Showing posts with label electoral behavior. Show all posts
Showing posts with label electoral behavior. Show all posts

9/04/2008

The Problem with Palin's Speech

Sarah Palin delivered a fiery speech at the Republican National Convention last night. This speech was important because it gave her the opportunity to reintroduce herself to Republicans and introduce herself to America as a whole. And because she was buffeted by the press, sometimes unfairly, as the media aggressively combed through her record as governor and mayor and her own personal issues, the country wanted to see how she'd perform. Would she have a glass jaw? Would she shrug it off? Or would she return serve?

The reviews are in and Republicans couldn't be more pleased. Palin clearly beat expectations and proved that she knew how to throw a punch. She gave Republicans a lot of red meat and seasoned it with some tough attacks on Barack Obama and the press, which the crowd loved. Republicans were clearly enthused by Palin and now have a reason to show up and vote for John McCain and not just against Barack Obama this November.

However, Palin may have done more harm than good to John McCain's chances of defeating his Democratic rival. But why?

First of all, if Republicans loved the speech, it goes without saying that Democrats hated it. So in addition to pumping up Republicans, Palin riled up the Democrats as well. Barack Obama capitalized on this by raising $8 million after her speech. Since Obama will not be limited by public financing guidelines, he is free to raise and spend this money at will. And given the rising number of registered Democrats and the stagnant number of registered Republicans, ginning up both bases should only work to the Democrats' advantage. This problem was not lost on one Republican strategist who was not joining in the Republican celebrations of her speech.

What about independents and undecided voters? Imagine going to two car dealerships and seeing two cars that you like. You test drive both of them and can't make a decision. Then one of the car dealers tells you that only losers drive the other car at the other dealership and that the people who work at that other dealership are scumbags. Upon hearing this, most people would probably be turned off by this dealer's attitude because it comes across as unprofessional, immature, and insulting.

In the case of this election, these undecided and independent voters were looking for a reason to vote for John McCain. But instead, they heard Palin mock Obama for being a community organizer, attack him for being self-absorbed, criticize his patriotism, drag his wife into the line of fire, regurgitate some old quotes from some missteps he made on the campaign trail this spring, and blame the media. To these voters, Palin came across like the immature car dealer who resorted to name calling. These voters did not know Sarah Palin prior to last night, but after her speech, they likely concluded that she was too undignified to deserve their vote. So she wasted her opportunity to present her case to voters why she should be in the White House with John McCain. Some news sites have picked up on possible blowback from independents who viewed Palin's attacks as unnecessary and over the top.

Obama was not the only person who was on the receiving end of Palin's barbs. She also inadvertently demeaned community organizers by claiming that as a mayor of a small town, she had "actual responsibilities." This was an ironic remark because Republicans quickly pounced on Barack Obama for his "bitter" remarks that were disparaging to rural America. But by claiming that community organizers didn't have "responsibilities," she offended the very same small-town people Obama offended and came across as an elitist. These community organizers work at the grassroots level and can mobilize their small neighborhoods to get to the polls. CNN's Roland Martin was offended by this remark as well and warned that these community organizers may seek payback at the polls later on.

Barack Obama has two primary bases of support: 1) Democrats and liberals, who probably can't be persuaded to change their minds and vote for John McCain, and 2) more persuadable Republicans, moderates, and independents who have grown weary of the "us vs. them" attack politics that reached their zenith in 2004. Palin's speech fired up the first group of Obama supporters and likely embarrassed the second group of supporters who are wondering where their Republican Party went.

After a highly negative and bullying speech by Rudy Giuliani; another negative speech by Mitt Romney; inappropriate chants of "USA" every time Democrats, liberals, or the media were attacked; and the loaded "country first" chants (which suggest that only John McCain and his supporters put America first); a lot of undecided voters were hoping Sarah Palin would demonstrate a bit of class and be tough without being abrasive. While her supporters may have thought she displayed class and tenacity, people who were not in the McCain-Palin camp likely thought she came across as rude and sophomoric. Barack Obama took the high road the day after her speech, which was a wise decision because the more negative the McCain-Palin campaign becomes, the more presidential it makes Obama look.

In 2004, Democrats learned that being "not Bush" was not good enough to win the presidency. In 2008, Republicans appear to be on their way to learning that running as "Nobama" will yield the same fate. Palin's speech may have pleased the partisans in the convention hall, but millions of voters watching the convention at local bars and in their living rooms were likely quite offended. At a time when voters are worried about the economy and international conflict, turning this election into yet another culture war and slimefest seems politically foolish and plays right into Obama's hands.

8/30/2008

The Palin Standard: The Obama-Palin Experience Debate

John McCain's bold selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has set off a firestorm in the media and the blogosphere about inexperience and hypocrisy in regards to Palin and Barack Obama. It has also led me to create a new entry that I will integrate into my own political lexicon: "The Palin Standard"

Let's examine the political resumes of both candidates:

Barack Obama

Illinois state senator: 8 years
Illinois US senator: 3 years, 8 months

Total experience as an elected official: About 12 years

Sarah Palin

Alaska governor: 1 year, 9 months
Wasilla mayor: 6 years
Wasilla city councilwoman: 6 years

Total experience as an elected official: About 14 years

Republican defenders of Palin commonly say that the difference between the two candidates is that Obama is running at the top of his ticket while Palin is running at the bottom of hers. However, this argument is flawed for two reasons:

1. An inexperienced politician should not be on a presidential ticket at all. It doesn't matter if it's for president or vice president. Both positions entail too much responsibility for a political greenhorn to be entrusted with the White House. It now seems like more experience is required to become a senator than a vice president. Democrats' arguable irresponsibility has introduced a risk quotient that Obama must minimize in order for him to be elected. So how did McCain decide to counter this? By exercising comparable irresponsibility and surrendering one of his few advantages over Obama. And Republican voters' subsequent glee has conveyed to McCain that they condone his decision. Now John McCain has his own risk quotient to deal with because of Palin and the realization that McCain is old and has had several cancer scares.

2. Barack Obama's success is directly attributable to the millions of votes he received during the primary season. So even though he may be relatively inexperienced, enough voters were apparently comfortable enough with his resume to entrust him with their support at the ballot box. His inexperience was essentially forgiven or overlooked by Democratic primary voters, so the critiques of Obama are misplaced. He may be inexperienced, but the voters are the ones who got him this far. He earned his spot at the top of the ticket. So an attack on Obama's inexperience is essentially an attack on the millions of voters who voted for him or donated to his campaign.

Sarah Palin, on the other hand, did not arrive on the ticket because of votes she received or the campaign she ran, but rather because of the fact that she was appointed by John McCain. It is highly unlikely that Palin would have been given serious consideration from Republican voters had she participated in the Republican primaries earlier this year because even though she has experience, Republican primary voters would have concluded that she didn't have enough of it.

Palin does, however, have a unique biography and a message that could potentially resonate with certain constituencies. Of course, everyone in the race right now has a unique biography, so I'm not sure why Palin's is any more or any less unique than the other three candidates'. But stressing this message is a much better strategy for her campaign than stressing her experience because no amount of message-massaging will make this controversy go away.

Her appointment flies in the face of traditional Republican rhetoric, especially in regards to affirmative action. Given Palin's political positions and biography, she is essentially Mike Huckabee in a pantsuit. But he has more experience than she does. The same could be said of Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty. Thus, it seems that the main reason why Palin was chosen was gender, even though he had to pass over other more qualified candidates, male and female alike, in the process. If that's not affirmative action, which Republicans reject, then at the very least it's pandering. In light of Barack Obama's selection of Joe Biden instead of Hillary Clinton to be his running mate, the pandering charge has more plausibility. This could be a terrible miscalculation on McCain's part though because the PUMA wing of the Democratic Party is loyal to Hillary Clinton, not just any woman aspiring for higher office.

Of course, McCain has the right to choose whomever he wants, but conservatives should not be happy about an affirmative action selection or a selection that overtly comes across as him using another politician as a tool. Of course, all presidential nominees, including Obama, choose their running mates to help them get elected, but the fact that McCain had only met with Palin once and hardly knows her should be quite disturbing to most voters. This plays right into Obama's message of "judgment."

Republicans are indeed happy that Palin is fiercely pro-life, pro-gun, anti-tax, and anti-Washington, but the way in which McCain arrived at this particular selection should suggest that their glee is misplaced. To compensate and reconcile their own dissonance, Republicans have tried to portray Palin's record in the best possible light, such as saying she has military experience because she has been in charge of the Alaska National Guard.

However, all governors are in charge of their states' National Guards. This means that Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, President Bush, and even Michael Dukakis were even more qualified than Palin when it came to military affairs because they were in charge of their states' National Guards for longer than she was.

Speaking of the military, because she has a son about to be deployed to Iraq, she somehow has enhanced credibility on managing the war there. Are Republicans, the party of national security, prepared to say she is more credible on Iraq than McCain and Bush are because they she has a child deploying there and they don't? For what it's worth, Joe Biden also has a son deploying to Iraq, so it would seem that this issue of military children should be removed from the table altogether.

This spin exposes other problems for Republicans with their rhetoric:

1. Republicans claim that because Palin was a mayor and a governor, she has more executive experience than Obama. However, Obama has been the chief executive officer of his presidential campaign for 18 months (which is as long as Palin has been governor) which has been the most successful fundraising operation in political history and has been successful enough to win him the nomination. And given the number of campaign workers he has in all 50 states, the size of his campaign may be as large as the entire Alaska state government Palin manages. Of course, Palin was elected and Obama wasn't, but Obama's campaign was a sort of entrepreneurial enterprise, which Republicans should find appealing.

2. If Palin has more executive experience than the Barack Obama, that also means she has more executive experience than her boss John McCain. She would have more executive experience than Joe Biden as well. Does John McCain want to risk undercutting his own message of strength and leadership by having a running mate who has more executive experience than he does? Does she want to risk looking arrogant by claiming that she has more executive experience than Joe Biden even if it's true? Such questions wouldn't concern Obama so much because he's running on change, rather than experience. After all, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, Jim Gilmore, Fred Thompson, and Tommy Thompson all tried running on experience and lost. The McCain campaign would be wise to get away from the discussion of experience and focus more on change because the voters already know about Obama's inexperience and are still more inclined to vote for him than McCain according to most polls.

3. If experience is at a premium, then Joe Biden has the most experience of the four candidates on the tickets. However, Republicans gleefully blasted him as a Washington insider because of his long Senate record. So it would seem to Republicans that if you are inexperienced, you are a weak candidate. But if you have too much experience, you can't be an attractive candidate either. So those two messages are in direct conflict with each other. Also, the Obama-Biden ticket actually has more years of combined experience than the McCain-Palin ticket. So the McCain-Palin ticket loses that argument as well. Obama is not making light of this fact, however, because again, he's running on change instead of experience.

Had Palin at least completed one full term as Alaska's governor, the outrage at her selection would be muted. But because she has not even finished half of her first term, her short gubernatorial tenure is compounded by the small size of the state from which she hails and the size of the town she governed as mayor before that. Palin has served as the mayor of a town that has fewer people than my university. And in regards to Alaska, there are 19 mayors who govern more people than Palin. Fairly or unfairly, that makes her governorship appear less significant.

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with her resume, passing this experience off as sufficiently preparing someone for the vice presidency in Palin's case is a bit of a stretch. How comfortable would shareholders at IBM feel if their new vice president were the recent owner of Jack's Computer Repair Shop on the corner of Green Street and 4th Avenue in Parkersburg, West Virginia? Somehow I think most shareholders would be anxious.

Using the new Palin Standard, I could argue that a manager of a bowling alley has executive experience. The owner of a small business that has 50 employees has executive experience. A high school student council president has executive experience. A first lieutenant in the Army who serves as a company commander has executive experience. The director of a preschool has executive experience. Every single parent in America has executive experience. According to the Palin Standard, Republicans should have no reservations about any of these people being appointed vice president. They also should have voted for Al Gore instead of George Bush in 2000 for the same reason.

This is where the political risk to Democrats enters the equation. If someone objects to Palin's experience as a small town mayor and a governor of a small state, they risk being accused of mocking rural America and the people who live there. (Never mind the fact that Obama represented his small community in Chicago as an Illinois state senator for eight years.) Republicans will portray these criticisms as an affront by liberal elitists who are dogging small town America and will back up their charges with Obama's "bitter" remarks.

But this might not be an effective line of attack for two reasons:

1. Obama and his wife largely acquitted and reintroduced themselves in their speeches at the Democratic National Convention last week and will force most people to admit in their heart of hearts that perhaps Obama is sincere. The impact of his speech is likely a more salient memory of Obama than his "bitter" remarks from this spring. Thus, "bitter" might have lost most of its potency by now and threatens to make McCain and the Republicans seem like they have no new ideas.

2. The Democrats learned in 2004 that running as "not Bush" was not a strategy for winning a presidential election. Republicans who try to run as "not Obama" may end up with the same fate. Would the GOP really be wise to spend its upcoming convention talking about Democrats' disdain of rural America instead of talking about why voters should give Republicans a second look?

