Just as South Carolina did for the Democrats, Florida has winnowed the incredibly large GOP field of presidential hopefuls down to two candiates. More than two candidates are obviously still in the race, but it has now reached the point where almost everyone can agree that there are only two plausible nominees remaining on both sides, with the other candidates serving as role players.
The finalists are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the Democratic side, and John McCain and Mitt Romney on the Republican side. The role players are John Edwards and Mike Huckabee, neither of whom will be the nominee, but could still influence the race by drawing enough votes to swing future electoral outcomes or perhaps even serve as a powerbroker at the party conventions this summer. (Huckabee's populist message is probably siphoning off evangelical and economic votes from Romney, which would benefit McCain. Edwards is more of a free agent who splits the change vote and the White vote, thus helping and hurting Obama and Clinton at the same time. UPDATE: Edwards is apparently bowing out of the race.) Both races are strikingly similar in that the candidate with the inside track to the nomination is more closely tied to the establishment (Clinton, McCain) while their rivals are less polarizing outsiders who are new to presidential politics (Obama, Romney).
Mitt Romney would have loved to win Florida because even though he has won the same number of primaries that McCain has (three), they are not really "clean" victories in that he had some built-in advantage that either ensured his victory or dissuaded his rivals from making him have to fight for it. Michigan was essentially Romney's home state. Wyoming was not on anybody's radar. And Nevada had a high population of Mormons and was not seriously contested by anyone other than Ron Paul. Florida would have provided Romney with his first true victory on competitive turf.
Having said that, Romney has put together a series of consistently strong performances in the early states. His only true failure was in South Carolina, where he pulled his ads in order to salvage his campaign in Michigan. But in every other state, he either placed first or second. None of the other candidates (except McCain) has that kind of record, as Rudy Giuliani placed behind Ron Paul more than once, Fred Thompson could manage no better than third, and Mike Huckabee has followed up his Iowa victory (which is now a fading memory) with a series of third place finishes and a crushing second place showing in his must-win state of South Carolina.
Given this, Romney has certainly earned his spot in the finals. While I'd estimate that he has about a 30% chance of winning the nomination, he does have two tremendous advantages that McCain doesn't have: money and the conservative intelligentsia. People commonly make fun of John Edwards for being wealthy, but Mitt Romney is actually the wealthiest candidate of either party in the presidential race. He has already loaned his campaign millions of dollars and could easily dip into his checkbook to loan it millions more. This gives him a bit more freedom in terms of advertising as Super Tuesday approaches. Several Super Tuesday states have expensive media markets (New York and California, especially), so Romney's personal fortune allows him to hit more airwaves in more markets more easily.
As for the conservative punditry, they are still quite angry with John McCain. While they do respect his military service, his support for the mission on Iraq, and his consistency regarding reducing spending, the punditry (and a lot of the Republican base) has yet to forgive him for his previous positions on illegal immigration, campaign finance reform, and bipartisan overtures. Ironically, this weakness is also his strength in that the GOP consists of more than the ideologues who form the base, as the exit poll data remind us. (I predicted McCain's resurgence almost two months ago. Read The McCain McCalculus to see why I think McCain is the true consensus candidate in the Republican race despite his warts.)
Romney essentially becomes the not-McCain candidate, just like Barack Obama is seen as the not-Clinton candidate. The media may seem to have a soft spot for McCain, but conservative columnists, talk radio hosts, and conservatives from prominent think tanks now view Super Tuesday as their final chance to stop him. So I'd expect blistering commentary to emerge from these conservative circles. McCain has also made a few damning quotes, such as talking about how "he doesn't know much about the economy" and how "there will be more wars." Romney could try to exploit these quotes because the economy is a bigger issue on voters' minds right now than terrorism, and even Republicans are a bit weary of new wars, especially given their relationship with the economy.
If you replace McCain with Clinton and Romney with Obama, the same parallels emerge. Clinton represents the establishment and Obama represents the future. Clinton has many advantages over Obama in the Super Tuesday states because of her name recognition and the fact that her name is comparatively less sullied in those states because she has only been campaigning there from 30,000 feet. The punditry and media seem to favor Obama, but Clinton has the political toughness to win, even if it's ugly. Consider the victory lap she took after winning the Florida Democratic primary, which wasn't even awarding delegates because it was being punished for violating the campaign calendar set up by the Democratic Party. That may turn out to be a shrewd move later on once the convention starts. Obama may criticize her for celebrating what should be a Pyrrhic victory, but the fact remains that Clinton did not violate the letter of any law regarding campaigning in Florida, even if her celebration there may have violated its spirit.
When waves sweep over the nation, everyone is affected. When there are national catastrophes, everyone is affected. And when there is pessimism on a national scale, everyone is affected. For these reasons, I think it is more likely to see either McCain vs. Clinton or Romney vs. Obama in the general election. I think McCain vs. Obama or Romney vs. Clinton is less likely because those candidates represent two entirely different concepts (and I'm not talking about political party).
McCain vs. Clinton would pit the two experience and establishment candidates against each other. These candidates do not have the blessings of their bases and are less likely to win an electoral mandate in November. On the flip side, an electoral rout is also much less likely here because both candidates know how to fight and even though many voters may not approve of their approach to politics, they must accept the fact that they do have a track record of delivering results.
Romney vs. Obama would pit the two outsider and change candidates against each other. These candidates have a lot potential to bring new voters into the process and would be more likely to run a civil campaign. However, because both candidates are new, there's no telling how strong their overall electoral appeal is. So this race has more potential to get away from the candidate who is seen as riskier.
In the event that the general election comes down to McCain vs. Obama or Romney vs. Clinton, there is a much greater risk of a landslide because if experience is what matters to most voters, then the party who nominates the candidate lacking it would be out of touch with most voters. Similarly, if the nation is hungry for change, the party who chooses an establishment politician as its nominee will be setting themselves up for a huge disappointment. "Change" is not just a Democratic desire, nor is "experience" simply a Republican one. Some concepts transcend party lines and are important to everyone.
The smoke is finally beginning to clear.
Just as South Carolina did for the Democrats, Florida has winnowed the incredibly large GOP field of presidential hopefuls down to two candiates. More than two candidates are obviously still in the race, but it has now reached the point where almost everyone can agree that there are only two plausible nominees remaining on both sides, with the other candidates serving as role players.
The polling industry was rocked when Hillary Clinton won a come from behind victory in the New Hampshire primary despite the fact that the question raised by almost every poll taken immediately beforehand was not whether she would lose, but rather by how much. Pundits commonly talked about the Bradley effect, in which voters lie to pollsters about their willingness to support a candidate of color only to abandon this candidate in the privacy of the voting booth because of their own unspoken prejudices. Other pundits looked for other possible causes for Clinton's "silent surge." These reasons ranged from being emotionally-based (e.g., Clinton's crying) to institutionally-based (e.g., Clinton did better among Democratic establishment-types) to psychosocially-based (e.g., the male candidates were slighting Clinton much like the way many women feel the men in their professional and personal lives slight them). All of these explanations had some legitimacy.
The sheer margin of Barack Obama's surprisingly strong finish has emerged as the dominant storyline coming out of the South Carolina primary. However, there's another storyline that warrants further examination--the fact that the polls got it wrong again. According to Real Clear Politics, most major polls taken before the primary had Obama winning by anywhere from 7 to 15 points. (Obama ended up winning by 28.) And the Rolling Stone was warning that the high percentage of undecideds could spell potential disaster for Obama.
So what happened this time, especially since the polling for Clinton and Edwards turned out to be far more accurate?
Explanation 1: There is something of a "reverse Bradley effect" in which voters who really do support Obama tell pollsters they don't simply because they don't want to contribute to the popular media/political storyline about how diverse Obama's supporters are or how much Obama is relying on the Black vote. As I wrote about here, there was a very real possibility that pundits, the media, and (almost certainly) the Clinton campaign would try to spin Obama's victory as the inevitable result of an electorate that was simply too difficult (e.g., too Black) for any other candidate to overcome. If this is indeed what's going on, then that would make it even more difficult to accurately poll Obama in the future. Who are the nonsupporters saying "yes" to Obama out of political correctness, and who are the true supporters saying "no" to Obama out of political strategizing?
Explanation 2: Voters concluded at the last minute that the Clinton campaign did not deserve their vote. Exit polls showed that more voters, including more White voters, thought that Hillary Clinton had run an unfair campaign. Had the election taken place a few days later, perhaps this disdain could have been reflected in the polls. So if this scenario explains what happened in South Carolina, then the polls were right all along and simply suffered from the fact that this disdain on behalf of the voters was a lagging indicator.
Explanation 3: John Edwards is being used as a repository for hidden votes. The South Carolina press was particularly bullish on Edwards and speculated that he could make a real run for second place. Could this perceived surge in Edwards' support really have been a reflection of this hidden Obama vote? Edwards performed miserably among Black voters despite aggressively courting them in his campaign ads. Were Black voters feigning support for Edwards because they didn't want to inflate Clinton's numbers? Obviously, if Clinton's polling displayed an upward trajectory, she would spin that as having "cross-racial" appeal or simply being a stronger candidate overall than Obama. This, in turn, would fuel "is Obama in trouble?"-types of stories. Similarly, one of Clinton's perceived advantages was how she could lock up the women's vote. However, she lost women to Obama by 24 points and tied Edwards among men. Were men feigning support for Edwards even though they were really for Obama? Were these phony Edwards supporters also gaming the system?
