Showing posts with label john edwards. Show all posts
Showing posts with label john edwards. Show all posts

9/10/2008

Thoughts on the 2008 Campaign and a Presidential Endorsement

This is a post I was planning to write in October, not September, because I wanted to wait until after the debates to make a more accurate judgment of the two presidential candidates. But this nonstory about lipstick forced my hand.

I am angry. I am disappointed. And I am scared. But I am hopeful.

Coming into this election season, I was hopeful for America because I believed we finally had a chance to pick up the pieces and get America back on track after our long national nightmare. President Bush has been the worst president of my lifetime. I don't say that as a partisan. I say that because I genuinely believe he is the only president in my 31 years who has left the United States in a worse position than when he came into office. There is a pervasive sense of gloom, despair, apathy, and mistrust swirling around the nation that I have never observed before.

I love the United States of America. I believe this is the greatest country on Earth. It is only in America that someone can progress from having absolutely nothing to being on top of the world. It doesn't matter if you are a third-generation daughter of Polish immigrants, a true-blue son of Appalachia, a waitress working the late shift at a local diner, or a man whose parents abandoned him as a child on a street corner in Los Angeles. The United States offers more opportunities for everyone to succeed than any other nation on Earth.

But lately, it seems that more and more people are falling behind and the American Dream is becoming more and more unattainable. It's not just poor people or those who have made poor decisions who are falling behind. It's middle class people and those who are working hard and playing by the rules who are struggling now too. It costs more to drive our cars because of spiking gas prices. It costs more to go to college because of rising interest rates on student loans. It's more difficult to buy or sell a home. And it's harder to deal with being sick because health care is increasingly unaffordable.

There is a lack of confidence in our government, a lack of sophistication in our politicians, and a lack of professionalism in the media that cover them. People feel that the government doesn't understand their problems, the government doesn't understand its own responsibilities, and the government doesn't care. I'm not saying this as a criticism of conservatism which naturally advocates smaller government. I'm saying that people are losing faith in the very governmental institutions that run America. Think of the Federal Reserve, the State Department, and Homeland Security for example.

Having spent many years of my life abroad, I have seen the transformation that is taking place beyond our borders as well. Gone is the enthusiasm that outsiders once had for this nation. Gone is the respect that the mere mention of "America" commanded. This respect has been replaced by disdain, condescension, and lament.

This brings us to the start of the presidential campaign season.

There were about 20 candidates in the race altogether at the start of the campaign in the spring of 2007, so I figured there should be several candidates whom I'd be willing to support. But then I began to learn more about the candidates and began to cross them off my list.

The Republicans

Rudy Giuliani was a moderate Republican, so I thought he warranted a second look. However, I found him to be a fraud and jumped ship because who was once "America's Mayor" had since descended into pitting Americans against each other on the campaign trail by using terrorism to drive a wedge between Democrats and Republicans. And I believe he reduced September 11th to a mere political talking point.

Mitt Romney was a nonstarter because of the sheer number of policy reversals he undertook in an attempt to pander to certain parts of the Republican base. He came across as the type of politician who had no shame and would do and say whatever it took, even at the expense of his own dignity, to get elected. So I trusted nothing that came out of his mouth and viewed him to have no ideological core.

Fred Thompson was also a nonstarter because he did not seem serious about his campaign and figured that he could charm his way to the nomination with his Southern twang and red pickup truck. The basis of his campaign was merely that he was a Southerner with a wry sense of humor. There was no policy heft there. No thanks.

Sam Brownback was a candidate of the religious right, so he was automatically disqualified.

This left three palatable Republicans: John McCain, Mike Huckabee, and Ron Paul.

I am most definitely not a social conservative. But why would this disqualify Sam Brownback and not Mike Huckabee? Because Huckabee was civil in his political presentation. He was humble, likable, substantive, and in touch. He talked about the economy from the point of view of regular workers, not corporate managers. Even though I strongly disagreed with him on issues like abortion and gay rights, I would have been okay with him as President because he did not use wedge issues to divide the electorate for the sake of finding common ground.

My inner libertarian is what endeared me to Ron Paul. I applauded the courage of his convictions, even if that made him a laughing stock at the Republican debates. He spoke about the insanity of staying in Iraq even though the Iraqis want us to leave and the billions and billions of dollars that are spent propping up countries that are hostile to the United States. Unfortunately, Paul's candidacy came about 40 years too soon and in a party that moved away from Barry Goldwater conservatism decades ago.

This left John McCain. I had a favorable opinion of McCain after his 2000 presidential campaign and appreciated the way he occasionally bucked President Bush and the fringe elements of his own party. His participation in the "Gang of 14" at a time when the Senate was about to explode went a long way towards cementing my respect for him. When the race for the Republican nomination came down to McCain and Romney (Huckabee was still in the race too, but he had been marginalized), I was banking on McCain. I figured that of all the Republicans in the race, he was ultimately the most appealing.