Republicans would be wise to stress Palin's message of reform and get away from talk about her experience because at best, it's a wash. And at worst, it's a distraction and eats up time the McCain campaign does not have. Obama is leading in the polls and time the McCain-Palin ticket spends comparing her experience with Obama's is time they are not spending articulating why Republicans should be entrusted with the White House for four more years even though the overwhelming majority of voters believe the nation is on the wrong track.

There's one other unintended consequence of the Palin selection that should concern the McCain campaign. McCain was able to deftly handle the media by announcing this surprise pick immediately after Barack Obama's acceptance speech. He successfully stepped on Obama's post-speech coverage and got him out of the headlines. The new risk for McCain, however, aside from Palin's own unknowns, is the fact that the spotlight currently on Palin could threaten to turn the election from a referendum on Obama into a referendum on McCain's judgment and Palin herself. (Consider this incriminating video.) Barack Obama's chances of winning this election diminish when the election is seen as a referendum on him. However, if the election is a referendum on McCain-Palin, who will undoubtedly continue to be linked to Bush, then Obama has to like his chances.

As I mentioned in my original Palin analysis, she presents McCain with both high risk and high reward. But perhaps there's too much shock value and star power for McCain's own good. At the very least, Republicans will never be able to criticize another Democrat or even another Republican for a lack of experience from now on because of the Palin Standard. She may have been good for McCain in that she got Obama out of the headlines, but the long-term damage to the GOP's ability to discredit a rival politician and the fact that it contradicts key elements of the Republican platform may not have been worth it.

8/29/2008

McCain-Palin Analysis

John McCain surprised the political world by choosing Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. Palin had long been considered a dark horse candidate who was adored in conservative circles, but was often considered a far less likely selection than more established candidates with stronger national profiles like Mitt Romney, Tom Ridge, and Tim Pawlenty.

John McCain must be given credit for snatching the media limelight away from Barack Obama after his powerful speech last night. And by choosing someone who wasn't on most people's radars, this will ensure that the gushing over Obama's speech will be tempered considerably by pundits assessing who Palin is and what she brings to the ticket. This pick clearly shows that McCain is willing to shake up his campaign and try to blunt Obama's message of change.

As a governor, Palin is the only non-senator who will be on the two presidential tickets this fall. She will also be the only person on the tickets who has executive experience, so she can easily portray herself as both an outsider and a reformer. Of course, Barack Obama had been running on the same message, so the challenge for Obama would be to ensure that Palin does not co-opt his message.

Palin is unequivocally pro-life and a strong advocate of other issues important to social conservatives. This should please the Republican base who may have still had reservations about John McCain after the Rick Warren Forum earlier this month. McCain certainly pleased social conservatives at that forum, but tapping Palin to join him shows that he is indeed serious about showing social conservatives that he will be loyal to them. Any doubts they had about him earlier should immediately be erased by this pick. Also, because of the murmurs about McCain choosing Tom Ridge or Joe Lieberman, both of whom are pro-choice, that augments the feeling of relief pro-life voters have about Palin and enhances her appeal.

As a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association who also enjoys fishing, conservative-leaning male gun owners and sportsmen should not feel threatened by Palin. The same holds true for fiscal conservatives, as this statement from the Club for Growth indicates.

Democrats are going to have a difficult time attacking her because she is far removed from Washington. There aren't pages and pages of votes she has to account for, like McCain, Biden, and Obama do. And it inoculates her from Obama's complaints about sending the same politicians back to Washington year after year. Palin has earned a reputation as a reformer who has taken on corruption in Alaska and stood up to politicians, no matter how powerful, in the name of ethics reform. And as an obscure governor, Democrats will be hard pressed to find video of her criticizing McCain. Had McCain chosen Romney, they would have had reels and reels of tape to gleefully sort through. Palin forces the Democrats to reconnoiter.

However, McCain's selection of Palin presents him with several disadvantages. At 44, Palin is younger than Barack Obama (who is 47) and a generation younger than John McCain, whose 72nd birthday is today. In addition to reinforcing John McCain's age, it also prevents Republicans from attacking Obama's youth.

Second, she hails from Alaska. Just like Barack Obama did not need Joe Biden to deliver Delaware, John McCain does not need Sarah Palin to deliver Alaska. (If Alaska was truly in danger of going blue, that would probably signify a problem far greater for the McCain campaign that not even Palin could stop.) A more important consideration that goes beyond this fairly superficial point is the fact that it's difficult to see which states she could be particularly beneficial in. For example, Mitt Romney would have been able to help in Michigan, Nevada, and Colorado. Mike Huckabee would have had strong appeal throughout the South. Alaska, on the other hand, is a small state that may be difficult for voters in the 48 contiguous states to wrap their brains around. Some Republicans tried to paint Hawaii in the same light to show that Obama was "exotic" because of it. That line of attack will not work anymore.

Perhaps Palin's true appeal lies not with geography, but rather with a certain demographic. Female voters may immediately be intrigued by Palin, and the lingering number of diehard Clinton fans may give her a second look. Her staunch pro-life positions, however, may turn many of these women off. But at the same time, as a female, perhaps she can better communicate with them than a male could. A second risk is that this selection could be seen as overt pandering by McCain. After all, he has been running ads all this week suggesting that Barack Obama snubbed Hillary Clinton.

Another common criticism of Obama has been his lack of experience. Obama has served for 8 years in the Illinois State Legislature and 3 years as a senator. Sarah Palin has served as Alaska's governor for less than two years. Prior to that, her political experience comes at the municipal level, where she served as a city councilwoman and mayor of Wasilla, a city that has fewer than 7000 people.

The obvious line of attack from Democrats will be that this undercuts John McCain's message of the importance of experience. Any attack McCain makes on Obama's lack of experience will be countered by reminding voters of Palin's record. Of course, the difference between Obama and Palin is that Palin is running at the bottom of her ticket while Obama is running at the top of his. But the Democrats would likely retort that the vice president should be someone who is "ready from Day One," to use Hillary Clinton's words. Either way, the "experience" weapon has likely been neutralized.

The vice presidential debate looms as the biggest risk associated with Palin. She will have to debate Joe Biden, a strong speaker with vast foreign policy experience. Palin has none. If the debate focuses on domestic issues, Palin may have a chance. But if the debate has a strong military and/or foreign policy component, Biden vs. Palin '08 will look very much like Cheney vs. Edwards '04 or Bentsen vs. Quayle '88. Biden, of course, would have to be careful not to overstep his bounds and risk offending women the way Rick Lazio did against Hillary Clinton in her 2000 senate race.

Tying in with this, Republicans should be worried about ceding the national security issue to Democrats because Barack Obama largely acquitted himself with his acceptance speech last night and Joe Biden has obvious foreign policy and military knowledge. Can Sarah Palin really convince voters that she would be tough on national defense and fighting terrorism? Her political opponents will likely run ads with her picture displayed asking "Can you trust Sarah Palin to stand up to Iran and North Korea?"

Another possible Achilles's heel for Palin concerns something that may very well damage her primary strength: ethics. Palin has been the subject of an ongoing investigation examining whether she abused her power by trying to get a state trooper (her former brother-in-law) fired. This feeds into the Democrats' "culture of corruption" argument and shines an angry spotlight on Alaska, where Representative Don Young and Senator Ted Stevens are both battling ethics investigations of their own. If Palin becomes tainted as well, her political capital will be significantly weakened.

All in all, Palin represents a bold choice for John McCain and should revitalize his campaign and his supporters. While she was largely unknown to most of the electorate, she was a hot topic in conservative circles and the right-leaning blogosphere. However, she cancels out several of Obama's weaknesses and may disappoint ideological Republicans who did not find Obama's experience sufficient and may not find Palin's experience sufficient. (These conservatives felt the same way about Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.) However, she is an ideological ally of the Republican base who may be difficult to attack. And because she is a largely unknown politician, she should attract a lot of attention from the media and voters who want to learn more about her. So perhaps this gamble by McCain is paying off already.

8/21/2008

Obama Veepstakes: Predictions

The major political buzz this week has centered around Obama's vice presidential selection. One of the main parlor games among pundits and the Washington crowd every four years is to guess the nominee and convey that they have more wisdom than the next guy in terms of identifying and disqualifying possible picks.

This wait is almost over now as Obama has announced that he has made his selection. This selection will be revealed either Friday or Saturday by text message. So in true political fashion, The 7-10 will join in the fun by offering my own take on the Obama veepstakes and why some of the more popular names being circulated won't pan out.

1. Obama has made great pains to avoid stepping on his own message by hitting John McCain below the belt. Even though his supporters may want him to go nuclear against his Republican rivals, Obama's message of "new politics" and "change" are preventing him from doing so. As I recently argued, he can't tarnish that message. Likewise, he is running as an outsider who represents fresh ideas. That's another message. Thus, even though there are some strong picks he could make who are currently serving in Washington, Obama's commitment to not diluting his brand may prevent him from taking them on board.

This eliminates Joe Biden, Evan Bayh, and any other active congressman or senator. Biden and Bayh in particular have received a lot of buzz and would be strong choices (especially Biden). But if Obama doesn't want to go against his message, he may have to grudgingly pass over both of them.

2. One of the responsibilities of the vice president is to cast the tie breaking vote in the Senate. Even though the Democrats are still poised to gain several seats, there are several influential senators who do not vote the party line, such as Senators Jim Webb of Virginia, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. So on some votes, Democrats' possible 55-seat majority could really be a mere 51-seat majority. Thus, it makes little sense for Obama to have his vice president, who doubles as the president of the Senate, be a Republican.

This eliminates Chuck Hagel, Richard Lugar, and any other Republican whose name has surfaced as the bottom half of a unity ticket. Interestingly, Obama could actually make the Senate math more favorable for Democrats by tapping a few Republican senators to serve in his cabinet if he wins the election. These senators would then be replaced by their states' governors. If the Republican senator hails from a state with a Democratic governor, that could be a way for the Democrats to pilfer a few seats while allowing Obama to appear bipartisan at the same time.

3. Obama cannot risk looking weak or bullied. He's already having to deal with the image that he is not a strong and decisive leader, especially when compared to the Navy veteran and former POW John McCain. Any gesture that is perceived as acquiescence or caving in to a particular interest group would likely only exacerbate the image of him as weak. Of course, politicians have to respond to voters and retool their messages every day, but his selection of a vice president should be his decision, and his only.

This eliminates Hillary Clinton. She also contradicts his message, which he is loathe to do. Many people say it's up to Barack Obama to heal the party by accommodating Hillary Clinton. But if Hillary Clinton wishes to advance her chances of being President someday, it's incumbent on her to do her part to ensure that her supporters rally behind Obama. All eyes will be on her at next week's convention, so she will have as much responsibility for achieving unity as Obama does.

4. Obama needs someone who knows how to campaign and work a crowd. This person has to be someone who knows how to throw a punch, how to connect with audiences, and how to campaign without overshadowing the presidential nominee himself. Running mates have two main responsibilities: 1) to do no harm to the nominee, and 2) to serve as an attack dog.

This eliminates Bill Richardson and Kathleen Sebelius. Bill Richardson tried to run as the grownup in the room after the Iowa caucuses, but lost badly. Richardson may help deliver a contingency and some Southwestern states, but he is not an energizing figure and is not particularly aggressive on the campaign trail. As for Kathleen Sebelius, she certainly can't be pegged as a Washington insider. However, she may be a little too cool (read noncombative) on the campaign trail and have a hard time putting on the brass knuckles.

This leaves former senators, current and former governors, and former cabinet officials. The gubernatorial ranks seem to be the most fertile grounds from which Obama can choose his running mate. They're not insiders, they have records of accomplishment, they don't threaten the balance of power in the Senate, and they have served in an executive capacity. Of all possible picks, governors probably do the least harm and the most good at the same time.

The 7-10's bold prediction: Virginia Governor Tim Kaine

(But don't be surprised if news breaks that Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell was asked first.)

What are your predictions?

8/20/2008

Fickle Democrats' Buyer's Remorse

Several polls have indicated that the presidential race is getting considerably closer. Nervous Democrats are worried that Obama may choke and are giving him advice to right his ship. These Democrats are looking at the polls and are worrying that their nominee will blow the most winnable election for Democrats in decades.

Obama is not taking it to McCain the way Democrats feel he should if he wants to survive in November. And many Democrats are finding that they had grossly underestimated John McCain. So buyer's remorse is setting in, and some Democrats are grudgingly looking at Hillary Clinton as an increasingly attractive running mate because she has what he lacks.

But this scenario was entirely predictable. It was clear during the primary season that Obama was not the type of politician who would go nuclear on his opponents. His counterattacks were considerably more subtle than Hillary Clinton's "shame on you, Barack Obama" and "Obama had a speech he gave in 2002" broadsides. Part of Obama's appeal was the fact that he really did seem different, positive, and apolitical. But now that the general election campaign is upon us, many Democrats are looking at what was once a virtue as a real handicap. They want Obama to take the gloves off, but he is in a political straitjacket because as soon as he engages in kneecap politics, his opponents will counter that he is just another typical politician. And once that happens, Obama is finished. "Change" is Obama. Once voters no longer believe Obama is a credible change agent, there will be nothing left.