Explanation 4: Voters are sick of polling and campaign advertisements and are simply telling the pollsters and campaign workers what they want to hear in order to get them off the phone as quickly as possible. In the days leading up to the primary, I would commonly receive about 10-15 calls a day from campaign workers asking me who I was voting for or reminding me to vote. I also received countless other recorded messages from the candidates themselves or other celebrities telling me why I should support candidate X. It irritated me to no end, as these calls commonly interrupted my dinner, study time, conversations with my wife, or other phone calls. And they clogged up my answering machine and mailbox as well. So whenever someone from the Smedley campaign, for example, called me about voting, I would commonly tell them I was already planning to vote for Smedley and didn't need to be convinced to vote for him or reminded to vote in general. That would usually cut the conversation short and allow me to get back to whatever I was doing before I was interrupted for the umpteenth time. I can only wonder how many thousands of other voters felt the same way. If this frustration is as real as I suspect it is, then polling would obviously be skewed.
A good task for further study would be to develop a means by which these kinds of voting behaviors can be credibly assessed. Come Super Tuesday, the consequences for getting these polls wrong could be a lost election, millions of dollars wasted, and hundreds of man-hours lost pursuing ineffective campaign and advertising strategies and tactics. Each of the four most probable nominees (McCain, Romney, Obama, and Clinton) has a unique demographic characteristic that could potentially benefit or hamper their electibility (age, religion, race, and gender, respectively). And each of the four has an ideological or political vulnerability that they must compensate with (mistrust among conservatives, flip-flopping on several key conservative issues, a thin political resume, and a polarizing approach to politics, respectively). And of course, they all have unique strengths as well (appeal among independents, an aura of competence, the ability to inspire new voters, and nostalgia of a relatively popular presidency, respectively).
For the sake of the polling industry and a better understanding of modern electoral behavior, how these variables interact with modern campaigning and political warfare begs further scrutiny. The challenge, however, lies in going beyond superficial thinking (e.g., "Obama should win the Black vote. McCain should do well with independents.") and figuring out how all these variables interact with each other on a more complex level.
The results are still coming in, but it looks like Barack Obama will win the South Carolina Democratic primary with more than half of the vote and with more votes than Hillary Clinton and John Edwards combined. Given the margin of his victory and his sufficiently strong performance among White voters (exit poll results here), it appears that the emerging storyline will be that the voters rejected the Clintonian brand of race-baiting politics and really want to move on. The other likely storyline will concern where John Edwards goes from here. Here are some of my thoughts, listed in no particular order:
1. The only way John Edwards can win the nomination now is if Clinton or Obama self-destructs somewhere down the road and he becomes the alternative candidate. But barring a total meltdown or fatal gaffe on behalf of his rivals, the only path for John Edwards now leads to amassing delegates, not winning the nomination. He was already in trouble for not winning his must-win state of Iowa and registering an embarrassing 4% in Nevada. But finishing third in his home state of South Carolina, a state he won in 2004, is a particularly strong rejection of his candidacy and is not something he can easily spin. Having been born here and representing next-door North Carolina, South Carolinians should reasonably be expected to know Edwards better than voters elsewhere. That's what makes this showing by Edwards so disappointing for his campaign. There is one silver lining for Edwards, however. Given the unexpectedly large margin of Obama's victory, most of the media's focus will be on him, rather than Edwards and his weak performance.
2. Appeals for civility and maturity may for make for good soundbytes in debates, but people don't vote for mediators. They vote for leaders. Joe Biden tried to take the high road and was rewarded with fifth place in Iowa. Chris Dodd did the same and finished seventh. Bill Richardson thought that might win him plaudits in the debate before the New Hampshire primary, but the only thing he won was an all-expense paid trip out of the race. And in the case of John Edwards, his rhetoric about civility was well-received. However, voters rewarded Obama for running the more positive campaign instead.
3. Black and White voters rejected Black and White politics. This anger was directed both at the Clintons as well as the media. Blacks were quite angry about having the issue of race be reduced to a political wedge issue. And Whites were angry about the the notion that the Clintons thought they could be scared into voting for them by playing on old fears. This is something Blacks and Whites alike would expect from a Republican, not a Democrat. And that's why both Blacks and Whites were so shocked by the tone and the rhetoric of the Clinton campaign. The Clinton campaign's race-baiting may have succeeded in that it drove Obama's Black support up and his White support down, which would likely benefit Clinton on Super Tuesday. However, these offended and angry Black voters are at a greater risk of staying home on Election Day in November because they have long memories when it comes to this kind of rhetoric. (Don Imus is still a sore spot, for example.) Democrats need that 85-90% of the Black vote in November. If they don't get it, competitive blue states with large Black populations (especially Michigan and Pennsylvania) may turn red. And given the weakness of Clinton regarding her electibility in the general election, she can ill afford to hemorrhage any part of her base whatsoever.
4. The generation gap between Clinton, Obama, and their supporters is very, very real. Per the exit poll results, Obama beat Clinton among voters of all ages except those over 65. And he often beat Clinton among younger voters by better than 2 to 1. The prospect of seeing a woman president may matter more to these voters because they grew up at a time when women faced far more barriers in their professional lives. Older voters may be more reliable voters, but relying on seniors for electoral success is a dicey proposition. And younger voters, many of whom have been apathetic about politics before, look at Obama as someone who channels their dreams, their vision of what America should be, and their frustration with our current state of our political discourse. To younger voters, it's as if Obama is a movement, rather than just a candidate.
The next state up is Florida, but it's more of a beauty contest than anything else because it will not award any delegates. It appears that Clinton will campaign there regardless, however, presumably to change the story from South Carolina to the springboard to Super Tuesday. The Clinton campaign will eagerly write off South Carolina because they know that the state will never go Democratic in a general election. But this state and their approach to it may have caused irreparable damage to their campaign because it reminded voters more of what they hated about the 1990s than what they missed. Notice that I am referring to the Clintons in the plural form because it is obvious that Obama is running against both the New York senator and the former president.
This reality opens up a new avenue of attack for Obama because he could reasonably question who the real president would be in a Hillary Clinton White House. And citing the Clintons' rhetoric over the past two weeks would probably lead most voters to conclude that the real risk is not in electing an "unproven" Obama with a thin resume, but rather in reelecting the Clintons and allowing their brand of politics to make America lose faith in what she is.
Black voters in the Super Tuesday states will probably break for Obama the same way they did for him in South Carolina. Those voters will likely never go back to Clinton unless she's the nominee. And White voters who were leaning towards Clinton probably were put off by her campaign and may be more inclined to vote for Obama as well. John Edwards' supporters are going to have to be honest with themselves about their available choices. Being another "change" candidate, I would expect his supporters to flock to Obama in greater numbers. But if they remain loyal to Edwards, the question will then be a matter of who his presence is hurting more. But in general, it's really hard to see how the Clintons can build up their support faster than they appear to be losing it.
For now, Obama has seized the momentum and is now even money against Clinton on Super Tuesday. But will voters in the Super Tuesday states punish her as well? Or will they have short memories?
The race goes on.
Brave New Films is hosting primary night coverage of the South Carolina Democratic primary results tonight. This event is also being sponsored by the Young Turks and is hosted by Robert Greenwald and Cenk Uygur. I will be participating in the discussion via call-in starting at 7:20. Other guests will include prominent bloggers from Firedoglake, Alternet, the Huffington Post, Crooks and Liars, and other major sites. You can watch the simulcast in the window below, but if it doesn't work, you can also watch it here. A live blog is also available for anyone to participate in.
Note: This is the third and final installment of my three-part series assessing the three remaining Democratic presidential candidates as they pertain to the South Carolina Democratic primary tomorrow. This piece was originally written on January 22 and is currently posted at Pajamas Media. Due to contractual stipulations, this piece cannot be posted on The 7-10 in its entirety at present. However, it will be posted here on Sunday.
In short, this piece assesses the three probable media storylines that will emerge from the primary results tomorrow. All of these storylines are predicated on an Obama victory. The differences in storylines all depend on how large his margin of victory is, how balanced his support is, and how the Clinton campaign and the media interpret his performance:
Headline 1: Barack Obama wins South Carolina! Black vote critical to Obama’s success! This is the Barack Obama '08 becomes Jesse Jackson '88 scenario.
Headline 2: Barack Obama wins South Carolina! Margin of victory is smaller than expected! This is the Barack Obama '08 becomes Howard Dean '04 scenario.
Headline 3: Barack Obama wins South Carolina! Draws equal support from Blacks and Whites! This is the only true victory scenario for Barack Obama and his campaign and is probably the only way he could make it to the nomination and general election.
You can read the rest of this piece at Pajamas Media.
(Note: This is the second in a three-part series assessing South Carolina as it pertains to the three leading Democratic candidates. Yesterday's post addressed John Edwards. Tomorrow's post will address Barack Obama. Today's post looks at Hillary Clinton.)
Hillary Clinton enters the South Carolina Democratic primary in an unfamiliar position: that of the underdog. After leading most polls last year and enjoying the aura of inevitability for the better part of the year, Barack Obama’s victory in the Iowa caucuses and her come from behind victory in New Hampshire have significantly weakened her stranglehold on the party’s presidential nomination. But after notching her second straight primary victory in Nevada, Clinton seems to have regained her footing and is one win away from possibly irreparably deflating the candidacy of her main rival.