The Democrats

As for the Democrats, I was not one of those voters who was bowled over by the Big 3 of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards. All three of them were my last three choices.

I originally started off in Bill Richardson's camp. His resume was simply incredible. Like he said in some of the debates, nominating him would give voters both "change" and "experience." Being from New Mexico, he had the right geography. And as a Latino, he had the right demographics. Combining all this with the fact that he was a centrist Democrat made Richardson bulletproof. His "Interview" campaign ads were impressive too, so I felt comfortable showing my allegiance to the New Mexico governor. He was the first candidate to whom I ever donated money.

But then came the debates. He seemed sluggish, disoriented, and disappointing. I gave him several chances, but he never "popped." And his campaign staff didn't seem all that interested in my offers to volunteer for him either. So he left me cold.

As Richardson's star faded, Joe Biden's stock rose. He was my second choice who later became my first choice. Biden was an exceptionally strong debater with a good sense of humor. He had a lot of experience too and clearly understood the world in which we live. I had the opportunity to meet him three times and he genuinely seemed to talk to me as a person and not as just another voter. I donated money to his campaign too and was surprised when I received a thank you letter from him personally with a real signature. Not one of those computerized signatures, but a real signature with ink stains. This was a United States senator actually taking the time to be gracious to me, a generic PhD student in South Carolina.

As I watched him perform strongly in debate after debate, I hoped that the people in Iowa were paying attention. Despite my enthusiasm for Biden, I worried that he did not have enough star power to shine in the Iowa caucuses because Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards were sucking up all the media's oxygen. But I strongly believed this candidate could be trusted to win the White House and govern with a sense of competence and an awareness of the magnitude of his responsibilities. Unfortunately, he finished 5th in Iowa and was thereby disqualified from the subsequent debate in New Hampshire that Bill Richardson, who finished fourth, could participate in.

Chris Dodd was Joe Biden without the personality, so he didn't have a chance. Mike Gravel was not a serious candidate. And like Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich was about 40 years ahead of his time.

Why wasn't I in the Barack Clintedwards camp? Because they were polarizing personality candidates with thin resumes. Obama seemed like a nice guy, but he did not have much of a record to run on. When it comes to voting, I place experience and accomplishments ahead of identity politics and personality. This is why John Edwards was also disqualified. He had even less government experience than Obama and did not prove himself to be a strong campaigner because of how little he helped John Kerry in 2004.

As for Hillary Clinton, she was certainly the "toughest" of the top three candidates, but I had really grown tired of the Bush vs. Clinton storyline and the constant snipping between their surrogates on the cable news channels. I was sick of hearing accusations of President Bush's lying be countered by reminding everyone about President Clinton's lying. I really wanted to move on from the Bush-Clinton dynastic noise and start over.

So my heart was with Biden. But after his loss in Iowa, Richardson's defeat in New Hampshire, and Edwards' embarrassment in South Carolina, I knew I would have to choose between Obama and Clinton. (I still voted for Biden in the South Carolina primary even though he had already dropped out of the race.)

After Super Tuesday my respect for Obama and his political skills increased. He was racking up delegates because he wisely created a campaign apparatus in far more states than Clinton, who felt she didn't need to do this because she was entitled to the nomination. As Clinton fell further and further behind, she became a lot more negative and off-putting. That just reminded me of the Bush-Clinton feuding and further turned me off from her.

But even though I was warming to Obama, I still wasn't sold on him. I appreciated the movement he was trying to create by giving regular people a greater stake in their democracy. And I appreciated his tone, which was more civil and not based on treating voters like they were stupid. But I feared he had too much brain and not enough heart. Hillary Clinton picked up on this and began to run up the score on Obama during the final two months of the campaign and largely rehabilitated her image in my eyes. Unfortunately for her, she had dug herself too large a hole.

Obama won the nomination fairly. The PUMA wing of the party can complain about superdelegates, Florida, Michigan, and half votes, but they should blame the Hillary Clinton campaign, strategist Mark Penn, and the Democratic National Committee for that instead, not Obama. He earned his place at the top of the ticket.

The outrage

So the battle was between a respectable Republican with a record and an intriguing Democrat without one. I thought this campaign would be a lot more civil and uplifting than the 2000 and 2004 campaigns, so I figured that regardless of who won the election, America would come out on top.

But then something changed. Channeling John Kerry, Senator John McCain became Candidate John McCain, and I did not like what I saw. And my worst fears about Senator Obama being overly cerebral came true.

Because of my disagreements with John McCain over foreign policy, the ongoing war in Iraq, and his tack to the religious right, I figured that there was only about a 30% chance that I'd vote for him. That has since become a 0% chance. Some of this is due to John McCain directly, but some of it is also due to his allies.