Barack Obama did not win the nomination by engaging Hillary Clinton in hand to hand combat. He did not win by practicing slash and burn politics. He won the nomination by winning Iowa, matching Clinton step for step on Super Tuesday, running up the score in February, and hanging on from March until the end of the primary season. In short, Obama won by fending Clinton off, not by pummeling her into the ground. But had the primary season lasted one more month, would Clinton have caught him?

Clinton clearly ran the better campaign in April and May. Obama essentially limped across the finish line. Now Democrats are nervous. McCain is closing the gap with Obama and has successfully turned the election from a referendum on Bush to a referendum on the Illinois senator. If the election is about Bush and the way things are going today, McCain will lose in a landslide. But if the election is about Obama, McCain has a fighting chance of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

And finally, it was common wisdom that the Democratic primary race would come down to Hillary Clinton and the ABC (Anybody But Clinton) candidate. Some of Obama's support during the primaries was undoubtedly from pro-Obama voters. But a sizable portion also likely consisted of anti-Clinton votes. Running as an anti-Republican or not-Bush candidate now in the general election, however, is not enough for Obama. He needs to give voters a reason to vote for him. He didn't have to do that during the primaries, but he must do that now. "Change" is not enough.

Democrats should have known that running in a general election context is quite different from running for their party's nomination. So they should not be so surprised that Obama may not be as "tough" as they'd like. But that's what they voted for. Interestingly, several of Obama's former rivals are seeing their stock values rise considerably. Many Democrats are looking at Hillary Clinton and wondering "what if?" Joe Biden is commonly seen as leading the veepstakes. Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson have also been mentioned as potential running mates. (John Edwards, on the other hand, is finished.)

But if voters wanted experience, they should have nominated Chris Dodd or Bill Richardson. And if they wanted someone scrappy, they should have nominated Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden. But instead they chose the gentile and cerebral first-term senator with strong oratorical skills and a disdain for bare-knuckle politics. These Democrats may have buyer's remorse, but they can't blame Obama for this. They're the ones who voted for him.

It seems, however, that Obama is showing signs of fighting back. He is sharpening his message and finding a way to respond aggressively to John McCain without being nasty. Democrats should find solace in the fact that Obama adopted this change in August and not October.

As for the polls, both Democrats and Republicans should remember that it is quite natural for polls to fluctuate over the course of a general election campaign. Obama was never going to lead McCain by 7 to 10 points all the way until November. John McCain is a known quantity with an appealing biography and significant cross-electoral appeal. Did Obama supporters honestly expect McCain to be polling south of 40% through Halloween? John McCain's fundraising is improving as Republicans rally behind him. Obama was largely absent from the political scene last week because of his vacation in Hawaii. And McCain has been far more successful at defining Obama than Obama has been at defining himself. So a tightening of the polls should be expected.

But this is all preseason politics. Once the conventions arrive, this race will reset itself and give both candidates their best opportunity to seize momentum heading into the debates.

8/11/2008

Russia and Georgia: What Really Matters

Don Conley, a former speechwriter for Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, wrote an excellent column about the crisis in Georgia and how that should remind voters of what truly matters in this fall's election.

He cites Obama's responses to the conflict, which have been inconsistent at best:

"Obama's response has been all over the map, matching consensus global opinion. At first, he blamed both Georgia and Russia, then called for Russia to withdraw, now he's demanding an immediate cease fire. Events are in the saddle and Obama is going along for the ride--this matches President Bush's approach to the crisis, and that's not a good thing."
John McCain is not immune from Conley's wrath, citing his "bellicosity:"
"Unless McCain is willing to get the US in the middle of every armed conflict on earth--giving new definition to his promise of 'more wars'--a McCain Presidency would mean that we're at least going to enter a new age of foreign policy brinkmanship that will demand a military sufficient to fight these battles. That means either getting out of Iraq or reinstating a draft, because the military today is incapable of matching McCain's rhetoric."
These two passages underscore the importance of the office for which McCain and Obama are running. Elections have consequences, and these consequences concern matters of life and death. McCain, Obama, their surrogates, and partisan defenders may throw around misleading and petty terms like elitist, warmonger, Washington insider, risky, old, and celebrity. But there comes a point when voters must realize that the Presidency of the United States is perhaps the single most important political office in the world and that whoever occupies it should be competent, resourceful, pragmatic, talented, reliable, and strong.

It is easy to call both Obama and McCain out on their rhetoric regarding Georgia and Russia. In the case of Obama, if he is unable to stick to a position or changes it blindly to suit the moment, he will convey to the world that he is a weak and indecisive leader who does not command the respect of our allies or our adversaries. That is not good for our national security.

And in the case of McCain, belligerent rhetoric and sabre rattling must be matched by a military that is large enough and strong enough back him up. Warning Russia about "serious consequences" only to have Russia call our bluff because Vladimir Putin knows we don't have enough troops available to fight on a third front as a result of our continued operations in Iraq and possible military confrontation with Iran would send an equally disconcerting message that the United States is overextended and is vulnerable as a result.

The political impact of the Russian incursion into Georgia may be to place international relations back in the forefront. It helps push Paris Hilton and John Edwards out of the headlines and forces both presidential candidates to talk about foreign policy. This could be a jump ball in that McCain is more likely to be seen as a strong commander in chief while Obama is seen as more likely to improve relationships between the United States and the international community. Fresh off of his world tour last month, Obama has a little more street cred when it comes to the international arena than he had earlier. Even though he received very little bounce in the polls, the imagery of him shaking hands with foreign leaders may provide a latent benefit for him later on. And John McCain can contrast the celebrity caricature of Obama with the need for there to be a serious candidate for serious times. But Obama could counter that one reason why the United States' options are so constricted is because of McCain's "judgment" on Iraq.

Also, as both candidates consider their vice presidential running mates, this would seem to benefit Joe Biden and Tom Ridge. The former is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the latter is the former secretary of Homeland Security. Conversely, this international flare-up does not bode well for Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, or Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty--all of whom are more domestic picks. Of course, the Benazir Bhutto assassination shortly before the Iowa caucuses did not provide any political advantage for candidates like Chris Dodd or Bill Richardson, so perhaps because Georgia is a far away place that most voters have never heard of, many voters simply won't care.

But let's hope not.

It may be August, which is typically a dead month for politics. Voters are having backyard barbecues, family vacations, and nights in front of the television watching the Olympics in Beijing. Hopefully they are paying attention to what is happening in the world right now too though because they need to challenge their presidential candidates to move past their generic vague talking points ("change" and "victory") and flesh out where they stand on issues that actually affect people's lives. What does it say when a YouTube video of Paris Hilton can get more than a million hits, but a video of a meaningful policy discussion concerning war and peace can barely get 10% of that?

Right now, this campaign seems to be reduced to a mere popularity contest in which both candidates are trying their hardest to say as little as possible without getting called out on it. If that's what November comes down to, then either candidate could conceivably win the election. But the nation and perhaps the world will lose as a result of it.

8/04/2008

McCain Pickup Option 1: Michigan

By now, everyone has heard reason after reason why the Democrats should win the White House and increase their majorities in Congress this year. Bush is unpopular. Iraq is unpopular. Gas prices are high. The economy is shaky. The natural political pendulum has swung right for the past 6 or 7 years and is now lurching back towards the left. Barack Obama is raising boatloads of money. John McCain is not a gifted political speaker. Most of the electorate thinks the nation is on the wrong track. And the Democrats are seeing their registration numbers climb while the Republicans' numbers are stagnant or falling.

However, John McCain can still win the White House. And a McCain victory seems to be the best shot Republicans have of avoiding a complete shutout in November. In terms of the electoral map, it is true that he will be on defense more than offense, contrary to Barack Obama. However, McCain's pickup opportunities are so significant that if he were to win just one of these states, it would probably drive a stake through the heart of Obama's presidential bid. Over the next few days, The 7-10 will examine a few of these key states. The first post in this series will deal with Michigan, which is worth 17 electoral votes.

Michigan is a light blue Democratic state that is home to a lot of blue collar voters, as well as a lot of gun owners and sportsmen. However, there is also a large labor population due to the automobile and steel industries located there. The largest city in the state, Detroit, is overwhelmingly Black and Democratic. Also, the Upper Midwest is generally less conservative than the South. This explains why Michigan has become something like the New Jersey of the Midwest in that polls suggest Republicans could make a good run at the state, but can never quite pull it out. So it would seem that this state would be a relatively safe bet for Democrats.

This year might be different, however. Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry were all able to win Michigan. Barack Obama is certainly a stronger candidate than John Kerry, and the national electoral climate is more favorable for Democrats than it was in 2004, but he might have a more difficult time carrying the state this time. This year, a toxic combination of incumbency, race, and the ghost of the primary season is threatening to flip this state red.

The Republican brand may be tarnished nationally, but the Democratic brand is the one taking a hit in Michigan. Beleaguered by a struggling automobile industry, the state's economy is suffering. Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm's popularity has plummeted as plants close and factory workers get laid off. Democrats also occupy both Senate seats and control the state House of Representatives. So they cannot blame Republicans for the mess the state is in.

This is one reason why Mitt Romney is receiving so much buzz as McCain's running mate. In addition to his family's personal connection to the state, his economic competence will likely be well received. The economy is the main issue in Michigan right now, and voters there might have soured enough on Democratic governance of the state and Detroit to give a McCain-Romney ticket Republicans' best chance in 20 years to pluck it from the Democratic column.

The issue of race further complicates things. The largest city in Michigan is Detroit, governed by Kwame Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick is hugely unpopular because of his embarrassing legal woes stemming from lying under oath about extra-marital affairs. The city has high crime and unemployment rates and has led many Whites to leave the city proper and relocate to the suburbs. Thus, there is a bit of racial polarization. Blacks will overwhelmingly vote for Barack Obama. But what about suburban Whites who may lean Democratic philosophically, but be more inclined to try something new? Obama's path to victory depends heavily on running up the score in Detroit and holding down his losses elsewhere. If White suburbanites in Wayne County are turned off from Obama because of Kilpatrick, he could be in serious trouble.

Aside from the tarnished Democratic brand and the possibly racialized electorate, the fact that Michigan is close to being a toss-up is also an unintended consequence of the wrangling between the state and national Democratic parties during the primary season. Everybody remembers that Michigan violated party rules by scheduling its primary before it was authorized to do so. As a result, Barack Obama removed his name from the ballot and did not campaign heavily there. John McCain, on the other hand, was locked in a close race against former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Thus, McCain spent a lot of time running ads and holding campaign events across the state. And this is all on top of the reservoir of goodwill he had developed from his 2000 campaign when he won the state's primary.

In light of all these bad breaks for Barack Obama, John McCain is right to concentrate so heavily on this state. Its 17 electoral votes are nothing to sneeze at because if Obama loses Michigan, he will have to offset it by winning Ohio or sweeping the Southwestern trio of Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. But Ohio is not guaranteed and the extent to which the Southwest is turning blue is not yet fully known.

Much has been said about Barack Obama's ability to play in Ohio, Indiana, Georgia Virginia, the Rockies, and the Southwest. But he would be wise to make holding Michigan his first priority because Obama's path to 270 would become a lot more dangerous if he had to cobble together victories in Montana, North Dakota, and the Southwest. His chances of winning Michigan are still at least 50-50, but he is running in a headwind created by the likes of the governor, the state legislature, Detroit's mayor, and the Michigan Democratic Party.

Of course, If Obama is able to hold it, John McCain will be forced to defend all the other Bush states if he wants to win the White House because his pickup opportunities are few and far between. But because New Mexico and Iowa are looking bluer by the day, McCain will be forced to find a pickup opportunity elsewhere. However, McCain's task of winning just one state may be easier than Obama's task of winning three. And for that reason, Michigan looks to be one of this year's hottest contests.

Next installment: Pennsylvania

8/01/2008

The Myth of Arrogance

One of the more interesting criticisms of Barack Obama that has surfaced over the past few weeks is that he is both arrogant and presumptuous. This line of attack dovetails from the inexperienced and elitist charges that have dogged his campaign since he first entered the race. Of course, Obama has helped create the narrative of elitism by making ill-advised remarks about "bitter" voters in rural areas and Michelle Obama's awkward comment about being proud of the United States for the first time in her adult life. This narrative has really hindered Obama with rural voters, Whites, seniors, and blue-collar voters and has provided the main rationale for Hillary Clinton to be selected as his vice president.

John McCain is right to try and drive a wedge between Obama and the constituencies listed above because that's politically potent. Voters have a long list of qualities they like in a future president, but one of them that is difficult to quantify is the empathy factor. Does this politician understand people like me? Can this politician relate to me? Does this politician seem genuinely interested in the concerns of people like me? Given Obama's gaffes, it is easy to see why he is having a bit of trouble with the voters listed above. But no politician can ever please all voters all the time. After all, John McCain is not immune to this inability to make inroads with certain segments of the electorate either, as his struggles with Black voters, young voters, and urban voters suggest.

However, Barack Obama could easily parry these accusations of arrogance. It's an empty line of attack that opens politicians up to allegations of hypocrisy and phony outrage. The problem for Obama, however, is that he must not be afraid to get a bit muddy because taking the high road and trying to coast to victory this November would be a disaster.