However, a South Carolina victory appears more elusive than any other victory thus far. After leading South Carolina for much of the past year, there has been a tremendous shift among Black voters in the state, where they comprise about half of the electorate in the primary. There are two immediately obvious reasons why Blacks have defected from her campaign in droves:
1. Barack Obama’s Iowa victory and near-victory in New Hampshire have confirmed to Black voters that Obama is indeed electible. Many Blacks wanted to support Obama, but were afraid to do so because they worried that Whites would never vote for him because “they weren’t ready” for a Black president. However, putting together two strong showings in two overwhelmingly White states have made a lot of these voters more comfortable with supporting him.
2. The nasty war of words between Clinton, Obama, and their surrogates over race shocked, insulted, and/or disappointed Black voters. Pundits argued that women voters in New Hampshire did not take kindly to “the politics of pile on” that Clinton endured at the New Hampshire debate and on the campaign trail. As a result, they punished Obama, Edwards, and maybe even the media (who almost seemed a bit too eager to write her political obituary) by voting for Clinton. The same phenomenon could be at work in South Carolina regarding Black voters and Obama. Bringing up Martin Luther King’s assassination, having campaign staff send out rumors about his religion, and using surrogates like Black Entertainment Television’s founder to allude to his drug use may have earned Clinton an uncoveted spot on their blacklists.
However, this is not to say that this mass defection of Blacks to Obama is a bad thing for her campaign. After all, Clinton does not need any of her surrogates’ remarks to be true. As long as they succeed in turning Obama into “a Black candidate” that Black voters (and only Black voters) rally around, she would be happy to cede South Carolina to Obama in exchange for taking the lion’s share of states and delegates on Super Tuesday when far more Whites have their say. Clinton knows that about 85-90% of Blacks “come home” on Election Day and vote Democratic, and she knows this trend is likely to continue this November. So even if these Black voters don’t support her in the primaries, she knows she can count on their support later on when she’s the nominee. And more importantly, she also knows she has enough support among Whites and Latinos nationwide (as the Nevada results suggest) to more than offset losing the Black vote to Obama in South Carolina and a few other Southern Super Tuesday states.
Could Clinton win South Carolina? It’s not likely, but it is possible. Of course, the bar of expectations is set the highest for Obama, so anything short of a victory for him there would be seen as a huge disappointment. A Clinton victory would send Obama limping into Super Tuesday, where he makes his last stand. After all, it’s hard to sustain momentum when you win the first contest and then come in second three times in a row.
The more likely scenario is that Clinton places second and writes off the state as being one she couldn’t win anyway. Implicit in this statement would be an attribution to race as a factor. “When I lose the Black vote to Obama by 40 points and Blacks make up 45% of the vote, it’s going to be pretty tough for me to overcome that.” This kind of loaded statement could be both factual and conniving, as it would subtly remind Black voters that Obama is “their” candidate while also reminding White voters that Obama is not. Winning 60% of the White vote allows for more political success than losing 60% of the Black vote, so Clinton knows how to play the numbers game, and she knows how to use race strategically. In light of the racially-tinged remarks coming from her campaign over the past two weeks, I would not expect anything different from her.
Clinton knows that regardless of how well she finishes in South Carolina, she will live to fight again on Super Tuesday. This is not to say that the state is meaningless to her campaign though, as sneaking out with a victory, either in terms of the outright vote or in beating expectations, would be the political uppercut that sends Obama to his knees on February 5.
(This is the first of a three-part series assessing the South Carolina Democratic primary. Today's installment is about John Edwards. I will write about Hillary Clinton on Friday and Barack Obama on Saturday.)
Absent Hillary Clinton, John Edwards was supposed to be the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination this year. A young and affable Southerner who was the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee just four years ago, John Edwards should have had the inside track to the nomination. He was a familiar face and emerged from the 2004 campaign less wounded than John Kerry. He had the unique ability to argue that he could win an election in a red state, owned the poverty issue, and had a sharp populist message that resonated with angry and anxious voters who were upset about the lack of affordable health care, the lack of consumer protections, and the perceived exploitation by “big oil companies, big drug companies, and big insurance companies.” And on top of all this, Edwards essentially joined Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin to become Iowa’s third senator by campaigning there nonstop after his 2004 defeat. Seeing that Iowa served as the leadoff contest for the presidential nomination, this race should have been Edwards’ to lose.
That was the thinking in January 2007. One year later, Edwards is struggling to remain relevant. He narrowly avoided third place in Iowa, placed a distant third in New Hampshire, “got his butt kicked” in Nevada, and is trailing badly in his home state of South Carolina despite heavily advertising here.
So what went wrong?
Some of Edwards’ mistakes were tactical ones, such as not putting a swift end to the haircut story or letting his wife Elizabeth overshadow him in her attacks on his rivals. Other mistakes weren’t really mistakes at all, but rather the consequences of unlucky timing. Barack Obama’s candidacy made it too difficult for Edwards to run as an outsider, an agent of change, or a grassroots candidate. This left Edwards struggling to find his niche. And as Obama and Clinton sucked all the oxygen out of the room, there simply wasn’t any room left for Edwards. Iowa was considered his do-or-die state. He barely avoided third place, but spun that as “a victory for change” and soldiered on.
This will almost certainly be Edwards’ last bid for the presidency, so there’s really no good reason why he should just drop out of the race. However, South Carolina is really his last chance. He wasn’t able to win in Iowa despite having campaigned there for more than three years and visiting all 99 of its counties. If he’s not able to win South Carolina, the state where he was born and the state he won in the 2004 primary, then where can he win? Staying in the race after losing South Carolina would confirm Edwards as a loser in the minds of voters and pundits alike. He will be seen as the third man in a two-person race, if he isn’t being viewed that way already. He may argue that winning delegates is important, but if he loses South Carolina, that electoral spigot will probably shut off as well.
John Edwards is way behind Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the South Carolina polls. Unless the polls are completely off (e.g., New Hampshire primary polls redux), the best Edwards could probably hope for is to beat Clinton for second place. Should this happen, Edwards could credibly say he beat Clinton twice and parlay that into a reminder that he is the most electible Democrat. But there are two problems with this: 1) Clinton has too much money and too much organization nationwide to let Edwards stand in her way, and 2) beating Clinton has nothing to do with beating Obama, another well-funded and well-liked candidate who has an impressive campaign apparatus.
However, Edwards does have the advantage of low expectations. He did score a lot of points at the recent debate in Myrtle Beach when he criticized his rivals for spending more time squabbling with each other than addressing the concerns of the voters. Voters who get their news once a day at 6:30 and don’t use or have access to the internet so they can follow the he-said-she-said daily political news cycle may have soured on Obama and Clinton and may decide to reward Edwards for staying above the fray. Of course, astute politicos may remember that Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden have taken the “I’m the grownup in the room” approach before, but look where that got them. Anyway, because nobody is really expecting Edwards to do well, a stronger than expected finish or even beating one of his rivals outright would be seen as a huge victory and could potentially spur a series of “Is there an Edwards comeback?”-type stories.
Having said that, Edwards will probably be giving his concession and withdrawal speeches in a couple of days, but anything can happen in a voting booth. And for all of his tactical mistakes and the unfavorable position he’s in right now, he is still a formidable and likable candidate who has nothing left to lose. And for that reason, he bears watching.
Last night the top three Democrats squared off in what was the most cantankerous, liveliest, and probably nastiest debate that has taken place so far this campaign season. The rhetoric often became heated and the accusations were flying fast and furiously. Praising the legacy of Martin Luther King was often followed by accusations of distoring one's records, working with "slumlords," hypocrisy, and not taking stands on previous tough votes. In other words, it was good television for political junkies and pundits who had been waiting for the gloves to come off for ages.
Here's how I think the candidates fared:
Clinton was highly aggressive at the debate, as she hit Obama hard over Iraq, healthcare, his voting record in the Illinois legislature, and even his dealings with the shady Tony Rezko. Some of these attacks did not go over well, as she actually received a few boos from the audience. Her main point was that one's record and what one says do matter, and she wanted to use Obama's "present" votes (read this post I wrote back in November) and recent remarks (e.g., talking about Reagan's transformational politics) to illustrate these points. Of course, this would open her up to criticism about her war vote regarding Iraq and how so many of her records from Bill Clinton's presidency have yet to be released, so this is a risky strategy for her to pursue. Curiously, she also said "this election is about the future." But does Clinton really represent "the future?"
There has been a titanic shift among Black voters from Clinton to Obama after Obama's Iowa victory and the race-baiting from the last two weeks. Coupling this with Clinton's attacks on Obama last night suggests that she has made the tactical decision to cede South Carolina to Obama and speak moreso to Democrats in Florida and the Super Tuesday states. This is akin to Mitt Romney's foregoing South Carolina for the sake of Michigan and Nevada. Black voters in South Carolina (and perhaps beyond) seem to have made the decision that Obama is "their guy" and will not take kindly to Clinton hammering him like that. Obama will probably win South Carolina, but his margins among Black voters will likely be quite lopsided.