I am sick of this election being about middle names, flag pins, e-mail rumors, Paris Hilton, religion, and lipstick.

I am sick of the media fixating on insignificant nonsense while ignoring the issues that really matter to people.

I am sick of dishonest political advertising, political red herrings, stupid talking points, baseless accusations of media bias, and phony outrage.

I am sick of having my patriotism questioned because I thought the Iraq War was a terrible idea and don't support most of President Bush's policies.

I am sick of having flag pins determine how much an American loves this country.

I am sick of politicians demeaning our allies and then complaining when they don't enthusiastically support our policies.

I am sick of equating a politician's popularity abroad with political leprosy at home.

I am sick of the fact that a vice presidential nominee that nobody knows won't give media interviews because the media are not "deferential" enough to her.

I am even sicker of the media who let her get away with this in the first place.

The fears

This nation is in a state of historical decline in which we are becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the world and our own quality of life is decreasing. And that scares me.

We are spending billions of dollars in Iraq. Where is this money coming from?

Millions of people can't even afford to get sick, much less actually go to the doctor because health insurance and health care cost too much money.

The world is unstable, as Russia's incursion into Georgia and Iran's nuclear ambitions illustrate.

The environment is slowly degrading and the balance between man and nature is becoming skewed.

It costs three times as much to fill up my gas tank compared to 10 years ago.

A growing percentage of young people are failing to graduate from high school. And for those who do, it's more difficult for them to pay for college because tuition keeps rising and there is less financial aid available.

People are getting kicked out of their homes because of rising interest rates on their mortgages.

Brave Americans are dying and getting hurt every day in Iraq because of an ill-conceived war with an ill-defined mission. And these brave warriors are being neglected when they return home.

There is no transparency in our government. Instead, our national leaders are saying "Trust us" even though they have given us every reason not to.

Laws are being written, passed, and ignored because of presidential signing statements.

An American city drowned and has yet to be rebuilt.

We are one Supreme Court appointment away from major reversals in longstanding social policy.

Politicians are accusing other politicians of being elitists because they went to private schools and sent their children to private schools even though these very same politicians want to institute vouchers that would let parents send their own children to private schools.

Politicians are politicizing America by using phony and loaded slogans like "country first," as if every other candidate running for president doesn't do so.

I am sick of it. There are too many serious issues that need to be addressed, but the quest to win the daily news cycle is crowding everything out.

The endorsement

John McCain would probably be a competent president. And should he win, I would pray for his health every day because I have little respect for and little confidence in Sarah Palin. And I hope that President McCain would govern as Senator McCain, not Candidate McCain.

I have strong disagreements with Barack Obama when it comes to illegal immigration, corporate taxes, tort reform, and entitlement programs. But after what I have seen from the increasingly dishonorable McCain campaign and the doe-eyed media over the past two or three weeks, I have decided that enough is enough.

The path McCain took to get here has caused me to lose a lot of respect for him. His "country first" slogan is a total farce and the phony outrage coming from his campaign over accusations of sexism and celebrity show him to be nothing more than a tool of the very same people who turned George Bush into a polarizing 30% president who only cares about 30% of the electorate.

Real leaders don't accuse their political rivals of wanting to lose a war before losing an election. That's not "country first."

Real leaders don't distract the electorate from substantive issues by throwing up smokescreens about minutia. That's not "country first" either.

Real leaders don't choose their vice presidential nominees after just meeting them once. It reminds me of "looking into Vladimir Putin's soul." While Palin has so far turned out to be a tremendous success for his campaign, the fact remains that this was an irresponsible gamble that has been rendered even more irresponsible by the fact that he is restricting media access to her as if she should not have to be scrutinized by the press.

Real leaders don't cry sexism over stupid remarks about lipstick, especially when they themselves have used the exact same expression in the past and commonly ridicule others for political correctness.

Real leaders don't scare voters by linking their political opponents to children and sex education.

Real leaders don't continue to shout out talking points that have long since definitively been proven false.

An Obama defeat would vindicate the strategists who believed that diverting discussion from education policy, the economy, and Iraq to a discussion about lipstick and sexism are the keys to winning the White House.

An Obama defeat would vindicate a media that is derelict in its responsibilities.

An Obama defeat would lead to a likely Clinton nomination in 2012 and signify to voters that the only way you can win the White House is to throw mud and engage in character assassination. Bush did that in 2000 and 2004, McCain is doing that this year, and should McCain win, Hillary Clinton will do that again in 2012. I don't want politics to be that way.

No more wedge politics.
No more journalistic negligence and irresponsibility.
No more lipstick. And freedom fries. And jokes about France.
No more chants of U-S-A whenever a Republican politician bashes a Democrat.
No more scaring the electorate by linking politicians with children and sex.
No more hiding behind the flag and impugning another American's patriotism.