Every politician who runs for President is arrogant on at least some level. They are almost always rich. They graduated from Harvard, Georgetown, Stanford, and Yale. They are elitists. They love the media spotlight. And even when they complain about the media, they are usually happy to receive airtime. And because of the office for which they are running (the presidency), they must inherently believe that they are better than any other person in the United States in terms of leadership, intelligence, vision, and political ideology.

That's arrogance. But it's also necessary. Imagine the reaction if a presidential candidate admitted that his rival was more knowledgeable about Issue X than he was. That rival would immediately turn that into a campaign ad that would bury the humble candidate alive. How would fundraisers and donors feel if their candidate spent more time talking about his own shortcomings than his actual strengths? ("Please donate $50 so you can help this mediocre candidate win even though he doesn't deserve it!") Would voters really be inclined to support someone who didn't feel confident about his own chances of victory? ("I don't think I'm going to win, but I want you to vote for me anyway!")

That's not how politics works. Yes, Barack Obama was arrogant in his use of a mock presidential seal at a campaign event earlier this summer. But John McCain was even more arrogant in his accusing Barack Obama of wanting to lose a war before losing an election. The difference, of course, is that the Obama campaign is not making arrogance a central issue of this campaign. However, the McCain campaign is.

Obama has tried to deal with these attacks dismissively. He mocks the attacks. He laughs them off by saying "He knows better." He portrays the attacks as undignified. "That's beneath John McCain." He's "disappointed" in the unfortunate remarks. He is leaving it up to the voters to see these attacks for what they are--stupid.

The problem, however, is that the people who know these attacks are stupid are already in Obama's corner and they aren't leaving him. There are a lot of other voters out there, however, who might consider voting for Obama, but won't because these attacks have resonance. To these voters, if Obama doesn't fight back or denounce them, the attacks must be true. And by not fighting back, that reinforces Obama's perceived weakness in terms of being seen as a strong leader or commander-in-chief. And if he's not willing to stand up for himself, how can voters trust that he will stand up for America?

But is it in Obama's nature to confront these attacks head on? Is his professorial approach to political communication really going to help bring these new potential voters on board? One of Hillary Clinton's enduring qualities was her tenacity. She knew she would get beat up in her campaign, but the difference between her and Obama is that even though she got beat up, she decided she might as well fight.

This is not to say that Barack Obama has to engage in kneecap politics by spreading rumors or dredging up old scandals related to McCain. However, it would be in his best interest to show a little more heart and be a little less cerebral when it comes to mixing it up with McCain. Children get angry when other children talk bad about their mother. Men get angry when someone badmouths their family. People take great offense to others who attack their hometown. Yes, Obama may have offended some of these voters with his "bitter" remarks this spring. But he has a chance to repair some of the damage by showing that he too knows how to stand up for himself and fight.

As the overall political landscape suggests right now in terms of polls, fundraising, the national mood, and right track/wrong track sentiment, John McCain cannot win this election. Barack Obama, however, can lose it. Obama would be wise to learn from the failed candidacies of John Kerry and Al Gore and not be afraid to take it to his rivals with firmness, not disdain.

7/24/2008

Visions of Elections Past

There has been a Republican in the White House for the past 7 years, aided by a Republican-controlled Congress for 6 of those 7 years. This president is tremendously unpopular and has been for years. This year's Republican nominee has embraced this unpopular president and provided near 100% support of his agenda. The economy is shaky. Banks are losing money. People are getting thrown out of their homes. People are commonly shelling out more than $50 every time they go to the gas station. The nation is fighting an unpopular and mismanaged war with mounting casualties. The Democratic nominee has shattered fundraising records, is a gifted speaker, and has cobbled together the support of various disparate demographic groups.

And yet, John McCain is still in this race.

Given all the dynamics of this race and how close it is even though so many indicators suggest that this election should be a blowout, it is difficult for pundits to put a finger on just how this election will turn out. The polls and the campaign dynamics so far all suggest a blowout, a squeaker, a letdown, or an upset are all plausible.

So what's going to happen? Perhaps the clue lies in elections past, many of which mirror the 2008 campaign perfectly.

2008 will be like 1996: The clash of generations.

Barack Obama is the clear frontrunner, just like Bill Clinton was in his reelection campaign. He's youthful. He's charismatic. He's hip. And people seem to like him much like they did the sax-playing Clinton. John McCain is the underdog. He has a hard time making headlines and generating buzz despite his advantages. He has a long record of public service and served valiantly in combat. And a large part of the electorate agrees with his political philosophy. But he's old. He sounds tired. He represents the past, not the future. He's Bob Dole. If this is what 2008 boils down to, this election should be a comfortable one for Obama. It won't be a landslide and Obama might not even win a majority of the popular vote, but this election won't keep everyone on the edge of their seats like the last two elections did. Obama knows he will win. McCain knows he will lose.

2008 will be like 1992 and 2000: Spoilers crash the party.

Third-party candidacies are not rare in presidential politics, but every so often, they have a very significant impact. Ralph Nader's candidacy torpedoed Al Gore's White House bid in 2000. And Pat Buchanan gave many Republicans fits throughout the 1990s. While Ralph Nader won't garner nearly as many votes this time around, former Republican and current Libertarian nominee Bob Barr will. And Bob Barr will wreak havoc on John McCain's electoral chances in North Carolina, Colorado, and Georgia. There are even indications that Barr is hurting McCain to Obama's advantage just enough in the ruby red state of South Carolina to make Obama aides salivate.

John McCain is not the only candidate who has to worry about a gadfly candidacy. Former Democratic Representative Cynthia McKinney will also be on the ballot as the Green Party nominee. She represented a district in Atlanta, thus potentially complicating Obama's dreams of taking advantage of Bob Barr's candidacy and flipping Georgia blue. However, Barr will do far more damage than McKinney in Georgia. McKinney has a very small base of support which consists mostly of Blacks, and it's hard to see why Blacks who are eager to elect the first Black (or rather, biracial) president would essentially "waste" their vote on McKinney. And given her previous run-ins with the law, it's hard to see why many voters would take her seriously.

Imagine these results on election night:

Colorado: Obama 46, McCain 44, Barr 7
Georgia: Obama 44, McCain 43, Barr 8, McKinney 1
North Carolina: Obama 46, McCain 44, Barr 6


Should this materialize, Obama would be well on his way to shellacking McCain and would have to offer Barr a position in his cabinet after Inauguration Day as a token of his appreciation.

Just like Nader, who won less than 5% of the vote nationwide, was able to ruin Al Gore's candidacy in Florida, Ross Perot caused serious heartburn for George H.W. Bush across the nation. Perot's independent bid clearly wounded George Bush and allowed Bill Clinton to win a lot of states that Democrats weren't used to winning.

2008 will be like 1980: Pass the interview first and then win in a landslide.

The country is pessimistic and desperately wants to change direction. They're fed up with the current leadership, but don't want to take a gamble on the new kid on the block until he has successfully proven himself as at least marginally competent and acceptable. This is what happened with Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Carter was an unpopular president and the nation was in a sour mood because of the Iranian hostage crisis and oil prices, but voters were reluctant to send Reagan to the White House. After he held his own in the debates, however, undecided and independent voters flocked to the California Republican in droves.

And now 28 years later, should Obama comes across reasonably decent and knowledgeable in the debates, this fairly close election will turn into a rout. If Obama bombs in the debates, the country will simply vote for McCain because even though they may disagree with his policies, they will at least say he is ready.

It is worth noting that 2004 was another potential 1980 election as well. John Kerry had his chance to prove himself marginally acceptable as a campaigner and a candidate, but failed and narrowly lost even though the nation was already beginning to sour on George Bush and the direction of the nation. Inauthentically donning hunting gear and citing the sexuality of Dick Cheney's daughter in the final debate are two fatal mistakes that turned many voters off and sealed his fate.

2008 will be like 1960: The nailbiting beauty contest and the predecessor to "experience vs. change."

Seeing Obama and McCain side by side on television can only work to Obama's advantage just like John Kennedy was able to use the televised debates to his advantage. These debates ruined Richard Nixon because his five-o'clock shadow and sweating did not flatter him. 1960 was a very close election, but Nixon could not capitalize on the image factor. Seeing the youthful and vibrant Obama standing next to the older, tired-looking McCain will not make for good visuals at the debates.

The historic 1960 campaign shared another theme with this year's campaign: experience vs. change. Nixon was the Washington old hand with the lengthier political resume. Kennedy was youthful and fresh. Nixon argued that experience mattered. And he had a valid point. But the voters wanted "change" a little bit more.

Other candidates ran on experience this year and lost.

Chris Dodd and Joe Biden ran on experience and lost in Iowa.
Bill Richardson ran on experience and lost in New Hampshire.
Hillary Clinton ran on experience and lost the nomination.

Will John McCain run on this same losing message and lose the general election?

2008 will be like 2000: The nightmare.

Barack Obama will run up the score in reliably Democratic states like New York, Illinois, and California and narrowly lose the South. The energized Black vote will make him competitive in places like South Carolina and Mississippi, but he won't be able to flip them. John McCain will steal either Michigan or Pennsylvania while narrowly defending the other Bush states, including Ohio. Obama will win the popular vote while McCain wins the electoral vote. This will be an absolute heartbreaker for the Democrats and would likely be met with calls (even from Republicans) to abandon the Electoral College altogether.

Should McCain win in 2008 just like Bush won in 2000 (by losing the popular vote), it will be interesting to see how politicians in Iraq view the results. They may use this as another reason to reject US involvement in their affairs because if politicians who don't win the most votes are able to win the presidency, they may conclude that they don't need that kind of "democracy" in their country.

2008 will be like 1988: The collapse.

2008 will be like 1988. After eight years of Republican control of the White House, the time seems right for the political pendulum to swing in favor of the Democrats. Obama is leading in all the polls and seems to be on his way to a comfortable victory this fall. But he will get tripped up like Michael Dukakis did in one of the debates or be hamstrung by an unflattering picture that makes voters take him less seriously. Visions of John Kerry hunting and Michael Dukakis riding in a tank swirl through everyone's heads. In this scenario, John McCain would win the presidency the same way he won the nomination--by not losing it.

2008 will be like 2004: Anti-Republican sentiment is overrated.

By most media accounts, George Bush was supposed to lose in 2004. He was the bumbling tough-talker who didn't know how to lead the nation. His 9-11 halo was fading and people were beginning to have doubts about Iraq. John Kerry was supposed to provide voters with the opportunity to "get it right" this time and show that Bush's election in 2000 was a fluke.

But Bush won, and the Republicans expanded their majorities in both houses of Congress. People attributed Bush's victory to a weak Democratic candidate or shenanigans in Ohio. But what about the possibility that there was a silent majority of voters who actually liked President Bush and/or his policies?

Four years later, the media and polls are showing the same sentiments that buoyed Kerry. People lampoon Obama as the new messiah. He's not only the presumptive Democratic nominee, but also the presumptive 44th president. People are tired of Republicans, the Bush brand, and conservative principles. So Obama should have this election in the bag. November should merely be a coronation, right? Right?

And then McCain methodically cobbles together enough states to win in November and leaves Democrats, liberals, and the international community wondering yet again how the Republicans pulled this out. It might not be because Obama is weak or because his ideas weren't that popular. It might just be a matter of John McCain and conservatism being underestimated.

The fact that 2008 could plausibly turn out like any of these previous elections makes this election so difficult to handicap. All the indicators seem to favor an Obama victory, but a rookie mistake, a gadfly third-party candidacy, a mishandled debate question, poor stage presence, or the specter of a 2000 repeat are all very real prospects that could throw any and all political analysis and punditry out the window.

What an amazing campaign.

7/21/2008

John McCain and Obama's Trip: A Failure of Bravado

John McCain and Republicans have repeatedly criticized Barack Obama for not visiting Iraq and consulting with the military and political leaders there. Many Republican officials and conservative bloggers mocked him by starting a clock keeping track of how many days it has been since Obama last visited Iraq. These clocks have been common fixtures on Republican and conservative blogs. The Republican National Committee was the impetus behind this clock, as this quote from Chairman Robert Duncan indicates:

"Barack Obama has only visited Iraq once--and that was 871 days ago. Obama's failure to visit Iraq, listen and learn firsthand, and witness the surge's progress demonstrates weak leadership that disqualifies him from being Commander in Chief."
Even Republican vice presidential hopeful Mitt Romney blasted Obama for not visiting Iraq:
"I don’t see how a United States senator who is looking to be the nominee of his party and create policy with regards to terrorism and policy with regards to Iraq could simply avoid going to Iraq and learning about how the surge was working. I mean the surge was working. It's too bad he missed it."
Obama eventually called their bluff and scheduled a trip to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East, and Europe. The McCain campaign initially minimized Obama's trip as an overseas campaign rally (after ridiculing him for not even going), and that's when the wheels came off.

In just one week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has come out in support of Obama's plan by saying he wants military troops to leave Iraq by 2010. President Bush is calling for a "general time horizon" regarding the future in Iraq which contradicts McCain's position of not creating "timelines." And the United States has recently sent mid-level envoys to meet with the Iranians in Switzerland, further buttressing Obama's openness to initiating dialogues with rogue nations. And as the situation in Iraq improves, the battle in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly perilous. Now it might become militarily necessary for troops to be taken out of Iraq and redeployed to Afghanistan to help stabilize the situation there. That further undercuts McCain's message of staying in Iraq until "victory" is achieved. This is all quite validating for Barack Obama while making John McCain's positions look increasingly lonely.