If this is Clinton's strategy, it does have some merit in that Blacks will not make up as large a portion of the electorate in many Super Tuesday states as they do in South Carolina, thus giving Blacks for Obama the same importance as evangelicals for Huckabee. So while Clinton could cede the Black vote to Obama on Super Tuesday, if she is able to hold down his margins among White voters enough, she could plausibly win the nomination. The problem with this, however, is that she will be under a lot of pressure to smooth over her relationships with Blacks, especially if she doesn't choose Obama or another Black as her running mate. The problem for Obama, of course, is that the more Blacks rush to his campaign and the more they express outrage over the attacks against him (from Whites), the more he risks becoming "the black candidate" instead of "the unity candidate who happens to be Black." As I mentioned in a previous post, Clinton can beat the former, but she can't beat the latter.
Standing at the center lectern, Barack Obama was buffeted from all sides by Clinton and Edwards. He had several particularly sharp exchanges with Clinton, which likely indicates that the "truce" they had declared just a few days ago is either over or never really existed to begin with. To Obama's credit, he was able to parry most of the attacks that came his way and even cleverly pivoted from talking about a vulnerability to talking about a strength. For example, when Clinton hit him hard on his dealings with Tony Rezko, Obama glossed over the controversy and pivoted to discussing the importance of being able to trust what our leaders say. While he may not have completely acquited himself regarding Rezko, he did at least mollify voters by reminding them of his candor, which he commonly demonstrated in his book regarding his past drug use and other indiscretions. But while he was able to successfully turn this into an issue of honesty, it also provided his weakest moment of the debate because he was forced to concede that "none of our hands are completely clean." Should the media pick up on this remark, Obama had better be prepared to explain exactly what he meant because the Obama brand is built on "change," which is synonymous with good, open, clean government.
Obama had a few things he clearly wanted to say tonight, likely in an attempt to quell some of the persistent rumors about him and to get some of his frustrations out in the open. Note that he made it a point to remind everyone that he was "a proud Christian" and that he wasn't sure if he was running against just one Clinton or two. The former remark was to stem the rumors about him being a Muslim. The latter was to convey to voters that he was being unfairly double-teamed by the Clinton machine and that they represent the "old way" of doing politics. For voters who don't have access to the internet or who don't often watch the news, this debate provided Obama with a huge megaphone through which he could communicate with these voters who might be easily swayed by rumors or other propoganda.
The audience seemed to like Obama last night and commonly applauded or chucked at his remarks. Because of how aggressively Clinton and Edwards were attacking him, Obama could parlay that into a discussion about "coming together," which plays to his strengths. His remarks about who Martin Luther King would endorse were quite clever, as he reminded voters that King was about empowerment and grassroots activism. This response was out of the box and showed him to be "different" from traditional Black leaders who commonly talk about combatting racism, ending poverty, and the vestiges of slavery. Blacks and Whites alike probably found these remarks to be quite pleasing and uplifting.
John Edwards is the odd man out in this race. He complained to the moderators several times about there being three candidates on the stage instead of two and how the other candidates were getting more time to speak than he was. But this is Edwards' problem. After losing his must-win state of Iowa, placing a distant third in New Hampshire, garnering a dismal 4% in Nevada, and trailing badly in South Carolina polls, Edwards is on the cusp of irrelevancy.
People have talked about how Edwards could potentially be a kingmaker or even wrest the nomination away from Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama if they beat up on each other so badly that they render themselves unelectible. But the problem with this is that the voters already know who Edwards is and saw how little he added to John Kerry's 2004 ticket. His populist rhetoric has some resonance, but he seems to be losing traction everywhere.
Edwards tried to play the role of the grown-up on stage who wanted to keep the focus on the issues facing ordinary Americans:
"(paraphrased quote) Americans don't care about our bickering. All our squabbling is not going to give hardworking Americans healthcare."For politicos who have been paying attention, this is exactly what Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden were saying at previous debates, but none of them was rewarded for it. Because Edwards is now the weakest candidate remaining, will his remarks be ignored just as Richardson's were? After all, Richardson talked about stopping the petty bickering at the debate before the New Hampshire primary. He won lots of applause for those remarks, but they didn't translate into lots of votes.
Several pundits identified Edwards as the winner of the debate, but I'm not so sure. He was reminded of previous votes he had taken that contradict his campaign rhetoric now (e.g., votes regarding trade with China) and several of his attacks on Obama were successfully parried. While Edwards may have won in terms of trying to focus more on the issues, too many voters may have already written him off for his arguments to resonate.
In addition to this, he sometimes allied himself with Obama to attack Clinton as not being a true agent of change. The problem with this is that Obama is viewed as the main "change" candidate in the race. Edwards needs to find a new niche because the "change" mantle has already been taken. Sometimes Edwards joined with Clinton to attack Obama as well, but he doesn't have much to gain by pursuing that strategy either because the Edwards and Clinton camps simply don't like each other and are not likely to have their supporters defect to the other's campaign.
John McCain seems to be the candidate the Democrats are expecting to face in November. The fact that his name was brought up more than once should delight McCain's campaign and be good for his fundraising because he could tell his donors that "the Democrats are more worried about me than they are about fixing the economy" or something like that. That has the added bonus of allowing McCain to make an "us vs. them" argument in which "us" means Republicans--the very group he needs to win over the most because of his weaker appeal among those voters compared to independents.
George Bush's name also often came up, usually for the sake of criticism. The Democrats seem intent on running against Bush this fall even though his name won't be on the ballot. Look for McCain to be turned into a proxy for Bush despite his popularity among independents and his perception as a maverick. That might not be easy to do because Republican dissatisfaction with and distrust of McCain is well-documented and could be used as evidence to show that he is not as close to Bush as the Democrats may claim.
The fact that Mitt Romney's name was not mentioned at all despite having won more states than his rivals and leading the delegate race is probably a psychological blow for him. However, Romney could be what Obama was last year in that Republicans were expecting to face off against the inevitable Clinton. Should the Democrats view McCain as the inevitable Republican, a surprise Romney nomination could force the Democrats to search for a new political playbook.
This is not to say that the Democrats plan on ceding all of the Republican votes to the Republican candidates. Obama was the only Democrat that talked about getting a few disenchanted Republicans to join him, thus further buttressing the idea that he is a unity candidate. Clinton talked more about having faced the Republicans before and being able to beat them, thus reminding Democrats that she's "tough" and "tested." Edwards' populist rhetoric could potentially appeal to both Democrats and Republicans because poverty knows no politics, but his nomination looks far less likely now than it did a few months ago.
With this debate taking place on Martin Luther King Day and being sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus in South Carolina, a lot of questions were related to the issues of race and poverty. Some of the questions, however, were a bit unnecessary, as they did not really reveal anything important about the candidates. For example, why was Obama asked if Bill Clinton really was "the first Black president?" Fortunately he had a witty response ("let's see how well he dances"), but couldn't the time spent on this question have been better spent asking about the candidates' views on withdrawing troops from Iraq?
The moderator (CNN's Wolf Blitzer) did not really have control over this debate, but the ground rules he mentioned at the beginning of the debate made this lack of control seem less obvious. Having had so many of these rules be ignored in previous debates, CNN did a good job of just letting the candidates have at each other, even though they had a tendency to stray off topic and go negative. (Again, to his credit, John Edwards tried to keep everyone focused on the issues instead of on each other.) The moderators simply asked the questions and tried to give the candidates a fair chance to offer rebuttals to their rivals' charges. So while they might not have had total control over the debate, at least they did not embarrass themselves by pretending they did.
All in all, judging from this debate I'd say that Clinton is thinking more about Super Tuesday than South Carolina, Obama is thinking about exposing Clinton as a negative campaigner, and Edwards is still thinking about finding a way to become the third person in a two-person race.
South Carolina and Nevada have spoken, and the results have finally produced several distinct tiers of Republican candidates: John McCain and Mitt Romney in the top tier, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani in the second tier, and Fred Thompson and Ron Paul in the third tier. Because of the sheer chaos that characterizes the Republican race, Republican voters and party operatives are anxiously waiting for signs that someone is breaking out of the pack, as they are not sure who they should rally around. Things might still be muddled right now, but the race is no longer as turbid as it once was.
John McCain's South Carolina victory is particularly sweet for him, especially after the way he was vilified in the 2000 primary. Of course, nasty kneecap politics reemerged this time around too, but that McCain was able to survive should serve as a testament to his overall strength and appeal. This victory caps McCain's improbable political comeback and has established him as the Republican frontrunner. At the very least, he is a co-frontrunner with Mitt Romney. I predicted McCain's resurgence back in December and based this prediction on the fact that even though he has made a lot of Republicans angry on individual issues, he is at least acceptable enough to all factions of the Republican Party to make him seem like a consensus candidate. The South Carolina exit polls show how balanced his support is among Republican voters. This balance potentially makes him a stronger candidate than Huckabee (whose support skews to evangelicals) or Romney (whose support skews to wealthier voters and corporate Republicans).
McCain can now enter Florida with a reasonable chance of pulling off another victory. There are major military bases in the Tampa and Pensacola areas, which should be fertile territory for him. The fact that there are also a lot of seniors there should work to his advantage too, as Huckabee tends to do better with younger voters. And because Florida is supposed to be "Giuliani's state," there's not as much pressure on him to win it. So McCain has to be sitting pretty right now.