I have serious reservations about Obama's lack of experience. But the fact that he chose Joe Biden as his running mate reassures me. The two have a good personal relationship, so I know that Biden will always speak his mind even if it means giving Obama bad news. And he can serve as a liaison between the old Washington and the new. Biden-Obama would have been preferable to Obama-Biden, but that is not how the campaigns turned out. But perhaps because Obama is at the top of the ticket, that makes the contrast in tone between Obama-Biden and McCain-Palin all the more stark.

I do not endorse Barack Obama because I care much for his political views. And I do not endorse him because of his personal story. I endorse Barack Obama because everything he's running against must not be validated by his defeat.

Even if you may not agree with Obama's political ideas, I hope you at least agree with his political approach. After Paris Hilton, feigned cries of sexism, blaming the media, and lipstick, it is safe to say that the United States can't afford to have this nonsense be rewarded by a McCain victory because that will only allow it to continue in 2012. America deserves better than this.

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.

4/27/2008

Obama's Veepstakes

Barack Obama lost last week's Pennsylvania primary by 10 points. Since then, Clinton and the media have been buzzing about the notion that Obama may actually be a weaker general election candidate than the former First Lady. This was the source of a good debate over at Not Very Bright, one of the more popular South Carolina bloggers. NVB correctly argued that even though Obama lost Pennsylvania, the fact remains that Clinton did not amass enough pledged delegates to make a difference. I disagreed and said that pledged delegates don't really matter because superdelegates' main responsibility is to nominate someone who can win in November, and not to simply echo the winner of the pledged delegate race. (Normally, these two ideas coincide, but this year might be different.)

However, this post will not address the electability of both candidates. Instead, I will just pretend that this race is over and that Barack Obama will be the nominee. Thus, the focus switches from how he can finally put Clinton away to whom he will tap as his running mate, which leads me to this post.

First, Obama's running mate must satisfy several preconditions:

1. This candidate cannot be a knuckle dragging partisan. Such a candidate would cancel out his message of unity.

2. This candidate must not be an Iraq defender. It would be ideal for Obama to tap someone who had similar "judgment" regarding the war, but politicians who have since come out against it probably aren't disqualified. This "judgment" is one of the cornerstones of his campaign, so he cannot choose a running mate who contradicts this.

3. This candidate should be able to appeal to Whites and rural voters. Obama is still smarting from his ill-conceived remarks about rural voters "clinging" to guns and religion. Blacks, liberal Whites, and urban voters were already in Obama's corner. More moderate and rural Whites were slowly warming up to him. They may have been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt earlier, but taking Bittergate in conjunction with Michelle Obama's "proud" remarks and Jeremiah Wright might be too much for them to overlook. And there also remains a silent subset of the electorate that is simply uncomfortable voting for someone of color, as the Bradley effect suggests.

4. This candidate should be able to compensate for Obama's perceived weaknesses regarding experience and national defense. Tapping a Senate freshman or a one-term governor would not do much to quell the concerns about Obama not being ready for primetime.

5. This candidate should help heal the rift that has opened up between the Obama and Clinton camps. The acrimony between them is creating real divisions that risk sending Democrats to John McCain in November or keeping Democrats at home. This is not to say that Obama needs to ask Clinton to be his veep, but he does need to extend an olive branch somehow to her supporters, lest he risk having to spend precious weeks trying to win them back the hard way.

So let's address some of the more common names generating VP buzz:

John Edwards will not be on the bottom half of an Obama ticket. To start, Edwards already ran for VP and would probably loathe to do it a second time around. Secondly, Edwards was unable to deliver North Carolina for John Kerry in 2004, so his electoral heft is weak. And finally, Edwards has yet to endorse Obama--a point not lost on the Obama campaign. Maybe Obama would tap Edwards to be Attorney General, Secretary of Labor, or a poverty czar, but Vice President is probably out of the question.

A lot of people have been buzzing about Senator Jim Webb of Virginia. A former Republican with a strong military background, Webb would certainly enhance Obama's ticket by providing credibility on foreign affairs, national defense, and the ability to appeal to rural voters and gun owners. The problem with Webb, however, is that he is a perfect fit for Virginia as its junior senator. Should he be tapped for Vice President, his Senate seat would be lost. Yes, the governor of Virginia is a Democrat who would appoint a Democrat to replace Webb, but the most attractive candidate (former Governor Mark Warner) is already running for retiring Senator John Warner's seat. With the prospect of the Democrats making it to a filibuster-proof 60 Senate seats, Webb would probably be better off representing the people of Virginia.