Now Obama is getting favorable press coverage and gets to look presidential shaking hands with the soldiers and leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan while McCain gives press conferences with President George H.W. Bush in Maine. He even scored more political gold by making a tough basketball shot in a gym surrounded by soldiers. The Obama campaign couldn't have asked for better imagery. Even though making a basketball shot has nothing to do with one's ability to govern, Obama actually made himself look cool while perhaps subtly reminding voters of his youth--in contrast to the elder McCain. It also works against the elitist caricature because elitists don't know what to do with basketballs, much less know how to shoot them.

The pictures and videos of Obama shaking hands and smiling with the troops in Iraq shows that the military likes him. Republicans who accused liberals and Democrats of "not supporting the troops" should also have egg on their faces because the cheering troops in the videos that have come from his trip so far suggest that Obama is actually quite popular among them.

So now Obama is traveling from country to country and meeting various military and foreign leaders with all of the major media outlets in tow. He looks presidential. He's receiving enthusiastic crowds. He's giving voters the opportunity to actually see him conducting mock presidential duties. And that undercuts the common McCain attack of Obama being inexperienced because the photos and videos of him in Iraq are suggesting that even if he may be inexperienced, he is at least experienced enough.

Obama obviously won't be an expert on international relations after this one trip, but it's difficult to criticize Obama for not going to Iraq and then criticize him for actually going. And if Obama's not going to Iraq was such a big deal earlier, why are so many Republicans and conservatives minimizing the trip's significance now? Complaints about how much money this trip is costing taxpayers seems a bit silly because his opponents are the ones who goaded him into making this trip to begin with. And McCain has visited Iraq at taxpayers' expense several times, so it would seem that conservatives' outrage is misplaced.

McCain forced Obama to play on his turf and so far, Obama is rising to the challenge. Obama will probably cut into McCain's lead when it comes to military and foreign affairs. And this trip has knocked McCain out of the headlines. And even worse, it will be hard for McCain to criticize Obama's trip in the future without it sounding like sour grapes. Oh, and because he went, McCain lost his talking point about Obama not talking with the military leaders there too.

So McCain has to find a way to make himself relevant again or risk falling too far behind Obama in the polls to catch up without help. One possible way to seize the microphone would be to name his running mate early. But this would give him one less tool in his arsenal that he could use after the Olympics and the Democratic Convention. Another option is to go back to Iraq, but that may make it seem like he's going for political reasons (to keep up with Obama) instead of pragmatic reasons (to get information from the military commanders there).

McCain is making some political hay out of the New York Times' rejection of his essay on Iraq in its op-ed pages. Complaining about media bias is always a good way to drum up support among the conservative base, but it is worth mentioning that the New York Times endorsed John McCain in the Republican primaries and did not endorse Barack Obama (the Times endorsed Hillary Clinton instead). And is it in McCain's best interest to play the victim at home while Obama is looking strong overseas?

The moral of the story is to be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. This is an example of simple politics and talking points backfiring and leaving your campaign worse off than you would have been had you kept your mouth shut.

7/15/2008

The Obama Caricatures Revisited

The liberal magazine The New Yorker provided the latest bit of controversy with the cover of its latest issue. If you haven't seen this provocative cover by now, you can access it here.

The New Yorker essentially took every false impression of Obama and meshed them together into cover art that can accurately be described as brilliant, tasteless, courageous, and slanderous. While some may have found this cover tasteless or irresponsible, cries for censorship seem a bit overboard and will not gain much traction.

Voters who understand satire know what this cover is all about. Barack HUSSEIN Obama is dressed as a proud Arab Muslim while an angry-looking Michelle Obama is dressed as a radical Black militant with a machine gun and an afro. Both are doing a "terrorist fist jab," as opposed to a more benign fist bump. No flag lapel pin is to be found on Obama's shirt, but an American flag is burning in the fireplace under a portrait of Osama bin Laden, whom Obama reveres. After all, Obama is an unpatriotic terrorist sympathizer who has no allegiance to the United States and can't wait to destroy this nation from within.

The New Yorker's combination of satire and hyperbole should (emphasis on "should") lead voters to realize that these persistent rumors about Obama are completely unfounded and that this caricature of him is obviously both invalid and silly. However, voters who didn't buy into these Muslim rumors to begin with or who later arrived at the truth about Obama didn't need this magazine cover to prove these rumors false. Also, it is important to note once again that The New Yorker is a liberal magazine. Obama's liberal base would be more likely to read this magazine than other voters, but they were already comfortable with Obama and understand the satirical aspect of the cover. So that begs the question of exactly who The New Yorker's audience was. (Imagine the outrage if a conservative publication like the National Review had used this cover!)

Notice my use of the word "should" in the previous paragraph. Remember, this nation is not long removed from "freedom fries," accusing people who disagreed with President Bush's war policies of being "against America," and viewing flag pins as the only unequivocal way to express one's patriotism. But these voters don't read The New Yorker. Many of them have probably never even heard of it. And they probably weren't going to vote for Obama either. These voters will probably look at this provocative magazine cover and conclude that his lack of forcefully denouncing it means the caricature must be true. Obama can't win with these voters and shouldn't waste his time with them.

Yes, a significant part of the electorate is decidedly anti-Obama for reasons that are unrelated to his liberal ideology. Think about all the advantages a generic Democrat has over a generic Republican on issue after issue in most polls. There's an unpopular war, a shaky economy, an unpopular two-term Republican president, and greater dissatisfaction among voters with the Republican Party. But Barack Obama the candidate is only barely beating John McCain the candidate. So it would seem that Obama's underperformance in spite of so many favorable indicators to the contrary is at least partially due to an anti-Muslim, anti-Black vote. The anti-liberal vote doesn't care one iota about Obama or The New Yorker either, but at least their opposition is more benign.

The danger for Obama is that these kinds of stories only get people talking about the very stuff Obama is trying to avoid--not because he's a closet Muslim radical, but rather because it takes him off message. He would much rather talk about his plan for the economy and Afghanistan than how offended he was by some magazine cover. And because Obama is still new to the political scene, voters are still forming their impressions of him as a politician. Surely, he would rather define himself than have others define him the way Tony Rezko, Jeremiah Wright, Michael Pfleger, Wesley Clark, Jesse Jackson, and now The New Yorker have done with varying degrees of success.

As for political ramifications, this controversy is not good news for Hillary Clinton either. Some of her campaign volunteers were responsible for spreading some of these rumors before the Iowa caucuses last fall. And Clinton herself did not definitively swat down rumors about Obama's religion by claiming that he was not a Muslim "as far as she knew." In other words, her veepstakes odds may have become a little longer.

Of course, the fact that people are at least talking about this magazine cover is good for society because dialogue breeds understanding. Anytime the nation talks about ethics and race, progress is being made. Obama's candidacy is forcing everyone to reassess issues of race, religion, and gender.

Also, as an unintended advantage for Obama, voters who disagree with his politics may support him regardless because they view his election as a means by which they can repudiate the media, the punditry, and tabloid journalism in general. They might not like his politics, but they are fed up with the sideshows, phony outrage, misplaced priorities, insincere retractions, and forced expressions of contrition that have plagued this campaign season.

Having said all that, this controversy illustrates another problem with the nexus of politics, the media, and voters.

When voters complain about their politicians not offering enough specifics, media feeding frenzies like this magazine cover are often to blame. Until voters demand more from their politicians and audiences demand more from the media, it will only be a matter of days before the nation is distracted yet again by another surrogate- or media-induced controversy. Politics should be about governance, but it is treated as an extended soap opera in which people spend more time dissecting and anticipating missteps than actually analyzing their policies. Our short attention spans are exploited by the media whenever they seize on these distractions.

At what point will voters and the media stop focusing on these sideshows? Why should anybody care what Pundit X, Talking Head Y, and the staff at Media Organization Z think? This campaign should be about Barack Obama's and John McCain's plans for the nation. Our political discussion should be about the economy, taxes, immigration, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Supreme Court, domestic spending, and foreign policy. But this pragmatism is nowhere to be found, as the campaigns have come to be defined by flag pins, fist bumps, cooking recipes, genitalia, Vietnam, pastors, White entitlement, and now magazine covers. Again, while it is good that the nation is discussing issues of race, gender, and religion, even if awkwardly, it must be stated that the way in which our nation's political dialogue can so easily be derailed by peripheral matters is doing everyone a great disservice.

7/04/2008

The Veepstakes: Mitt Romney

The 7-10 wishes everyone a happy and safe Independence Day holiday.

Given the holiday, political news has pretty much come to a standstill. After the holiday, although many people won't be paying attention to politics because of the dog days of summer, the main story will be the selection of vice presidential running mates by John McCain and Barack Obama. This political cease fire affords political observers a rare opportunity to take stock of how various potential running mates are faring, unencumbered by the 24-hour news cycle.

Over the next few weeks, I will assess some of the more popular names being tossed around for vice presidential picks. In my first installment, I will focus on McCain's chief rival from the primaries: Mitt Romney.

The former Massachusetts governor seems to be the most logical and most beneficial pick for John McCain. I was originally skeptical about his political future, but have since become more bullish about his chances.

Romney will not help deliver Massachusetts, but it could make the light blue states of New Jersey and Michigan a bit more likely. The fact that he is Michigan's favorite son and that Michigan's economy is faltering under Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm's leadership makes Michigan perhaps the single best Republican pickup opportunity after New Hampshire. Gov. Granholm's struggles make Romney's business experience an even stronger asset. This street cred Romney has on the economy has the added bonus of potentially putting an end to the nagging questions about McCain's knowledge of economic issues. And given today's fragile economy and rising gas prices, voters outside of Michigan may also respond favorably to Romney's economic message.

But McCain won't be the only person who benefits from this selection. If McCain wins the election, he would likely serve just one term. This would then put Romney next in line to ascend to the presidency in 2012. And if McCain loses the election, Romney's stock value will have increased so much by supporting the Republican nominee and defending conservative values that he should be the frontrunner in the 2012 campaign.

Of course, every rose has its thorns. The Republicans are trying to hammer Barack Obama on changing his positions for political expediency. Framing him as a typical politician may be smart because the more voters doubt Obama, the more comfortable they will feel with McCain. However, adding Mitt Romney to the ticket will make it a lot harder for the Republicans to attack Obama on changing his positions because of Romney's infamous contortions on gay rights and abortion rights. McCain even mocked Romney as the candidate of change in one of the debates.

Also, McCain has a charisma deficit that is only further magnified by Obama's galvanizing speaking ability. Romney would not do anything to offset this, as his inability to connect with voters is partly to blame for his failed run for the nomination.

His great personal wealth could help McCain keep up with Obama's advertising budget, it would also remove another weapon from the GOP arsenal. Having a net worth of over $200 million would only make Republicans look ridiculous as they try to label Barack Obama as an elitist even though he is worth far less. It could also bring back stories of Cindy McCain's net worth, which some estimate at over $100 million. That might take away some of the edge from attacks on Michelle Obama.

In terms of demographics, his Mormonism would undoubtedly help him in the purple state of Nevada, which is right next door to the home base of Mormonism--Utah. But this is a mixed bag because McCain is having trouble solidifying support among the evangelical wing of his base. This is unfair to Romney, but the primaries proved that there is significant resistance to him because of his faith. Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee capitalized on this.

Should McCain choose Romney, the Obama campaign may feel more optimistic about evangelicals either staying home or even voting for Obama who is making inroads with the religious community by talking about faith. These voters are not happy about Romney's previous positions on issues important to them, like gay rights, gun rights, and abortion. This would open up North Carolina, Georgia, Missouri, and possibly Arkansas (if the Clintons campaign for him there). If Obama snatches North Carolina, that would force McCain to win Iowa and Wisconsin. If Missouri goes blue, that would force McCain to add Minnesota to his column. Money McCain has to spend defending traditional red states like North Carolina is money he is not spending on offense in Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Minnesota.

In short, the three main benefits of a Romney selection would be money, Michigan, and economic competence. But he neutralizes several Republican weapons and may potentially do McCain harm by not shoring up his base in the South. McCain could certainly do worse than selecting Romney, but this pick may introduce a bit too many unintended consequences to make McCain comfortable selecting him.

Next post: Hillary Clinton

6/28/2008

How Obama Can Lose the Election

Voters' trust is the single most valuable commodity any politician can have. Trust is what prompts voters to donate their hard earned cash to a candidate's campaign, give a candidate hours of their precious time by working at a phone bank or voter registration drive, and win their support at the ballot box. But once this trust has been lost, it is impossible to get it back. A politician who displays sufficient contrition or humility might be able to recover some of the trust that was lost, but the bond will never be as strong as it once was.

Earning voters' trust has been Barack Obama's main strength, as he has successfully tapped into the hearts of millions of voters who want to believe that he can usher in a new chapter of American history that is brighter than what characterizes the nation today. This trust is manifested in millions of small-dollar campaign contributions, viral videos on YouTube and Facebook, and record-breaking attendance at his campaign events.

