportunity? Deciding to play to the crowd and further improve her rapport with the blue-collar whites of the industrial north-east, she has jumped onto a silly idea – originally picked up by John McCain, no less – to give consumers a month-long summer holiday from paying gas taxes. Quite apart from sending completely the wrong message on the environment, making no economic sense and promising a nightmare of a windfall tax for the oil companies who would have to pick up the tab, this “McCain-Clinton” gas holiday, as Obama has taken to calling it, would save the average family only about $30. Such populist claptrap is rightly seen by many as pandering, and has focused much attention on Clintonian populism, further damaging her credentials to having serious policies. The long-standing argument that her greater experience would stand her in good stead is seeming more and more laughable.

On top of the damage that both candidates have been attracting, of course, the continuing fight directly between them – now stretching into its fifth month – is hurting each other as well. At some point, people will start to get tired. The limp victories that the two of them achieved yesterday are a part of this. Obama started out with a huge lead in North Carolina, which Clinton eroded down to 14 points – big, but not as big as the 28-point lead he achieved in South Carolina or his 25-point win in Virginia, next door. (He won 56% to 42% in North Carolina.) Clinton squeaked a 3-point, 51%-48% win in Indiana, which was supposed to be home territory for her judging by its demographic similarities to Ohio and Pennsylvania and her triumphal touring of the state over the past fortnight.

Overall, then, the results were probably about as inconclusive as you could get. In neither state were the wins strong enough to point to one candidate or the other romping to victory, and in neither were the results weak enough for either candidate to begin thinking about being knocked out. As for the delegate count, Obama picked up about 12 more than Clinton did, continuing his slow, meandering path towards an overall lead that just isn’t big enough to win.

The remaining states are too small to really matter: West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon, Montana and South Dakota (plus Puerto Rico) will not swing it one way or the other. What seems likely now, then, is that the climactic moment will come in early June. Superdelegates will then come under intense pressure to declare themselves, and if enough declare for either candidate (or, more realistically, for Obama) then it will be a brave, forlorn loser who will carry on the fight (possibly in the form of Hillary Clinton campaigning for the Florida and Michigan delegations to be seated). Probably the next big checkpoint, then, is not the next state primary win, but rather the moment when Obama’s superdelegate count overtakes Clinton’s – possibly within the next week.

The outcome still seems to be pretty certain. In the meantime, however, the Democrats are flogging themselves to death. John McCain, naturally, also won both states.

Next Up: West Virginia’s Democrats and Nebraska’s Republicans will go to the polls on May 13th – next Tuesday.

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