General Wesley Clark would be an attractive option in that he would help bridge the gap between the Obama and Clinton camps. As a former NATO commander and four-star general, Clark would instantly give Obama's ticket the ability to go toe-to-toe with or even outdo John McCain when it comes to military affairs. It's hard to tell a retired four-star general that he is weak on defense. Clark would also probably deliver Arkansas and give McCain a run for his money in Virginia. Clark ran unsuccessfully for the White House in 2004 and only won the primary in Oklahoma before being forced to quit. Since then, he has improved his political skills and is probably a better campaigner now. This would be a smart pick for Obama.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson turned out to be one of the biggest busts of this year's presidential cycle. He had the ultimate resume, but turned out to be a disappointing candidate in the debates and struggled to connect with voters. However, now that the race for #1 is more or less settled, perhaps he can relax a bit more knowing that he simply has to run against John McCain instead of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Joe Biden at the same time. Richardson would be a tremendous help to Obama because he could help deliver the Latino vote and make New Mexico and Colorado more competitive. And the fact that Richardson drew the Clintons' ire (and was even called Judas) by endorsing Obama displayed a level of courage and loyalty that John Edwards has failed to do thus far. The National Rifle Association loves Richardson and he cannot be pegged as a tax-and-spend Democrat. But would a "black-brown" ticket be too much "change" for the nation to handle at once?

Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius endorsed Obama and is highly popular in her state. She would be able to appeal to red state voters as well as female Clinton voters. If Obama wishes to heal the rift between his camp and Clinton's, she might be an attractive way to do so. White women form the base of Clinton's support and many of them are sticking with her because of the historical nature of her candidacy and the perception that her rivals and the media have been unfair to her because of it. But are they loyal to Clinton because she's a Clinton, or are they loyal to Clinton because she's a woman? If it's the latter, then Governor Sebelius may be able to help. If it's the former, Clinton's female supporters will either have to grudgingly accept Obama or simply stay home. Kansas is an overwhelmingly Republican state. Even with Sebelius on the ticket, it might be too much to ask of her to deliver it in a presidential election year.

Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano also endorsed Obama early and is popular in her state. However, she was unable to deliver Arizona for Obama in the primary. And the fact that favorite son John McCain hails from Arizona, she probably couldn't deliver the state for him in November either. If Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, or Mike Huckabee were the Republican nominee, maybe Napolitano would be a more attractive option. But John McCain eliminates her because of his popularity in her state.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg appears unlikely. He has lots of money, but probably does not add much to an Obama ticket. His greatest assets are his personal wealth and the fact that he's an independent. That ties in nicely with Obama's message of unity. But what state could Bloomberg deliver? Obama should be able to win New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey without him. Thus, it's hard to see the argument for Bloomberg over other options.

Retiring Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska would be a fascinating choice for veep. Like Wesley Clark, Hagel gives Obama some much needed heft in terms of military and foreign affairs expertise. And as a Republican, he would definitely lend credibility to Obama's message of unity. A Hagel pick would show voters that Obama doesn't just talk about bipartisanship, but actually practices it. Hagel was considered part of the Unity '08 movement and was rumored to be considering a third-party ticket with Bloomberg. Surely he'd be receptive to running with Obama because they both have an interest in getting politicians of all stripes to work together. Having a split ticket like this would make it really hard for Republicans to paint Obama as an ultra liberal because ultra liberals don't select center-right Republicans as their running mates. And should John McCain choose independent Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate, a Hagel nod would offset it as far as "bipartisanship" is concerned. Hagel is well respected both in Nebraska and the Senate and would help Obama connect with rural Whites and Republicans who have soured on Iraq.

Former Vice President Al Gore could be an attractive option for Obama, although it's not certain whether Gore would be up for campaigning for anything other than the top job. Climate change and the environment are very important to him and he could have a greater impact on this from the White House than he could as a private citizen. Gore would please the Democratic base, but his appeal among Republicans would be limited. Independents who voted for Bush and regret having done so may be willing to give Gore a chance. The biggest problem with a Gore pick, however, is that he contradicts Obama's message of looking to the future. If Hillary Clinton is part of the past, wouldn't Al Gore be part of the past as well? It seems more likely that Gore would be an emergency consensus nominee (presidential, not vice presidential) in the event that chaos erupts at the party convention this summer and the superdelegates are deadlocked over Obama and Clinton. Gore's probably the most respected party elder who has yet to jump in the current food fight, but look for him to play some role in the process sometime in the future.

Hillary Clinton will not be on the bottom half of an Obama ticket. That was true when I first wrote about this in February and it's still true now. The fact is, she needs him far more than he needs her. If Clinton somehow became the nominee, she'd be obligated to tap him for veep or risk tearing the Democratic Party in half. Obama does not have this obligation to Clinton, however, even though it would be in his and the party's best interest to make some conciliatory gesture to her camp. This is what makes Wesley Clark the most obvious pick at present.