Having defeated a cadre of talented rivals who boasted much longer track records of public service and accomplishments, Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee for President. His focus has shifted from keeping John Edwards from overtaking him to muscling past Hillary Clinton to putting Hillary Clinton away for good to keeping John McCain out of the White House. Of course, as a nominee's focus shifts from the primaries to the general election, it is common to make a strategic move towards the political center. Partisan bases may win primaries, but crossover appeal wins elections.

Barack Obama understands that this type of political posturing is essential for his success this November. However, as he makes his transition to general election mode and gets used to his status as the frontrunner instead of the insurgent, he runs the risk of damaging his political fortunes far more than anything the Republicans may throw at him.

Obama's campaign slogan is "Change we can believe in." Unfortunately for Obama, his post-Clinton campaign has provided several warnings that he should be cognizant of, lest he risk permanently damaging his brand and the commodity of trust I mentioned earlier.

For example, John McCain has extended several invitations to Obama to have them conduct town hall meetings together for ten consecutive weeks. However, Obama has rejected these invitations for various reasons. John McCain is to be commended for proposing these town halls because they allow voters to engage the candidates directly and without the presence of obfuscating campaign spokesmen and staffers. In an age where so many politicians are scripted and message discipline and gatekeeping are par for the course, informal town hall debates seem like a bit of fresh air.

The Obama campaign cites a desire to reach a broader audience as its primary reason for refusing to participate in the town hall debates. However, that would seem to contradict his popular campaign anecdote about the "fired up" woman from Greenwood, South Carolina, and how "one voice can change a room" and how "one room can change a city, etc." The reason why Obama is not participating in these town halls has nothing to do with reaching as many people as possible; it's simple politics. Frontrunners typically want to avoid debates because they don't want to elevate their opponents or give them a chance to inflict lasting damage. Underdogs typically want to have more debates so they can have more opportunities to increase their exposure and share the stage with their better positioned rivals. Not participating in town halls with John McCain over the summer is about preserving his lead in the polls and not giving McCain any opportunities to cut into that lead.

How politically convenient.

A second threat to Obama's campaign concerns public campaign financing. Obama's reversal on public financing is another issue that is not particularly newsworthy when taken on its own, but has a bit more significance when taken in the context of what his campaign is supposed to represent. Obama has spoken out about the need for "getting special interests and big money out of politics." He was a strong advocate for the public financing of presidential campaigns and transparency in government. But when he decided to renege on this commitment, he cited the need to defend himself against "opponents who have become masters at gaming this broken system."

Public financing of campaigns is a bit too archaic of a political issue to really engage voters. So it was a calculated gamble for Obama to sacrifice a few days of bad press for a few months of being able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. John McCain and his surrogates have attacked Obama for violating his word on this issue, but these attacks were likely not so effective because McCain is not exactly innocent when it comes to public campaign financing either.

However, Obama's supporters may have looked at his decision to opt out of public financing and wonder if the "candidate of change" is really doing nothing more than changing his political stripes. While partisan Democrats may relish the idea of their candidate being able to have a major cash advantage heading into the general election, a lot of new voters who responded to Obama's message of hope, staying positive, ushering in a new kind of politics, and "change we can believe in" may have some newfound reservations about him. He had one position when he didn't have so much money and was behind in the polls, but he had another position after he found himself becoming the most prolific fundraiser in American political history.

How politically convenient.

Public financing and ducking the town halls with John McCain are probably far more damaging to Barack Obama than his contortions on the Second Amendment or foreign policy. As I mentioned earlier, all politicians must tack to the political center for the general election. But this political posturing involves simple ideology. Voters can accept that as part of what politicians have to do for their own political survival. However, Obama's decisions regarding public financing and the town hall debates with John McCain constitute political posturing that involves civics. Ideology is about abstract and impersonal ideas, but civics are about actual voters. Voters don't like to be taken advantage of, and they will react harshly when they feel their trust has been violated.

Obama's political history is too short for him to have a deep reservoir of goodwill among voters. So he has to be very careful not to taint this well with his own gestures of political expediency. Republicans are right to bring this up in their attacks on Obama, but when his actual supporters start asking these very same questions, Obama will be in serious trouble.

If the November election is a referendum on President Bush, the Republican Party, the economy, jobs, or the overall state of the nation, Obama will win this election by a comfortable margin. But if the election is a referendum on Obama himself, John McCain may very well pull off one of the biggest upsets in political history.

6/25/2008

The Obama Caricatures

Former Bush adviser Karl Rove launched the latest salvo against Barack Obama in an attempt to define him as unpalatable to the general electorate:

"Even if you never met him, you know this guy. He's the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by."
These remarks may be nothing more than childish name-calling, but they do illustrate a larger problem confronting Republicans as they try to keep the polls close.

Rove is clearly trying to paint Obama as an aloof, wealthy, liberal. However, the problem with this line of attack is that it directly contradicts some of the other caricatures Republicans have been trying to make stick to the Democratic presidential nominee.

For example, earlier this year there was a whisper campaign accentuating Obama's middle name by referring to him as "Barack Hussein Obama." Some thought this was innocuous because they were simply referring to him by his full name, even though nobody refers to John McCain as "John Sidney McCain." Others thought this was identity politics at its worst by trying to subtly frame Obama as a Muslim and therefore potentially disloyal to the United States. Other than appealing to the darkest elements of human nature, there's one other problem with this caricature. How often do you find dark-skinned men named "Hussein" at a country club?

Another enduring caricature is the America-hating black militant Obama with his racist wife Michelle. This is the Obama that spent 20 years in Jeremiah Wright's church--the same church that was later visited by Michael Pflager who invoked White entitlement as he mocked Hillary Clinton. But how does one go from spending 20 years in a Black church preaching Black liberation theology to a country club that is presumably overwhelmingly populated by the very people his pastor was criticizing?

Then there's the young and inexperienced Obama. This is the Obama who has yet to complete his first term in the Senate and was still serving as a state legislator in Springfield, Illinois, at the start of President Bush's term. But if he's so young and inexperienced, how could he be an elitist at a country club? Young people and those who have not built up their network of connections through years of experience are going to have a hard time gaining access to such exclusive resorts. After all, not just anybody can join a private country club to begin with.

This brings up the caricature of Obama as an elitist. This is the Obama who went to Harvard Law and attended an elite academy in Hawaii. Republicans have tried to paint Obama as a "limousine liberal" who looks down on voters who "cling to guns and religion." But that goes back to the identity politics and class warfare question. Obama is less wealthy than the very strategists and party operatives who are accusing him of being a country club liberal. He recently finished paying off his student loans and had the smallest net worth of all of this year's major presidential candidates, including John McCain. And if surrogates want to bring Michelle Obama into this fight as an elitist, that would make Cindy McCain fair game. She's a former beauty queen and a multi-millionaire who inherited a brewery and owns a private jet. So who would be more elitist in that case?

We also have the liberal Obama caricature. This is the guy who makes Ted Kennedy look like a moderate. This is the guy who is the most liberal person in the Senate. But aren't country clubs more typically viewed as havens for the Wall Street wing of the Republican Party than liberals--especially biracial ones named Hussein?

The fact that Republicans have tried to redefine Obama in so many often contradictory ways suggests that 1) none of the previous labels have gained significant traction, 2) the party as a whole is largely bankrupt of new ideas, and 3) Obama has successfully innoculated himself from most of their prior charges. Of course, in addition to being petty, these kinds of attacks play right into Obama's message of "change" because he can point to this name-calling and show that the Republican Party is out of touch and that they care more about political posturing than solving real problems.

These kinds of attacks may gin up the base, but they will likely do little to bring independents and new voters into the fold.

6/21/2008

McCain's Energy Policy and the Electoral Map

The rising cost of oil has prompted politicians and President Bush to come up with various proposals to ease the pain caused by record high gas prices and rising demand from other nations. In addition to pursuing green energy sources, many of the proposed solutions center around increased domestic exploration--that is, drilling in Alaska and off the coasts of California and Southeastern states. These proposals have been debated before, but what makes this latest round of debate particularly intriguing is the fact that John McCain has come out in favor of ending the ban on offshore drilling. This is significant because it represents a policy reversal that opens him up to charges of flip flopping, pandering, or even being in lockstep with President Bush, who also supports ending the ban.

There's one other reason why McCain's reversal on this issue deserves further scrutiny. The presidential election is less than five months away and this position threatens his chances of holding onto a state he can ill afford to lose--Florida, the largest red state after Texas.

Offshore drilling has historically been terribly unpopular in Florida. John McCain's reversal on lifting the ban is likely a risky proposition in the Sunshine State. The beach is one of Florida's greatest assets and is a major part of the state's tourism industry. The mere thought of seeing oil rigs on the horizon from the coast does not appeal to Floridians, even if the rigs are so far away from the coast that they can't be seen at all. The reason for this is that they fear the presence of these rigs will spoil their beaches or hurt tourism. And any environmental incident concerning offshore drilling would conjure up images of the Exxon Valdez disaster from 20 years ago. An oil spill off the Florida coast could potentially devastate the environment as well as the state's economy.

So even though offshore drilling might make for sound energy policy, it's also more likely to be a political loser. Given Obama's recent decision not to accept public financing, he will surely have the resources necessary to contest Florida. Attacking McCain on his energy policy as it pertains to Florida could be quite damaging to the Arizona senator's chances of keeping this state red in November. There has even been talk about McCain competing in California as well, but any talk of offshore drilling there will immediately end any chances he has of putting that state in play.

Of course, McCain is banking on voters' anger with $4 gas superseding their reservations concerning offshore drilling. It is not a short term solution, but it does at least give voters evidence of leadership and offering concrete solutions to addressing the nation's energy problems. This could contrast well with Barack Obama, who is still battling concerns about his inability to talk in specifics. McCain's proposal allows him to challenge Obama by saying, "You may not like my plan, Senator Obama, but what's your plan?"

This could be an effective line of attack for McCain, but there remains the possibility that Floridians will recoil at the notion of drilling off of their pristine coast. And that brings us back to political reality.

The importance of Florida cannot be overstated. It is the third largest state in the nation, but unlike California and New York, it is actually politically competitive. Florida is essentially John McCain's firewall. It is the largest light red state on the map. If McCain loses Florida, this election is over. A Democrat can win the White House without Florida. A Republican can't. Losing Florida would force McCain to win Michigan and Pennsylvania. And if he can't win both, he would have to win at least one along with a medium-sized state, such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Oregon.

Barack Obama will have a tremendous cash advantage against John McCain, so he'll have more money to spend on advertising and GOTV (get out the vote) operations that can help defend him against McCain's attacks. And because Barack Obama didn't campaign in Florida (or Michigan) because of the impending sanctions from the Democratic National Committee, he has a lot more potential room for growth there.

Energy may be a contentious issue that all voters want addressed, but the violent reaction from Floridians that may come from this latest debate illustrates one of the ugly truths about voters' hypocrisy when it comes to energy policy. We want offshore drilling, but only on another state's coastline. We want to use less foreign oil, but only if we can still drive our trucks and SUVs. We want nuclear energy, but only if we can store the waste somewhere far away from us. We want to drill in the wilderness of Alaska and the Mountain West, but only if the surrounding ecosystems are completely undisturbed. True solutions to our energy woes will require politically unpopular leadership.

Offshore drilling may be a valid solution to enhance the nation's domestic energy portfolio and drive down prices over the long term. But the current political reality may make this a foolish decision. McCain is displaying true courage by coming out in favor of offshore drilling. And perhaps high gas prices have caused Floridians to reconsider their stance on the issue. If this is the case, then McCain could keep the state and its 27 electoral votes in the Republican column. But when one considers how much larger Obama's electoral map is, the last thing McCain should do is cede his rival yet another powerful political issue that could threaten the second largest state in his path to 270.

6/08/2008

What We Learned This Primary Season

The primaries are over, the votes have been counted, and the nominees have all but officially been crowned. This year's general election will be between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. Both are senators, but have vastly different personal histories. These histories and their unique personal dynamics will be scrutinized heavily from here on out. So before diving into assessing the general election campaign over the next few weeks, it is prudent to take stock of what has happened so far and what we have learned. Lessons from January may very well help better predict what happens in October.

1. This is a change election. Experience does not matter. In the Democratic primaries, the most experienced candidates were Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and Bill Richardson. Biden and Dodd dropped out after being rewarded with fifth and seventh place in the Iowa caucuses. Bill Richardson tried to trumpet his experience in the four-person debate before the New Hampshire primary only to finish fourth and drop out shortly thereafter. John Edwards tried to position himself as an experienced statesman by criticizing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for their negative attacks. He was subsequently drubbed in Nevada and embarrassed in South Carolina. Inexplicably, Hillary Clinton decided to adopt the "experience" mantle and tried to frame Obama as "too risky" and "too inexperienced." And she lost too. Obama might be "inexperienced," but he won the nomination and raised the most money. The "experienced" candidates didn't. John McCain is the latest politician who is trying to take advantage of the "experience" argument against Barack Obama, but he should do so at his own peril. After all, voters may look at the current state of the nation's economy, Iraq, and gas prices and conclude that "experience" is overrated.