Huckabee should study the exit polls carefully because they reveal a potentially fatal weakness about his candidacy--that his appeal among non-evangelical voters is weak. It's well known that devout Christians (those who attend church more than once per week) love Huckabee. However, the problem for Huckabee is that even in the Republican Party, there are a lot of less traditional and more moderate Christians, and these voters are decidedly not supporting Huckabee, as he only won 16% of their votes (as opposed to winning 43% of the vote among evangelical/born-again Christian voters). This does not bode well for Huckabee in less conservative states outside the Bible Belt and even in a general election. His populist rhetoric is certainly appealing, but is his Christian rhetoric turning these voters off? Huckabee had better figure out a new approach soon because as soon as he becomes a Pat Roberson candidate and nothing more, his campaign is finished.
Fred Thompson narrowly won third place in South Carolina. Because of his limited campaigning elsewhere, his falling poll numbers, and the general sense that his campaign has been a disappointment, Thompson really needed to win South Carolina to reinvigorate his campaign. However, because he barely only placed third, it's really hard to see how Thompson can continue. He will not be the nominee.
However, even though Thompson is likely finished, his presence is still having a major impact on the race. Judging from the South Carolina exit polls, Thompson significantly cut into Huckabee's base of evangelical Christians. Had Thompson not been on the ballot, it is quite probable that Huckabee would have beaten McCain. Thompson is not really attacking McCain aggressively, but he is blasting Huckabee. Since McCain and Thompson are close personal friends, could Thompson be serving as a stalking horse or a shield for McCain? Is Thompson's role to force McCain's rivals out of the race by starving them of victories they are widely expected to have? Thompson clearly held Huckabee back in South Carolina. Could he do the same with both Huckabee and Giuliani in Florida?
Fred Thompson is hurting Mike Huckabee the same way John Edwards is hurting Barack Obama. They are both Southerners who are trying to run as consistent conservative outsiders. Huckabee is the stronger candidate, but Thompson is strong enough to significantly bog Huckabee down. Needless to say, Huckabee would be thrilled if Thompson pulled out of the race before Florida. However, given Thompson's ambiguous speech after the results came in, there's no telling what to expect.
Romney's victory in uncontested Nevada overshadowed his fourth place showing in South Carolina. This is fine because he is continuing to silently rack up delegates. And seeing that Nevada had more delegates at stake than South Carolina, his decision to play in Nevada was a smart tactical move. And because the focus will be on Huckabee and Giuliani to win Florida, he enters the state with the advantage of low expectations. So while a Florida victory would be nice, Super Tuesday is clearly where his attention will lie. Second, or even third, in Florida should be good enough to give him decent momentum heading into Super Tuesday. It appears that Romney will be one of the last two (or three) candidates standing. The other one used to look like Giuliani (and that may still happen), but McCain is clearly emerging as the strongest candidate with all the momentum.
Ron Paul's second place showing in Nevada will likely serve as yet another embarrassment for Giuliani. Paul also bested Giuliani in South Carolina as well. It is clear that Paul is gathering enough support to warrant respect from the other candidates. But in the end, this second place finish took place in a state where the other candidates weren't campaigning all (except for Romney), and the best he could do elsewhere prior to this was fourth or fifth. 15% seems to be Paul's ceiling, which is not enough to win a primary or caucus anywhere. The question now becomes who is Paul drawing the most votes from?
At most, there will be three tickets out of Florida. Florida will be the last stand for Huckabee, Thompson, and Giuliani. McCain and Romney can survive even if they don't win because they have each already won at least twice. Huckabee only won Iowa, and these memories of his Iowa victory are being replaced by his second and third place showings elsewhere. Thompson surprised pundits by placing third in Iowa, but he was clearly expected to do better in South Carolina. Seeing that Florida is another Southern state, Thompson essentially gets a do-over--but this is it for him. Giuliani has not been a part of the national conversation for weeks now, so his candidacy is sliding into irrelevance. Anything worse than a close second in Florida will probably end his campaign because he simply won't have the financial resources to compete on Super Tuesday. The pressure is off of McCain and Romney to win Florida, so the final ticket to Super Tuesday will go to the Huckabee-Thompson-Giuliani winner. Because of Giuliani's strength in several major Super Tuesday states, many of which more moderate, will McCain and Romney avoid crippling Huckabee and Thompson while they blast Giuliani in an attempt to abort his candidacy before it has a chance to demonstrate its true appeal?
I once thought that the GOP nomination would come down to Rudy Giuliani and his conservative alternative. But now it appears that it will come down to the establishment candidate and the outsider. That explains Clinton vs. Obama on the Democratic side and would explain McCain vs. Romney on the Republican side. Huckabee or Giuliani could still replace Romney, but the only way this could happen is if they win Florida. Second place is not good enough for those candidates anymore.
The results are in and Mitt Romney is the clear winner of the Michigan Republican primary. Beating rival John McCain by a healthy 9 points, Romney finally won a "gold medal" (people often ignore Wyoming). Independent and Democratic voters simply didn't turn out for McCain in large enough numbers this time. People are often quick to minimize Romney's victory by reminding everyone that Romney was born there and that his father was a popular state governor. McCain referred to Romney at least twice as a "native son" in his concession speech. These are convenient excuses, but I think the main reason why Romney won is because he paid the most attention the the economy, which was certainly weighing heavily on the minds of Michigan voters.
However, Romney's victory did not wound McCain as much as it wounded Mike Huckabee, who finished a distant third. Huckabee has now placed first once and third twice. Thus, the onus is now on Huckabee to win South Carolina. Given the religious conservative bent of the state, Huckabee should be able to eke out a victory there. If he fails to do so, he will be hard pressed to win elsewhere. He could easily rationalize not winning in New Hampshire and Michigan because they are moderate Northern states with a smaller Christian conservative base. That excuse won't fly in South Carolina, however.
An ominous sign for Huckabee is that Michigan's evangelicals did not flock to him the way they did in Iowa. This may illustrate the problem Huckabee has with appealing beyond his religious conservative base. Consider these remarks from a campaign event shortly before the primary:
"[Some of my opponents] do not want to change the Constitution, but I believe it's a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God, and that's what we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards."(You can view the YouTube clip of this here.)
Did these remarks doom him among nonevangelicals? Or was Romney's focus on the economy what allowed him to run up the score among what was supposed to be Huckabee's base? Regardless, this is the second time of note that Huckabee has said something that could really ruin his appeal among moderates and independents. Back in October, he compared abortion to a "holocaust" and even tied aborted babies to illegal immigration. Part of Huckabee's appeal has been that he came across as a Christian conservative with a smile. He went against the stereotype of a polarizing, Bible-thumping firebrand like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. Basically, like the way Barack Obama has been able to bridge the gap between Blacks and Whites, Mike Huckabee had the ability to appeal to both Christian conservatives and more mainstream Christians. Should these latest remarks gain widespread play in the media, voters and the media may fall out of love with him as fast as they fell in love with him.
Because of the way the races have broken down so far, it's as if the Republicans are playing a game of hot potato in that the person who loses at the wrong time faces a must-win scenario in the next primary. The onus was on McCain first in New Hampshire. His victory there shifted the onus to Romney in Michigan. In light of Romney's victory there, the onus is now on Huckabee, as I mentioned earlier.
Also, although nobody is really talking much about it, the onus is also on Fred Thompson, who is treating South Carolina the same way Rudy Giuliani is treating Florida. Simply put, Thompson only has one shot. Win and survive or lose and go home. A blunted McCain, a Huckabee whose star is no longer shining as brightly, a Romney who pulled his campaign ads, and a Giuliani who is keeping his powder dry until Florida have given Thompson his opening. South Carolinians may like McCain's support of the surge in Iraq and his positions on spending and taxes, but they are still seething over the immigration "compromise" he previously supported. Huckabee's appeal among nonevangelicals is still suspect. And Romney was positioned to capitalize on his Michigan victory by winning South Carolina a few days later, but his decision to drop his ads here have essentially ceded the state to his rivals. Thompson has been working South Carolina hard and he still seems to be the "authentic, consistent conservative" that so many Republicans had been waiting for--at least to South Carolinians. But not being at the forefront of the political dialogue may have rendered Thompson irrelevant.
It is worth noting that Ron Paul beat both Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson in Michigan. This means Paul has beaten these candidates twice (Giuliani in Iowa and Michigan and Thompson in New Hampshire and Michigan). The fact that this supposed fringe candidate who was often mocked and marginalized in the debates has beaten two popular candidates known nationwide twice should serve as a warning that Paul is a potential spoiler candidate (or even a kingmaker) who represents a very real and very angry slice of the electorate. What effect will losing to Ron Paul a second time have on Giuliani's fundraising in particular? And is it safe to say that Paul is running stronger than some of these supposed "major" candidates? South Carolina may eliminate McCain or Huckabee. If McCain is forced out of the race, where will his supporters go? McCain has a libertarian streak and is very much against wasteful government spending, just like Paul is. Thus, could Paul absorb a disproportionate amount of McCain's supporters?
Romney's win is a mixed bag for Giuliani. While he's happy to have his rivals divided and duking it out to be his conservative alternative, he probably would have preferred to have Romney fold up his tent and withdraw from the race. Romney is the only GOP candidate who can finance his own campaign. Thus, as long as Romney is still competitive in Florida, he will be able to seriously compete on Super Tuesday in about three weeks.