1/26/2008

Dissecting South Carolina (D)

The results are still coming in, but it looks like Barack Obama will win the South Carolina Democratic primary with more than half of the vote and with more votes than Hillary Clinton and John Edwards combined. Given the margin of his victory and his sufficiently strong performance among White voters (exit poll results here), it appears that the emerging storyline will be that the voters rejected the Clintonian brand of race-baiting politics and really want to move on. The other likely storyline will concern where John Edwards goes from here. Here are some of my thoughts, listed in no particular order:

1. The only way John Edwards can win the nomination now is if Clinton or Obama self-destructs somewhere down the road and he becomes the alternative candidate. But barring a total meltdown or fatal gaffe on behalf of his rivals, the only path for John Edwards now leads to amassing delegates, not winning the nomination. He was already in trouble for not winning his must-win state of Iowa and registering an embarrassing 4% in Nevada. But finishing third in his home state of South Carolina, a state he won in 2004, is a particularly strong rejection of his candidacy and is not something he can easily spin. Having been born here and representing next-door North Carolina, South Carolinians should reasonably be expected to know Edwards better than voters elsewhere. That's what makes this showing by Edwards so disappointing for his campaign. There is one silver lining for Edwards, however. Given the unexpectedly large margin of Obama's victory, most of the media's focus will be on him, rather than Edwards and his weak performance.

2. Appeals for civility and maturity may for make for good soundbytes in debates, but people don't vote for mediators. They vote for leaders. Joe Biden tried to take the high road and was rewarded with fifth place in Iowa. Chris Dodd did the same and finished seventh. Bill Richardson thought that might win him plaudits in the debate before the New Hampshire primary, but the only thing he won was an all-expense paid trip out of the race. And in the case of John Edwards, his rhetoric about civility was well-received. However, voters rewarded Obama for running the more positive campaign instead.

3. Black and White voters rejected Black and White politics. This anger was directed both at the Clintons as well as the media. Blacks were quite angry about having the issue of race be reduced to a political wedge issue. And Whites were angry about the the notion that the Clintons thought they could be scared into voting for them by playing on old fears. This is something Blacks and Whites alike would expect from a Republican, not a Democrat. And that's why both Blacks and Whites were so shocked by the tone and the rhetoric of the Clinton campaign. The Clinton campaign's race-baiting may have succeeded in that it drove Obama's Black support up and his White support down, which would likely benefit Clinton on Super Tuesday. However, these offended and angry Black voters are at a greater risk of staying home on Election Day in November because they have long memories when it comes to this kind of rhetoric. (Don Imus is still a sore spot, for example.) Democrats need that 85-90% of the Black vote in November. If they don't get it, competitive blue states with large Black populations (especially Michigan and Pennsylvania) may turn red. And given the weakness of Clinton regarding her electibility in the general election, she can ill afford to hemorrhage any part of her base whatsoever.

4. The generation gap between Clinton, Obama, and their supporters is very, very real. Per the exit poll results, Obama beat Clinton among voters of all ages except those over 65. And he often beat Clinton among younger voters by better than 2 to 1. The prospect of seeing a woman president may matter more to these voters because they grew up at a time when women faced far more barriers in their professional lives. Older voters may be more reliable voters, but relying on seniors for electoral success is a dicey proposition. And younger voters, many of whom have been apathetic about politics before, look at Obama as someone who channels their dreams, their vision of what America should be, and their frustration with our current state of our political discourse. To younger voters, it's as if Obama is a movement, rather than just a candidate.

The next state up is Florida, but it's more of a beauty contest than anything else because it will not award any delegates. It appears that Clinton will campaign there regardless, however, presumably to change the story from South Carolina to the springboard to Super Tuesday. The Clinton campaign will eagerly write off South Carolina because they know that the state will never go Democratic in a general election. But this state and their approach to it may have caused irreparable damage to their campaign because it reminded voters more of what they hated about the 1990s than what they missed. Notice that I am referring to the Clintons in the plural form because it is obvious that Obama is running against both the New York senator and the former president.

This reality opens up a new avenue of attack for Obama because he could reasonably question who the real president would be in a Hillary Clinton White House. And citing the Clintons' rhetoric over the past two weeks would probably lead most voters to conclude that the real risk is not in electing an "unproven" Obama with a thin resume, but rather in reelecting the Clintons and allowing their brand of politics to make America lose faith in what she is.

Black voters in the Super Tuesday states will probably break for Obama the same way they did for him in South Carolina. Those voters will likely never go back to Clinton unless she's the nominee. And White voters who were leaning towards Clinton probably were put off by her campaign and may be more inclined to vote for Obama as well. John Edwards' supporters are going to have to be honest with themselves about their available choices. Being another "change" candidate, I would expect his supporters to flock to Obama in greater numbers. But if they remain loyal to Edwards, the question will then be a matter of who his presence is hurting more. But in general, it's really hard to see how the Clintons can build up their support faster than they appear to be losing it.