2. If you work the media hard enough, they will believe your spin. Hillary Clinton has made it a point to remind voters, pundits, and journalists that "she won more primary votes" than Barack Obama. Average voters don't really know much about primaries, caucuses, and delegates, so Clinton's statement somehow morphed to "she won the popular vote" and makes Obama look like George Bush in 2000 while Clinton is Al Gore. By the letter of the law, Clinton's "popular vote victory" is true. More people actually did vote for her than Obama. The spirit of the law, however, suggests otherwise. It is important to note that Clinton is able to claim this only by including her votes in Michigan, not giving Obama any votes in Michigan whatsoever, and not including votes in some caucus states that Obama actually won. If you say something enough times, people will eventually begin to think it's true. A second example of this concerns the whisper campaign about Obama's religion.

3. A candidate who is at least moderately acceptable on all levels has a better chance of political survival than a candidate who has several big strengths and at least one big weakness. For months, the Republican race was the more compelling one because there was no clear frontrunner:

Mitt Romney was the competent executive and looked presidential. But he was seen as an emotionless flip flopper and had to deal with unfair suspicions about his religion. He also had to deal with concerns about his true commitment to conservatism because of his moderate record.

Rudy Giuliani had the ability to appeal to moderates and had proven his leadership credentials in the minds of voters because of his performance on September 11. But the Republican base consists of conservatives, not moderates. And this base viewed him as out of touch on the social issues that were important to them.

Mike Huckabee seemed more authentic than the other candidates and was clearly the favorite of the Christian right. His populist message also connected with rural voters. However, his foreign policy and anti-terrorism credentials were weak and he had trouble appealing to voters outside of his base.

Fred Thompson had the name recognition, buzz, twang, and proven conservative record. But he was a terrible debater and did not seem to want to campaign.

John McCain was a credible conservative on spending, terrorism, and social issues. He was criticized for his impurity on some of these issues (e.g., the Bush tax cuts, immigration), but by and large, he was at least moderately acceptable to the most people. As a result, he won the nomination by staving off elimination the longest. McCain's victory showed that a candidate who rates as a 7, 7, and 7 on three issues is politically stronger than someone who rates as a 9, 9, and 3 on the same three issues.

4. All states matter. Hillary Clinton lost the nomination in February. She matched Obama step for step before Super Tuesday, on Super Tuesday, and from March and beyond. But from Super Tuesday to the end of the month, Obama racked up 11 consecutive victories and put Clinton in a hole that was too large for her dig herself out of. Not having a timely campaign apparatus set up in states like Nebraska, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Idaho cost her far more than her victories in Ohio and Pennsylvania could compensate for.

5. Due to campaign finance laws, breadth of support is more important than depth of support. Clinton was able to raise a lot of money out of the gates by racking up $2300 contributions from her most loyal supporters. Unfortunately for Clinton, once a supporter put up $2300, he was not allowed to contribute any further. So she had a lot of money, but from far fewer people. Obama, on the other hand, was pulling in $20, $50, and $100 donations from far more people. So he was able to overcome Clinton financially and eventually dwarf her because one $1000 donation from one person is worth far less than ten $100 donations from ten people. Appealing to regular people who think a thousand dollars is the same as a million dollars is how Obama was able to crush Clinton. Now he has an extensive donor base that he can take advantage of in the general election. John McCain would be wise to copy this approach to fundraising.

6. Iowa and New Hampshire must loosen their stranglehold on the nomination process. Michigan and Florida were penalized for what the other 46 states were privately thinking but couldn't say publicly. I've criticized these states' "me first" mentality many times before. The primary season may be over, but these criticisms are not going away. A more equitable primary system needs to be developed sooner rather than later.

7. Republicans might wish to consider proportional delegate allocation. Mitt Romney and John McCain could have had an epic fight like Obama and Clinton had the "winner take all" system not existed. Romney won several "silver medals" in the early contests and was clearly McCain's strongest rival. Florida was essentially a tie between the two candidates, but it was absolutely devastating for Romney's campaign. Conservatives began rallying behind Romney in their attempt to stop McCain, but it was too late. A proportional allocation of delegates would have given him a fighting chance at a comeback.

8. Democrats might wish to consider eliminating caucuses. Even though they came across as whining and sour grapes, Clinton's criticisms of the caucus system have merit. In a caucus, voting is done publicly and candidates who don't meet the minimum threshold of support can negotiate with other candidates' supporters. Caucuses are held at set times and at set locations that may prevent certain types of voters from participating. For example, voters may have to work, find babysitters, or take care of their parents at the same time the caucus is being held. What kind of system is this?

9. Identity politics may make various demographics feel good, but they are ultimately problematic. Democrats were priding themselves on the prospect of "the first Black president" or "the first female president." And now the party is divided. Superdelegates who really want to support Clinton fear the reaction among Blacks if they take the nomination away from Obama. And now that Obama won, he has to win over the legions of female Clinton supporters who are threatening to support McCain out of protest. The problem with identity politics is that it narrows one's political identity. The more Obama is identified as "the first Black president," the more it trivializes his actual legislative record and political platform.

The Republican Party would presumably care less about identity politics, but until a credible woman or person of color rises high enough in the party and decides to run for president, it is unknown how much resistance such a candidate would face from other Republican voters.

Recommended reading

  • The Republican Rorschach Test
  • The McCain McCalculus
  • Rethinking 2012
  • The Problem with Identity Politics
  • The Problem with the Clinton Brand
  • A Warning to Republicans
  • About Barack Hussein Obama
  • Calling the Democrats' Bluff

  • 6/04/2008

    The Obama Veepstakes: Defusing the Hillarybomb

    By now, everyone knows that Barack Obama will be the Democratic Party's presidential nominee. His victory in the Montana primary pushed him over the top, so he now has a majority of delegates.

    Obama gave a powerful speech about his victory last night addressing what lies ahead and even lauded Hillary Clinton's candidacy and her impact on the race. However, Clinton essentially stepped on his victory speech and stole a bit of the limelight by adding her name to Obama's shortlist and defiantly congratulating him on the race he has run, but not on the race he has won or the race that has just ended. Such a carefully crafted sentence is politically loaded and will ensure that until Obama chooses his vice president, this story will linger in the media. Notice how there are two competing storylines coming out of last night: "Who will Obama tap for vice president?" and "What does Clinton want?" Needless to say, Obama's camp is not amused.

    Could Clinton's supporters be overstating their importance? Are traditional Democrats really going to vote for McCain even though they have such disagreements with McCain over the war in Iraq, the economy, abortion rights, and the environment? Are these Democrats really going to place their contempt for Obama over their economic well-being just to spite him?

    Here are Obama's options:

    1. Wait. Waiting will give Clinton's supporters a bit of time to get over their defeat. Over time, their emotions will cool down a bit and they will rally behind Obama because he will be their party's representative in November. Primary fights are brutal, but time should heal those wounds.

    Also, waiting gives Clinton more time and more opportunities to disqualify herself from veep consideration. Obama probably does not want to have to deal with the Clintons (yes, the plural form) anymore, and almost certainly doesn't want to put her on his ticket because she contradicts so much of his message. (Read "Don't Expect an Obama-Clinton Ticket" for more information.) But if he's going to pass over her, he needs to find a reason that will come across as acceptable to the majority of her supporters. They want him to show her some respect. But any new Clinton gaffes, scandals, or attempts to minimize his victory or cast doubt on his electibility should be met with an all expenses paid trip off of his shortlist.

    There is also a strategic advantage to waiting. McCain has not chosen his running mate yet, so Obama could afford to wait a bit. If McCain chooses his running mate first, then Obama could react to that selection with a more careful selection of his own. Choosing Clinton first would cede this opportunity to McCain. And if Obama chooses a running mate first, that would give the Republicans more time to conduct opposition research and attempt to define that candidate before he can do it on his own. Waiting would force a staredown with McCain.

    2. Choose a woman not named Hillary. This is a double-edged sword. Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius seems to be the most attractive female pick right now. As I argued in my first post about Obama's veepstakes, her geography alone will prevent her from being pegged as a liberal because "Kansas liberal" just doesn't resonate. As a woman, she could help Obama tap into the same base that turned out for Clinton. And because she comes from an agricultural state, she could help Obama make inroads with the other group of voters he has struggled with as of late--rural voters. This could be a boon to him in southern Ohio, central Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.

    Obviously, the problem with this option is that a lot of women may say that if Obama is going to choose a woman for his vice president, she should be Hillary Clinton. So choosing a female not named Hillary could be seen as the ultimate insult to Hillary Clinton and her supporters. Again, Clinton said she wants her voters "to be respected." This could place both Obama and Sebelius in a tough situation.

    Another potential female pick would be Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri. She has been a vocal supporter of the presumptive nominee and could help deliver a state that Republicans cannot afford to lose. However, this selection seems a bit less likely because Missouri has a Republican governor and not just any Democrat could win a Senate seat in this fairly conservative state. This is also the argument against selecting Senator Jim Webb of Virginia.

    3. Choose a Clinton surrogate. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and Indiana Senator Evan Bayh were loyal Clinton supporters. Tapping one of them could be seen as an overture of respect because it would show that Obama is trying to bring the two camps together. Both of these picks should have Clinton's seal of approval. Rendell is a popular governor that would take Pennsylvania out of play and Bayh is the most popular politician in Indiana, a state that Obama could challenge with him on the ticket. Both politicians can appeal to rural working-class voters in Ohio and Michigan as well.

    The disadvantage here is the same disadvantage Obama would face by choosing a female other than Clinton. Why take a resident of Hillaryland when you can take Hillary herself? Also, would choosing a male make it more difficult for the Obama ticket to reclaim Clinton's female voters?

    4. Choose a Republican. This would be a bold selection that John McCain would have a difficult time parrying. Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel would immediately bring military and foreign policy heft to Obama's ticket. And it would be proof positive that Obama is serious about "change" because Democrats don't select Republicans to be on their presidential tickets. Another advantage here is that the news about Obama reaching across the aisle to select a Republican would trump the news about Obama snubbing Clinton.

    An unintended third advantage here would be that it would force John McCain to prove his bipartisan credentials as well. The best way he could do that would be to select Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate. If McCain chose a Republican (Romney, Crist, Pawlenty, etc.), Obama could point to Hagel and say that he really does want to bring the nation together while McCain represented the old way of doing things. This would make it harder for McCain and his Republican running mate to start attacking "Democrats" and "liberals" because it plays into Obama's message of politics not being about "us vs. them." Also, McCain would have a harder time picking off Clinton's rural White voters if Hagel were on the ticket because 1) Hagel's a Republican, 2) Hagel's not a liberal, and 3) Hagel is pro-life, a popular position among rural voters.

    5. Reject Clinton publicly, politely, and firmly. This is a risky move that would show voters that Obama is in control of the party now. After all, the idea of a failed candidate forcing his hand does not make Obama look presidential. Obama already has enough problems with his thin resume and the perception that he is weak, especially on terrorism. The Republicans would have a field day with this. "If he can't stand up to the Clintons, how could he stand up to Ahmadinejad?"

    If Obama follows this path, he would have the liberty to conduct his veep search any way he wishes and without the "what does Clinton want?" storylines bogging him down. Clinton would then have to decide what she wants her legacy to be. She will have no choice but to support Obama regardless of her relationship to him because she does not want to be known as helping contribute to his defeat at the polls in November. If she wants to run for president again in 2012 (or 2016), she can't give anybody the idea that she did not work her heart out for her party's nominee in 2008. This option would remove Clinton's leverage, which would obviously enrage her supporters, many of whom still want her to take her fight for the nomination to the party convention in Denver.

    Obama has several options available to him at present. He has the stage to himself now, but only if he takes it. Yes, Clinton is still a political force to be reckoned with, but regardless of "what Clinton wants," she must appreciate the reality of her current political situation.

    Hillary Clinton may command the loyalty of millions of voters who may or may not be receptive to Obama, but she is in no position whatsoever to make any demands of Obama or to force his hand. He won the race, so he calls the shots. It is clearly his Democratic Party now, not hers. Hubris is what caused Clinton to lose the nomination in the first place. And if she overplays her hand in defiance, hubris may ultimately be what causes her to lose a spot on the November ticket as well.

    6/02/2008

    The Effect of Bob Barr's Candidacy

    The Libertarian Party is the largest third party in the United States. At its recent party convention in Denver, it nominated former Republican Congressman Bob Barr as its nominee. Barr hails from Georgia and is probably best known for his role in the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton. Barr became a Libertarian in 2006, largely because of his disagreements with the Republican Party on the Iraq War, civil liberties, and the Republicans' diminished credibility regarding spending.

    Since Ross Perot's presidential run in 1992, independent and third party candidates have largely been viewed as gadfly candidates or spoilers. Pat Buchanan was a thorn in the Republicans' side throughout the 1990s. Democrats still lament Ralph Nader's 2000 run. The Green Party is keeping Democrats on their toes in local elections in liberal bastions like San Francisco. And ideological conservatives always have the Constitution Party available as a repository for their votes if their natural home, the Republican Party, veers too far off course.