I recently mentioned that Romney could win the Republican nomination by consistently placing second with a few first place showings sprinkled in as long as long as no other candidate kept winning. This would cause him to emerge as everybody's second choice, but nobody's favorite. Romney is now winning the delegate race and will probably win the Nevada caucuses that nobody is talking much about even though Nevada is offering more delegates than South Carolina. Romney hasn't gotten much respect in this campaign, but his Michigan victory forced McCain and Huckabee to follow suit with victories of their own in South Carolina. So in other words, Romney now controls his own destiny again, and for that reason, he has probably overtaken McCain as the new frontrunner with McCain second, Huckabee third, and Thompson and Giuliani tied for fourth. Ron Paul remains too difficult to quantify at present.
Needless to say, such chaos is a political junkie's dream come true. Could we really be headed for a brokered convention?
The Democratic debate in Las Vegas tonight was a generally disappointing affair. Only the top three candidates (Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama) were allowed to participate in this debate, so one would assume that the candidates had many more opportunities to flesh out their policy details and be more specific about their platforms. Also, there were no Mike Gravels or Dennis Kuciniches on stage to distract the other candidates or interrupt the flow of the debate. In light of all this, this debate was a bit of a letdown because the three candidates did not really engage each other and the moderators' questions did not force them to speak in anything other than generalities.
One of the more interesting moments happened towards the beginning of the debate when a heckler said, "These are all race-based questions!" or something similar. Clearly, this man was frustrated with the focus of the questions at the start of the debate, which centered on the overheated rhetoric regarding race over the past few days. Both Obama and Clinton were clearly trying to bury the hatchet and move on, but the moderators belabored the issue by asking one too many questions about retracting statements, citing what went wrong, and whether racism sunk Obama in the privacy of voting booths in New Hampshire. While the heckler was out of line, he was definitely correct in identifying one of the agents that was complicit in advancing the race issue: the media.
John Edwards seemed out of his depth tonight when the questions centered on foreign policy. The moderator asked him what he would do about Kuwait and how foreign countries were investing so heavily in American companies, but he sidestepped the question and pivoted to a discussion about financial insecurity concerns among middle class voters.
Edwards also got caught flatfooted when the moderator reminded him of his previous support for the bankruptcy bill during President Bush's first term that made it more difficult for individuals to declare bankruptcy. When the moderator said that this bill threatened middle and lower class voters who were unable to pay their medical bills, Edwards was forced to admit he was wrong to support that bill. This was potentially damaging because it contradicted Edwards' rhetoric of fighting for the little guy.
Later, he was asked about nuclear energy and storing nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain. Edwards sidestepped this question too, but Hillary Clinton reminded him, "But John, you did vote for Yucca Mountain twice and you did not answer the moderator's question." Again, Edwards had to acknowledge that he was wrong or that circumstances had changed since those votes.
Another weak moment came when the debate switched to illegal immigration. The moderator asked what was wrong with making English the official language of the United States. Edwards went into a long discussion about the need for immigration reform but never really answered the question. Neither Obama nor Clinton were asked about this, but should one of them make it to the general election, they will need to articulate a much more credible response because this is one of the few issues on which Republicans are on the side of public opinion.
In general, Edwards tried to make sure voters knew he was the candidate who would come down hard on lobbyists, special interests, and corporations that exploit their workers. He also made these arguments forcefully and with a great sense of authenticity. However, he came across as a one-dimensional candidate who was incapable of or uncomfortable with talking about anything other than the impact of corporate greed and an ailing economy on the middle class.
Hillary Clinton fared better than Edwards, but she had a problem with responding to questions directly. She also seemed to pander, as she commonly reminded the moderators that "this is a Black and Brown debate" and that it was "unfortunate" that "Black and Brown issues" were not being addressed. In light of all the recent controversy about playing the race card, these lamentations from Clinton may have seemed a bit insincere. Will the media pick up on this and wonder if Clinton was "trying to play the race card" again?
Clinton also was a bit evasive when confronted with direct questions or when asked to explain herself. If these debates are supposed to be about explaining one's views, why did Clinton say "I'm not going to characterize it," when asked to explain her statement before the New Hampshire primaries about how "our adversaries abroad are watching our elections closely and we have to remember that we are hiring a president who will be there when the chips are down?" Obama called Clinton out on these remarks by saying that was an example of politicians using the specter of terrorism to influence elections.
Clinton also did not directly answer the question about whether Bob Johnson, who made the recent veiled remarks about Obama's past drug use, will campaign with her in the future. This was not lost on voters who view her as calculating and conniving, especially when she said that sometimes one's political supporters are "exuberant and uncontrollable." This "uncontrollability" seems to be a pattern with Clinton's supporters.
George Bush was Clinton's main target tonight. It seemed as if she was reverting to her earlier strategy of ignoring her rivals because she was the inevitable nominee. I am not sure about the wisdom of this strategy, however, as Democratic voters already know that Bush is not their friend. So she was essentially preaching to the choir in that regard. Also, Clinton is no longer the inevitable nominee, so she probably should have challenged Obama a bit more.
To Clinton's credit, she did challenge Obama to join her in supporting her legislation about President Bush's responsibility to come before Congress when considering establishing permanent bases in Iraq. This was a shrewd move by Clinton because it would make her look like a leader if Obama accepted her challenge (and thus diminish Obama by making him look more like a follower), further blur the differences between the two candidates on Iraq (regardless of Clinton's initial vote to authorize the Iraq War), and make Obama look like he wasn't prepared to bury the hatchet and be the unity candidate if he rejected her offer.
In my estimation, Barack Obama probably won this debate, although nobody really shined tonight. To Obama's credit, he seemed the most comfortable and the most confident when answering questions, although he seemed to meander at times. Obama also did a good job of drawing distinctions without drawing blood, so he appeared firm and civil at the same time. He had one of the better responses of the night when he was asked to talk about Black males and why the education system was failing them. That response likely resonated with Black voters in South Carolina and maybe even piqued the ears of conservatives because Obama did not come across like a typical liberal Black politician who solely blamed the government for the plight of young Black Americans.
The big loser in this debate was the media. A lot of time was wasted asking questions that were more about making news and advancing media storylines than explaining policy:
"What is your greatest strength and weakness?"
"How did we get [to this sorry dialogue about race]?"
Strike two for the media: Obama was also shortchanged by the moderators when he was not allowed to ask his preferred question to one of the candidates because he wanted to respond to a point made by Edwards in the form of a question. A bit of moderator discretion would have made for a better debate, in my opinion.
The other losers tonight were Iowa and New Hampshire. How many voters were ripping out their hair when they listened to these candidates address issues of foreign policy by nibbling at the edges and speaking in generalities? I've mentioned this before, but I think the Democrats will regret that the three veteran candidates (Richardson, Dodd, and Biden) were winnowed from the field prematurely while three fairly similar and weaker candidates survived.
Overall, this debate lacked fireworks, memorable one-liners, a discussion of specifics, and a sense of reassuring competence regarding foreign policy. The three candidates seemed to change their positions on Iraq again (this time they talked about getting most of the troops out during their first year in office). Pakistan barely came up, and Edwards fumbled the question about Kuwait. People may talk about how this election is the Democrats' to lose, but based on the relatively uninspiring performances I witnessed tonight, I think the Republicans have a better chance of retaining the White House than the pundits think.
The new candidate Democrats should be worried about is Mitt Romney, who won the Michigan primary tonight. This victory places the onus on Mike Huckabee to win South Carolina this weekend. For all of Romney's flip-flops, he at least comes across as competent. Unfortunately for Democrats, Bush won't be on the ballot this fall, and Romney is wisely adopting the "change" mantle and coupling it with a focus on economic issues. I don't know if "a new kind of politics" or "fighting for change" or "fighting for the mill workers" can trump that because Romney is an outsider who won and successfully governed in a very blue state. So he could potentially match up quite well against any of the Democrats.
The latest installment in the saga between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama involves a recent Clinton campaign event in which Clinton supporter Bob Johnson, president of Black Entertainment Television, told the crowd:
"To me, as an African-American, I am frankly insulted the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues, [are not sincere in their commitment to racial equality] when Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood; I won't say what he was doing, but he said it in his book."It obviously doesn't take Einstein's kin to figure out that Johnson was alluding to Obama's past drug use, which he admitted to in his previous book. However, Johnson criticized the ensuing criticism by saying that his remarks were in regards to Obama's work as a community organizer "and nothing else [and that] any other suggestion is simply irresponsible and incorrect."
In other words, Johnson got the media to explicitly say what he was merely implying. As a result, the media's explicity transferred ownership of Johnson's incendiary remarks to the media and technically absolved Johnson of guilt. Mission accomplished for the Clinton campaign. That's slash and burn politics at its finest.
Johnson's cheapshots at Obama by making obvious references to Obama's previous bouts of irresponsibility are in concordance with how he often marginalizes Blacks on BET with its raunchy music videos and often tawdry language. So this does not come as a surprise to me.
As for Clinton, however, she knows exactly what she's doing. And by continuing to campaign with people who make these same insinuations over and over again, she is tacitly approving their remarks. Here's how the game is played: Clinton will campaign with someone who makes a controversial remark about her political opponents. The media will then hype up these remarks and ask her to clarify or repudiate them. Clinton will then dismiss these questions by saying "that person does not speak for my campaign" and then try to take the high road by saying "I don't want to talk about political attacks. I want to talk about the issues." Meanwhile, the damage will ultimately be done courtesy of the media's replaying the remarks over and over again while Clinton puts just enough distance between herself and these inflammatory remarks to maintain plausible deniability. Of course, this strategy, while effective, seems odd for someone who commonly decries "the politics of personal destruction."