For now, Obama has seized the momentum and is now even money against Clinton on Super Tuesday. But will voters in the Super Tuesday states punish her as well? Or will they have short memories?

The race goes on.

1/24/2008

What South Carolina Means: John Edwards

(This is the first of a three-part series assessing the South Carolina Democratic primary. Today's installment is about John Edwards. I will write about Hillary Clinton on Friday and Barack Obama on Saturday.)

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Absent Hillary Clinton, John Edwards was supposed to be the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination this year. A young and affable Southerner who was the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee just four years ago, John Edwards should have had the inside track to the nomination. He was a familiar face and emerged from the 2004 campaign less wounded than John Kerry. He had the unique ability to argue that he could win an election in a red state, owned the poverty issue, and had a sharp populist message that resonated with angry and anxious voters who were upset about the lack of affordable health care, the lack of consumer protections, and the perceived exploitation by “big oil companies, big drug companies, and big insurance companies.” And on top of all this, Edwards essentially joined Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin to become Iowa’s third senator by campaigning there nonstop after his 2004 defeat. Seeing that Iowa served as the leadoff contest for the presidential nomination, this race should have been Edwards’ to lose.

That was the thinking in January 2007. One year later, Edwards is struggling to remain relevant. He narrowly avoided third place in Iowa, placed a distant third in New Hampshire, “got his butt kicked” in Nevada, and is trailing badly in his home state of South Carolina despite heavily advertising here.

So what went wrong?

Some of Edwards’ mistakes were tactical ones, such as not putting a swift end to the haircut story or letting his wife Elizabeth overshadow him in her attacks on his rivals. Other mistakes weren’t really mistakes at all, but rather the consequences of unlucky timing. Barack Obama’s candidacy made it too difficult for Edwards to run as an outsider, an agent of change, or a grassroots candidate. This left Edwards struggling to find his niche. And as Obama and Clinton sucked all the oxygen out of the room, there simply wasn’t any room left for Edwards. Iowa was considered his do-or-die state. He barely avoided third place, but spun that as “a victory for change” and soldiered on.

This will almost certainly be Edwards’ last bid for the presidency, so there’s really no good reason why he should just drop out of the race. However, South Carolina is really his last chance. He wasn’t able to win in Iowa despite having campaigned there for more than three years and visiting all 99 of its counties. If he’s not able to win South Carolina, the state where he was born and the state he won in the 2004 primary, then where can he win? Staying in the race after losing South Carolina would confirm Edwards as a loser in the minds of voters and pundits alike. He will be seen as the third man in a two-person race, if he isn’t being viewed that way already. He may argue that winning delegates is important, but if he loses South Carolina, that electoral spigot will probably shut off as well.

John Edwards is way behind Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the South Carolina polls. Unless the polls are completely off (e.g., New Hampshire primary polls redux), the best Edwards could probably hope for is to beat Clinton for second place. Should this happen, Edwards could credibly say he beat Clinton twice and parlay that into a reminder that he is the most electible Democrat. But there are two problems with this: 1) Clinton has too much money and too much organization nationwide to let Edwards stand in her way, and 2) beating Clinton has nothing to do with beating Obama, another well-funded and well-liked candidate who has an impressive campaign apparatus.

However, Edwards does have the advantage of low expectations. He did score a lot of points at the recent debate in Myrtle Beach when he criticized his rivals for spending more time squabbling with each other than addressing the concerns of the voters. Voters who get their news once a day at 6:30 and don’t use or have access to the internet so they can follow the he-said-she-said daily political news cycle may have soured on Obama and Clinton and may decide to reward Edwards for staying above the fray. Of course, astute politicos may remember that Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden have taken the “I’m the grownup in the room” approach before, but look where that got them. Anyway, because nobody is really expecting Edwards to do well, a stronger than expected finish or even beating one of his rivals outright would be seen as a huge victory and could potentially spur a series of “Is there an Edwards comeback?”-type stories.

Having said that, Edwards will probably be giving his concession and withdrawal speeches in a couple of days, but anything can happen in a voting booth. And for all of his tactical mistakes and the unfavorable position he’s in right now, he is still a formidable and likable candidate who has nothing left to lose. And for that reason, he bears watching.

1/22/2008

South Carolina Debate Analysis (D)

Last night the top three Democrats squared off in what was the most cantankerous, liveliest, and probably nastiest debate that has taken place so far this campaign season. The rhetoric often became heated and the accusations were flying fast and furiously. Praising the legacy of Martin Luther King was often followed by accusations of distoring one's records, working with "slumlords," hypocrisy, and not taking stands on previous tough votes. In other words, it was good television for political junkies and pundits who had been waiting for the gloves to come off for ages.