    Bob Barr will not win this year's presidential election, but his candidacy may significantly hamper John McCain. Barr is a credible and proven candidate whose ideas are shared by significant slices of the electorate. So even though many voters probably have never heard of the Libertarian Party, it will not be as easy for his political opponents to brand him as a fringe candidate.

    Barr could potentially appeal to the following groups:

    1. Disaffected conservatives and Republicans who have not yet warmed to John McCain's candidacy. It is no secret that Republicans are comparatively less enthusiastic about their nominee than the Democrats. Democrats are passionate about Barack Obama and/or Hillary Clinton. Republicans are only lukewarm about John McCain, who essentially won the nomination by staving off political elimination the longest.

    2. Ron Paul supporters. Given the ideological overlap between the two candidates, Barr could reap the benefits of a Paul endorsement. This would be a boon to Barr because he would have access to Paul's spirited supporters and the extensive donor network he created. Even though the GOP race is locked up, Ron Paul still managed to win a significant 24% of the vote in the little noticed Idaho Republican primary last week.

    3. Conservative Obama supporters who agree with him on Iraq, disagree with his philosophical liberalism, and support him regardless because they like his "change" message. There are many Republicans who are dissatisfied not just with the way things are going in Iraq, but who are also dissatisfied with the United States' role in the international arena in general. They are opposed to nation-building and misguided adventures abroad and would rather invest in the money required to sustain such operations closer to home. These voters are likely more conservative on abortion rights, libertarian on social issues, and conservative on taxes. So Barr may be a more natural fit for them than Obama. And because Barr has bucked his old party on the war and on controversial issues such as the Patriot Act, he could parry charges of partisanship more effectively than someone who toes the party line.

    Barr's appeal to this third group would appear to be a threat to Obama, but because McCain has also tried to position himself as a maverick or an independent, it could end up as a wash. But because Barr is a former Republican, he is probably a greater threat to John McCain than Barack Obama, especially because the first two groups I listed above are the ones McCain will have to try the hardest to keep in his tent.

    Barr's candidacy will probably be most problematic for McCain in his home state of Georgia and in the neighboring states of Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

    In these Southern states, Obama's stranglehold on the Black vote will force McCain to keep his margins among White and conservative voters sufficiently high in order to carry them in the general election. This is important because these Southern states, especially South Carolina and Georgia, have such a high percentage of Black voters that will turn out in droves for Obama.

    The threat he poses in Georgia is obvious. Seeing that Barr hails from the Peach State, his name recognition is higher and many Georgians may be more inclined to support one of their own. Also, money that Georgians donate to the former congressman from the 7th District is money they're not donating to the Republican nominee.

    Another risk is that Florida and North Carolina are considerably less conservative than other Southern states, such as Alabama and Mississippi. This means Obama could be more competitive in these states, thus forcing McCain to do an even better job of holding his own. Losing 5% of his conservative support to Barr in a noncompetitive state like Kentucky wouldn't matter much. But in a more competitive state like North Carolina, it could potentially be enough to tip the state to Democrats' side.

    Tennessee is not really considered a battleground state, but former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. ran a particularly strong Senate campaign there in 2006 and lost by only three points. This is significant because it proved that a Black candidate could win a high profile statewide election in a Southern state. If Obama is able to regain his footing among rural voters, he could potentially put Tennessee in the same category as North Carolina, thus making Barr's threat to McCain even more serious.

    John McCain would be wise to neutralize Bob Barr by stressing his commitment to fiscal conservatism, political independence, and social conservative causes. This might not work too well with moderates, but it could at least help keep angry and disenchanted conservatives from defecting to Barr.

    5/18/2008

    Democrats' Demographics: A Convention Preview

    Super Tuesday Part V takes place on May 20, when Kentucky and Oregon have their say at the polls. These two states are similar to North Carolina and Indiana in that Oregon is considered Obama territory while Kentucky is considered Clinton's turf. The most likely result will be a split decision in which Obama beats Clinton in Oregon by a fairly comfortable margin while Clinton beats Obama in Kentucky by a landslide.

    Given that the results of these primaries are essentially foregone conclusions, what's the news value of these contests? There are two major questions that political observers are waiting to be answered: 1) What is the impact of John Edwards' endorsement, and 2) Will Obama's support among Whites continue to send warning signs to superdelegates?

    John Edwards placed his credibility on the line by endorsing Barack Obama last week. As one of the remaining heavyweights who had yet to endorse, Edwards' endorsement was big political news. And this endorsement essentially stepped all over the news about Clinton's landslide victory in West Virginia. When considering Obama's veepstakes earlier, I noted that the delay in Edwards' endorsing Obama probably removed him from veep consideration. As it turned out, Obama didn't need Edwards' help in winning North Carolina. But it is quite possible that he could have helped in Indiana. Then again, endorsing Obama last week was probably more effective tactically because it got West Virginia out of the headlines. So perhaps Obama and Edwards timed this perfectly.

    But how much does this matter? Given how ineffective Edwards was in 2004 for John Kerry, it is difficult to see how 2008 would be any different--at least regarding North Carolina. However, Edwards might be able to help Obama make inroads among rural Whites in Midwestern states. After all, Edwards was able to win a surprisingly large percentage of the vote in the West Virginia primary despite having dropped out of the contest more than three months ago.

    Hillary Clinton will win Kentucky easily. However, if Edwards is able to help Obama keep Clinton's margin of victory down, he could make an argument that he is still relevant. But should Clinton rack up another 30-40 point victory, it would be obvious that Edwards has very little political clout left and he could no longer seriously be considered as a party heavyweight despite his geography, his drawl, and his good looks.

    As it stands right now, the nomination remains Obama's to lose. All of the metrics are working against Hillary Clinton. Obama has won more states, more pledged delegates, and more popular votes. He has also recently pulled ahead of Clinton in terms of superdelegates. It is possible that Clinton can seize the popular vote by running up the score in Kentucky and Puerto Rico while keeping things close in Oregon, but having to rely on a US territory in addition to the controversial results from Michigan and Florida to win the popular vote probably won't sit well with party officials.

    The only card Clinton has left to play is the demographic card. West Virginia did not net her enough delegates to make much of a dent in Obama's lead, but exit polls there confirmed what Ohio and Pennsylvania suggested: Barack Obama simply isn't doing well enough with downscale, culturally moderate to conservative, rural White voters. It could be because of racial discomfort. It could be because of a lack of cultural affinity. It could be because of political disconnect. Whatever it is, this is very important and Obama needs to find a way to remedy this problem.

    Obama's coalition consists of Blacks, liberals, independents, and highly educated voters. Clinton's coalition consists of Latinos, women, social moderates, rural voters, and Whites. The argument Clinton needs to make to superdelegates is that her coalition is larger than his coalition. Blacks, liberals, and people with doctorates are going to vote for a Democrat in November regardless of who it is. The same could not be said, however, for rural Whites, blue collar voters, and moderates. And independents could go either way. So could Clinton do a better job of keeping more raw votes in the Democratic column even though Obama appeals to a more diverse electorate? Despite all the talk of multiculturalism and breaking racial barriers, the United States remains about 70% White. And while many of these White voters are genuinely concerned only with the issues, many others would like to have a presidential candidate they can relate to as well, as argued by conservative columnist Kathleen Parker.

    A few months ago, the conundrum Democrats had was that they were torn between their head (Clinton) and their heart (Obama). Clinton was the safe choice while Obama was the inspirational one. Ironically, given the way they've presented themselves on the campaign trail over the past few weeks, Obama has turned out to be the more cerebral candidate while Clinton has become the candidate who connects with voters on a gut level. She might pander and she might be divisive, but she is definitely scrappy and has earned a lot of respect for fighting in the trenches and maintaining her never-say-die campaign. John Kerry, Al Gore, and Michael Dukakis were all cerebral candidates. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush connected at a gut level. The cerebral candidates all lost. Clinton's surrogates need to reinforce this distinction.

    John McCain and Barack Obama are trading salvos on an almost daily basis. Even President Bush joined the fray by implicitly attacking Obama before the Knesset in Israel last week. In the event that Bush or McCain finds a major Obama weakness or forces him into a political briar patch, Clinton could position herself as the vetted alternative, thus reminding voters that her well spoken rival from Chicago is still too risky.

    In short, Clinton can still win, but she no longer controls her own destiny. In order to win, she needs help. And she has about three months for this help to come. Giving new life to stories about Obama's struggles with White voters by running up the score in Kentucky would be a good way to start.

    5/15/2008

    A Warning to Republicans

    Even though the presidential race is generating the most headlines these days, one of the most important political developments this week has been the special election in Mississippi's 1st Congressional District (MS-1). This district, located in the northern part of the state, has been reliably Republican. In this week's special election, however, Democrat Travis Childers defeated Republican Greg Davis 54%-46%. This is the third special election that Democrats have won this year, thus increasing their majority in the House of Representatives to 236 Democrats to 199 Republicans.

    Republicans could blame their previous special election losses on weak candidates and/or more hostile electorates. However, this special election can only be interpreted as a flat rejection of the Republican Party. George Bush carried the district with 62% of the vote in 2004 and the district has been represented by a Republican for more than 10 years. Even Vice President Cheney was sent to the district for a bit of last-minute campaigning, but the GOP lost this solidly Republican district by a very healthy eight points.

    Given the overall composition of the district, not just any Democrat can win here. Childers is pro-gun and pro-life, much like other moderate to conservative Southern Democrats. However, Democrats aren't supposed to win these kinds of seats. Democrats and party strategists are surely licking their jowls because there are dozens of congressional districts elsewhere that are less Republican than MS-1 and are currently represented by Republicans. Republicans are justifiably terrified at their electoral prospects this fall because it could potentially be another wave election like 2006. And if that happens, Republicans would truly be in the political wilderness, as Democrats would be tantalizingly close to a supermajority that could override a potential presidential veto from John McCain.

    Why are the Republicans losing? Partisan Democrats gleefully cite a tarnished Republican brand for their defeats, but here are a few other reasons along with some actual solutions that Republicans might wish to adopt for their own political survival.

    1. There's a lack of new ideas. What is the newest great Republican idea? It seems that all Republicans talk about these days is tax cuts and not "surrendering" in Iraq. These two issues do not offer any vision about where the party wants to take the nation. In the past, especially during the Gingrich Revolution, Republicans were able to articulate bold ideas that excited the electorate. Entitlement reform and personal responsibility were fresh ideas that contrasted greatly with what the Democrats were offering at the time. If the GOP chooses to run on the same ideas that they ran on in 2002, then they had better get used to losing elections.

    2. There's a lack of solutions. Voters are angry. They are angry about the economy. They are angry about healthcare. They are angry about gas prices. They are angry about Iraq. They are angry about immigration. They are angry about unsafe and defective Chinese products. They are angry about jobs disappearing overseas. So what did Republicans offer as solutions in the MS-1 special election? Accusations of liberalism, warnings about tax increases, linking the Democratic candidate to Barack Obama, and invoking Jeremiah Wright. Politics is obviously a contact sport, but there comes a point when voters expect those who seek to represent them to be able to offer meaningful solutions to their concerns. The Democrats' ideas are not necessarily good, but at least they are something. You can never beat something with nothing in politics. Interestingly, congressional Republicans seem to be guilty of exactly what they criticize Barack Obama for--offering a lot of talk, but no real solutions. Hearing the word "liberal" bandied about is not what voters want to hear when 80% of voters think the nation is on the wrong track.

    3. A vote against a Republican is a vote against Bush. The public knows that the Democrats control Congress. And this Congress is not popular. However, the public also knows that a Republican controls the White House and leads the country. Republicans were tripping over themselves to have Bush campaign on their behalf in 2002 and 2004. But he has since become a radioactive albatross and Republicans down the ballot are paying the price. Bush's approval ratings are now south of 30%. Even though Bush will never be on another ballot, it is possible that voters are trying to vote against him by voting against his party. Bush might not be keen on listening to Democrats, but he should be more receptive to listening to Republicans. It might be in all Republicans' interest to pull Bush aside and tell him about how much he is killing them politically. If Bush were to up his approval numbers to 40%, voters might be a bit less apt to punish his party at the ballot box. Republicans should be more proactive in helping their party's leader right his ship because the further Bush sinks, the further Republicans everywhere sink. Or perhaps they would be better served by not letting Bush speak for them. Could Republicans benefit by going against the President and redefining what it means to be a Republican?

    4. No one political party can stay on top forever. The Democrats controlled Capitol Hill for decades before finally losing in 1994. Republicans have controlled all the levers of power for most of Bush's presidency. If 2008 is a "change" election, then no matter what Bush or the Republicans do, voters simply might have had enough. This does not mean, however, that Republicans should resign themselves to getting demolished at the ballot box. One of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney's strengths was his ability to adapt to an ever-changing political landscape by repositioning himself and changing his message. Given that the current president is a Republican and that Republicans controlled Capitol Hill until 2006, "change" might be too hard a hard sell for Republicans to make. However, the success of Barack Obama at the expense of Hillary Clinton, the unlikely Democratic victory in the special election in Mississippi, and overall dissatisfaction with the way things are going with the nation right now suggest that "change" is a message smart politicians of all stripes should adopt.

    Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.