The problem with Clinton's attacks is not so much that they are sticking, but rather that they risk turning Obama from "a candidate who happens to be Black" into "a Black candidate." The former is a formidable opponent with broad electoral appeal who can instill a great sense of pride in the Democratic Party and potentially emerge as the party's standard-bearer. The latter is a marginalized leader of one particular interest group she'll merely have to curry favor with in the future in order to shore up her base in a general election once she's the nominee.
Obama has run a post-partisan and post-racial campaign with the ability to appeal to voters of all races and political persuasions. However, the more race is injected into the campaign (as was recently done when Clinton suggested that Martin Luther King had to rely on President Lyndon Johnson to get civil rights legislation passed), the more that undercuts his message of unity. Whites, who may be reminded of firebrands like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, may become less comfortable supporting him, and his future political victories may be tainted because they'd be attributed more to racial circumstances ("Did Obama win because of White guilt? Was it a Black rebellion against Clinton's attacks?") than to his own political acumen. The more Obama reminds voters of race, the better it is for Clinton, whose personal negatives are so high that she has nothing left to lose by taking the low road and engaging in race-baiting through surrogates. Bob Johnson is only the latest example of this.
Should this whisper campaign fatally wound Obama and he not win the nomination, the Democratic Party will be severely fragmented. Clinton may have no choice but to choose Obama as her running mate then, even though this would put Obama in a serious bind. Were he to refuse Clinton's invitation, that could be seen as him being cold or partisan to someone who is extending an olive branch and trying to bury the hatchet. And if he were to accept her invitation, he would be pairing his message of hope and unity with a candidate who represents hardball politics and is a professional partisan. So he'd look like a hypocrite either way.
There are signs that the incessant whispers and rumors about Obama have taken root in a lot of voters' minds. For example, one of the most popular search strings Google users use to find this blog is some combination of the words "Obama" and "flag," presumably in relation to the controversy that erupted when the "unpatriotic" Obama decided to no longer wear an American flag pin on his lapel last fall. (I wrote about that here.) It could also be related to the picture of Obama not placing his hand over his heart while the National Anthem was being played at a campaign event in Iowa last summer. Combine these stories with the whisper campaign involving his religion and it's possible that enough doubts will be planted in enough voters' minds to make them grudgingly revert to the "safe" choice of Hillary Clinton, even if they don't particularly like her.
But Clinton's unfavorable ratings can't get much higher than they already are, so she doesn't have as much to lose by engaging in this sort of negative and dishonest campaigning. She has enough name recognition and enough infrastructure nationwide to win the nomination easily if Obama flames out. Dredging up his Obama's past and invoking fear by implication (ever notice how people commonly refer to him by his middle name even though nobody does that with the other candidates?) may be unseemly, but it is quite effective in defining a candidate before he can define himself.
But this is a double-edged sword. Intelligent voters and those who don't take what candidates say at face value may be put off by this and either 1) stay home, which damages Obama because of his appeal to new voters; or 2) penalize Clinton by throwing their support to Obama, who they believe is the victim of kneecap politics. Clinton won New Hampshire on the backs of voters who felt she was being unfairly targeted by the media and her rivals. Will these unfair attacks backfire on her in South Carolina and beyond? After his second place showing in New Hampshire, is Obama a bit gun shy about responding to Clinton too aggressively? After all, in South Carolina, as goes Black women, so will go the Democratic primary.
In light of Clinton's gender-tinged come from behind victory in the New Hampshire primary and the most recent racially-tinged remarks about Obama's past, the politics of race are now confronting the politics of gender. The Democratic Party needs both women and minorities (especially Blacks) in order to survive. Turning the Clinton vs. Obama storyline into a battle between "sisters and brothers" may only fracture the party so severely that they enter the general election as dispirited and as divided as the Republicans are at present. Voter turnout in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries so far suggests an enthusiasm gap in favor of the Democrats. But prolonging this proxy struggle over identity politics by using lowball tactics and feigned outrage may only turn a very winnable general election for the Democrats into another agonizing defeat.
The latest salvos in the 2008 presidential race have been about Barack Obama and what "change" actually means. Rudy Giuliani mentioned in a recent debate that "change" is a mixed bag in that this "change" could be one for higher taxes, "socialized medicine," and increased spending, or that it could be for lower taxes and a stronger national defense. Giuliani is right, although I think most voters would consider "change" to be synonymous with taking politics and government policy in a new and more favorable direction than what we have right now.
I've been hearing a lot more politicians, pundits, and even regular people asking Obama to explain what "change" means. Some of these people are genuinely interested in his message and in his rhetoric, but want to know a bit more information before they commit to vote for him. Others may be trying to poke holes in his rhetoric by getting Obama to express positions that would validate Giuliani's line of attack. (e.g., "The 'change' Obama is talking about is giving drivers' licenses to illegal aliens! We don't need that kind of 'change!'") And others are cantankerous voters who would never consider voting for Obama anyway, but simply want to knock him off his pedestal by forcing him to answer this question, lest he be seen as an empty suit who doesn't want to address the concerns of the people.
Again, fair enough.
So I went home for lunch yesterday and turned on the television so I could catch up on the latest political news. I was also curious to see how Obama was responding to requests for him to elaborate on what "change" means. After all, being big on rhetoric and short on specifics has been one of the most common and most enduring criticisms of his campaign, so it would seem that he would be prepared to address this question at length.
General news coverage was interrupted by a live news conference concerning the missing pregnant Marine in North Carolina. Expecting normal programming to resume shortly thereafter, I didn't change the channel.
But three minutes became four minutes, which then became seven minutes. And MSNBC was still carrying the news conference. So I switched over to CNN, "the world's news leader" with "the best political team on television." But they were carrying the exact same news conference:
"Yes, she did purchase a bus ticket, but never used it. That is correct."
To my dismay, I switched over to Fox hoping that they would be covering the day's political news...
"Is it safe to assume that the fetus is dead too?"
Frustrated, I switched over to the regular network stations, but they were covering local news, as was to be expected. So I had to spend the rest of my lunch break listening to a sheriff in North Carolina talk about how the attorneys for the missing Marine's senior officer were influencing what the sheriff could tell the press. And this went on for about 20 excruciating minutes before I finally had to turn the television off and go back to work.
Another strike for the media.
This is not to say that the media should not cover these bizarre murder/missing person mysteries. After all, they are quite compelling. However, why is this a national story? What's wrong with letting the news stations of Fayetteville and Wilmington, North Carolina, handle this story while keeping the national airwaves open for national news stories? People are murdered and kidnapped everyday in the United States, so why is this particular story worth the coverage these other abductions and murders aren't receiving? Being an attractive White woman, Maria Lauterbach fits in quite nicely with Laci Peterson, Natalee Holloway, Jennifer Wilbanks (the "Runaway Bride"), and Stacy Peterson, all of whom received similar intense media coverage, often at the expense of other more significant news.
Where is the sense of perspective? The Michigan primaries and Nevada caucuses are rapidly approaching. After providing almost wall-to-wall coverage of the presidential candidates on the campaign trail prior to Iowa and New Hampshire, how do the national media suddenly have the time to devote half of my lunch break to a press conference about a local murder mystery? And if the media are going to cover a press conference about the death of a Marine in North Carolina, why not cover the death of a Marine from North Carolina who fell in Iraq?
There are so many Americans who are unbelievably ignorant of what's going on in the world and what's happening with the people who lead (or want to lead) this great nation. However, the media are complicit in promoting this ignorance. People at corner barber shops, local diners, general stores, and cafes all across the nation are probably talking about this case of the missing Marine. ("Do you think that sergeant killed her? I bet they had an affair! What kind of mother would tell the press that her daughter was a compulsive liar?") However, how many of these people could tell you which presidential candidates are still in the race? How many of these people could tell you the difference between Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani when it comes to abortion rights or illegal immigration?
Case in point: Of all the presidential debates that have taken place so far, the highest rated one drew about 9.3 million viewers, and that debate was broadcast on ABC. Compare that with American Idol, which drew an average of 30 million viewers per night. Knowing this, would it not be reasonable to assume that more Americans know which singers advanced to the next round of competition than know why Mitt Romney might be the best candidate to turn the nation's economy around? What an awful statistic!
There's nothing wrong with not being into politics. And there's nothing wrong with wanting to watch something entertaining on television after dinner. But if the media can use their influence to totally change our culture (as they did with the advent of reality television), why can't they also use their influence to elevate our collective consciousness? In the spirit of voter advocacy, why not devote just one hour of media time to showcase each candidate and provide an overview of their campaign platforms so that voters can make more informed decisions before they participate in the upcoming caucuses and primaries?
As for me, other than pursuing a traditionally liberal political agenda with a less partisan attitude, I am still not really sure what Obama means when he says "change." I do, however, know that the remains of the missing Marine in North Carolina were purportedly buried in the suspect's backyard. And I have the media to thank for that.
At what point will people say enough is enough? If the media continue to feed us garbage, we will remain ignorant. Yes, we'll be happy (Desperate Housewives! Brittney Spears! Sanjaya!), but we'll still be ignorant. Again, there's nothing wrong with those popular TV shows and tabloid journalism at all. But that's what channels like E!, VH-1, Court TV, and MTV are for. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox should have a different responsibility to their audiences. People in the media commonly talk about how "this election is the most important one of our lifetime." If that's so, then why do their programming decisions suggest otherwise?
The New Hampshire primaries have had a tremendous effect on the presidential race, as the results ensured that the major candidates will not be forced out quickly. An Obama victory would have severely wounded Clinton and forced her to enter Super Tuesday after losing Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. A Romney victory would have eliminated McCain and made him even money against Huckabee.
But this did not happen. Instead of delivering two knockout punches, New Hampshire delivered yet more jockeying and forced radical changes in political strategy. Romney, for example, has suspended his ad buys in South Carolina and is now concentrating on Michigan. And Clinton is retooling her message so that it's less about "I" and more about "we."
So where do the candidates go from here? Here are my thoughts on the Republicans, whose race is as muddled as ever:
John McCain is now in much better shape and has one of the easier paths to the nomination, in my estimation. McCain has the advantage of being the lone statesman in the field and he is unimpeachable when it comes to national security and Iraq. To his credit, he did not waver when it came to supporting the surge in Iraq and he can claim some independence in that he was not afraid to criticize the mission there when it wasn't going well. Independents and even moderate Democrats still view him as less conservative than he really is, and they have a lot of respect for him. This would suggest a great level of crossover appeal in a general election.
McCain won the Michigan primary in 2000, so he is obviously a well known and highly regarded candidate in the state. Voters who may have been worried about his electability should have had those fears vanquished by his strong showing in New Hampshire. However, he will be going against Romney, whose father was a popular governor there. Romney is wounded, but I think he still has the inside track to victory there. McCain probably needs to place at least a close second in order to maintain his momentum. Should McCain actually win, Romney would become John Edwards and it would be difficult to see how he could continue. That's what Rudy Giuliani does not want to have happen, obviously, because the more crowded and unsettled the field is, the better off Giuliani is. The nomination race would then come down to McCain and Huckabee in South Carolina, where it's entirely possible that neither candidate will eliminate the other, given how they draw from two totally different bases.
McCain should continue to run on strength, leadership, and statesmanship. Giuliani may have the strength and leadership issue because of September 11, but McCain can trump him by combining his military service record with his statesmanship. I would also recommend that he stress his electability and even try to peel off some of Huckabee's supporters by stressing how he is post-partisan in that he has a proven record of working with people across the aisle and forging practical solutions. Democrats should be very cautious about McCain because he would be one of the more difficult candidates to run against in November.
Mitt Romney has the unique problem of being nobody's favorite, but everybody's second choice. He himself has referred to winning a bunch of "silver medals." The problem is, you have to win the gold if you want to be a winner. Placing second in New Hampshire effectively ended his hopes of being able to compete in South Carolina because his loss, combined with Huckabee's strength, essentially ceded the state to him. Obviously, should Romney win Michigan, he'd get a second shot at South Carolina, but by then it might be too late because Huckabee is working the state hard.
Michigan is a winnable state for Romney, but he will need to do more than run on his father's record there. An economically depressed state, the economy is likely weighing heavily on Michigan voters' minds. So rather than stressing how conservative he has become on social issues (Michigan is a moderate state), I think voters there would respond better to a message of fiscal discipline and competence regarding economics. Voters in the big steel and automotive industries there are thinking about pocketbook issues, so I'd recommend that he talk about his record of turning failing businesses around, creating economic prosperity, and being a no-nonsense manager. The challenge for him, however, is that he would have to discuss these issues while being able to convey sincere empathy for the voters he's trying to reach. I believe his perceived artificiality and emotional distance are what's causing a lot of voters to withhold their support for him because they don't think he's "concnerned about people like me."
Losing Michigan would unfairly add the word "loser" to the Romney brand and he would be ridiculed for not being able to carry what should be fertile territory for him. Then there would be a risk in the future that he would be seen as someone so desperate to win that he would say anything, thus further reinforcing the flip-flop and credibility problems he has. However, how could Romney continue his campaign, aside from continuing to finance it on his own? McCain bests Romney on strength, and Huckabee trumps him on authenticity and social issues. This leaves economic issues, but again, Romney is not "warm enough" when he talks about what should be his strongest issue. Is it possible for Romney to be the nominee even if he doesn't win anything? (Wyoming doesn't count.) My guess is that by consistently placing second, he could be seen as a moderately acceptable alternative consensus candidate that doesn't really inspire anyone. But what kind of momentum would that create in a general election scenario?
Mike Huckabee has become a formidable candidate whose path to the nomination is a bit less complex than some of his rivals' because of Romney's inability to connect with social conservatives and Thompson's lackadaisical campaign. Thus, he has fewer rivals who threaten his base. Huckabee's challenge, however, is to broaden his appeal. Romney has run some tough ads criticizing Huckabee for his immigration positions and the tuition assistance he offered for the children of illegal immigrants. And he raised a few eyebrows when asked to comment about international affairs. When asked about his foreign policy acumen at the recent Fox News debate, he listed the names of some of the countries he has been to. However, simply going to a country does not a foreign policy guru make. Republicans who do not want to lose their national security and tough on terrorism advantages in the general election are going to have to think about Huckabee very carefully because Hillary Clinton could easily portray herself as tougher than he is, and Barack Obama still has the advantage of opposing the war from the start.
But is this as much of a liability as one would initially think? The three Democratic candidates with foreign policy heft (Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson) all failed in their presidential bids and John McCain was on life support last summer. And foreign affairs did not seem to weigh too heavily on voters' minds in the Iowa caucuses, so perhaps Huckabee might not be penalized too heavily for this.
To counter this weakness, Huckabee is seen as authentic and has the ability to present himself as the "compassionate conservative" that Bush never was. He can also appeal to voters who like his approach to politics even if they don't agree with his actual politics. Economically struggling voters in Michigan might find his empathy to be sincere and respond to his populist message. It seems like Michigan for McCain, Romney, and Huckabee is the same as Iowa was for Clinton, Obama, and Edwards in that all three candidates could just as easily place first or third. Huckabee doesn't have to win Michigan to remain competitive. However, he would love to place ahead of Romney on his home turf because that would mean Romney lost to Huckabee twice. In that case, Romney would have to seriously reconsider his campaign because losing twice to Huckabee would force him to accept the fact that voters simply view Huckabee as a better candidate. So Huckabee will compete in Michigan.
McCain and Huckabee have been quite gracious towards each other in their interviews, the debates, and even in their victory/concession speeches. I don't expect the two of them to hit each other hard in Michigan because they both would like to get Romney out of the race as soon as possible. And also, Huckabee doesn't need Michigan as much as McCain does. South Carolina is where McCain and Huckabee would finally have to run against each other. South Carolinians remember the way McCain was slimed in 2000, and there are a lot of military voters here who respect his support for the mission in Iraq. So South Carolina is not hostile territory for McCain. Huckabee is clearly trying to shore up support among social conservatives, as is evidenced by his pro-life campaign ads that have started making the runs here. So while McCain wins the military vote and Huckabee wins the social conservative vote, they will have to compete directly with each other for the anti-tax vote while hoping Fred Thompson's shadow doesn't loom as large as was once feared.
Rudy Giuliani is still stuck in the parking lot because he has placed all his chips on Florida. I can only wonder how future presidential scholars will look at the Giuliani campaign model. While it may be cheap because he can focus all of his advertising and campaign appearances in one state, it's highly risky because he only gets one chance to get it right. And in addition to that, because he's not currently a major part of the national dialogue, he risks being forgotten or eclipsed by another candidate.
The conventional wisdom says that a divided conservative opposition is good news for Giuliani because his rivals' votes would be dilluted. And this conventional wisdom also says that Romney is Giuliani's worst nightmare because of his deep pockets. All of this remains true. However, this divided opposition is also giving Giuliani's rivals many opportunities to improve their standing in voters' minds as they rack up primary victories and strengthen their own electability arguments. When Giuliani settled on his Florida strategy, Huckabee was still an obscure candidate with great debating skills and McCain was busy licking his political wounds. Now they are both crowding Giuliani out and are getting favorable media coverage while Giuliani is left gasping for oxygen.
On top of that, McCain's national security credentials are stronger than Giuliani's and Huckabee has the social conservative voters that Giuliani can't win. It is quite possible that Giuliani could lose to both of these candidates even if the vote is split.
Fred Thompson's campaign all comes down to South Carolina, but it looks like it's too little too late for him, unfortunately. His problem is that he took the bride down the aisle, but never said "I do." Like Giuliani, it may be too late for him because he is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Second place won't cut it for Thompson this time. He needs to win South Carolina in order to stay alive, but I'm not so sure he even wants to.
Ron Paul finished with a lower percentage of the vote in New Hampshire than in Iowa and has confirmed that his support is not as strong as the straw polls and online polls may have suggested. He will not win the nomination, but remains a player only because he could serve as an effective spoiler candidate who draws angry Republicans and independents away from McCain and Giuliani. I cite those two candidates because they have positioned themselves as the most hawkish on the Iraq War.
As far as ranking the candidates, I'd have to say Huckabee is the frontrunner with McCain second, Romney third, Giuliani fourth, and Thompson fifth. Thompson and Romney have the least margin for error and the clock is ticking for Giuliani as well. McCain and Huckabee are on the verge of becoming Clinton and Obama because of their collective political strength, compelling storylines, and the contrasts they represent.