Here's how I think the candidates fared:

Hillary Clinton

Clinton was highly aggressive at the debate, as she hit Obama hard over Iraq, healthcare, his voting record in the Illinois legislature, and even his dealings with the shady Tony Rezko. Some of these attacks did not go over well, as she actually received a few boos from the audience. Her main point was that one's record and what one says do matter, and she wanted to use Obama's "present" votes (read this post I wrote back in November) and recent remarks (e.g., talking about Reagan's transformational politics) to illustrate these points. Of course, this would open her up to criticism about her war vote regarding Iraq and how so many of her records from Bill Clinton's presidency have yet to be released, so this is a risky strategy for her to pursue. Curiously, she also said "this election is about the future." But does Clinton really represent "the future?"

There has been a titanic shift among Black voters from Clinton to Obama after Obama's Iowa victory and the race-baiting from the last two weeks. Coupling this with Clinton's attacks on Obama last night suggests that she has made the tactical decision to cede South Carolina to Obama and speak moreso to Democrats in Florida and the Super Tuesday states. This is akin to Mitt Romney's foregoing South Carolina for the sake of Michigan and Nevada. Black voters in South Carolina (and perhaps beyond) seem to have made the decision that Obama is "their guy" and will not take kindly to Clinton hammering him like that. Obama will probably win South Carolina, but his margins among Black voters will likely be quite lopsided.

If this is Clinton's strategy, it does have some merit in that Blacks will not make up as large a portion of the electorate in many Super Tuesday states as they do in South Carolina, thus giving Blacks for Obama the same importance as evangelicals for Huckabee. So while Clinton could cede the Black vote to Obama on Super Tuesday, if she is able to hold down his margins among White voters enough, she could plausibly win the nomination. The problem with this, however, is that she will be under a lot of pressure to smooth over her relationships with Blacks, especially if she doesn't choose Obama or another Black as her running mate. The problem for Obama, of course, is that the more Blacks rush to his campaign and the more they express outrage over the attacks against him (from Whites), the more he risks becoming "the black candidate" instead of "the unity candidate who happens to be Black." As I mentioned in a previous post, Clinton can beat the former, but she can't beat the latter.

Barack Obama

Standing at the center lectern, Barack Obama was buffeted from all sides by Clinton and Edwards. He had several particularly sharp exchanges with Clinton, which likely indicates that the "truce" they had declared just a few days ago is either over or never really existed to begin with. To Obama's credit, he was able to parry most of the attacks that came his way and even cleverly pivoted from talking about a vulnerability to talking about a strength. For example, when Clinton hit him hard on his dealings with Tony Rezko, Obama glossed over the controversy and pivoted to discussing the importance of being able to trust what our leaders say. While he may not have completely acquited himself regarding Rezko, he did at least mollify voters by reminding them of his candor, which he commonly demonstrated in his book regarding his past drug use and other indiscretions. But while he was able to successfully turn this into an issue of honesty, it also provided his weakest moment of the debate because he was forced to concede that "none of our hands are completely clean." Should the media pick up on this remark, Obama had better be prepared to explain exactly what he meant because the Obama brand is built on "change," which is synonymous with good, open, clean government.

Obama had a few things he clearly wanted to say tonight, likely in an attempt to quell some of the persistent rumors about him and to get some of his frustrations out in the open. Note that he made it a point to remind everyone that he was "a proud Christian" and that he wasn't sure if he was running against just one Clinton or two. The former remark was to stem the rumors about him being a Muslim. The latter was to convey to voters that he was being unfairly double-teamed by the Clinton machine and that they represent the "old way" of doing politics. For voters who don't have access to the internet or who don't often watch the news, this debate provided Obama with a huge megaphone through which he could communicate with these voters who might be easily swayed by rumors or other propoganda.

The audience seemed to like Obama last night and commonly applauded or chucked at his remarks. Because of how aggressively Clinton and Edwards were attacking him, Obama could parlay that into a discussion about "coming together," which plays to his strengths. His remarks about who Martin Luther King would endorse were quite clever, as he reminded voters that King was about empowerment and grassroots activism. This response was out of the box and showed him to be "different" from traditional Black leaders who commonly talk about combatting racism, ending poverty, and the vestiges of slavery. Blacks and Whites alike probably found these remarks to be quite pleasing and uplifting.

John Edwards

John Edwards is the odd man out in this race. He complained to the moderators several times about there being three candidates on the stage instead of two and how the other candidates were getting more time to speak than he was. But this is Edwards' problem. After losing his must-win state of Iowa, placing a distant third in New Hampshire, garnering a dismal 4% in Nevada, and trailing badly in South Carolina polls, Edwards is on the cusp of irrelevancy.

People have talked about how Edwards could potentially be a kingmaker or even wrest the nomination away from Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama if they beat up on each other so badly that they render themselves unelectible. But the problem with this is that the voters already know who Edwards is and saw how little he added to John Kerry's 2004 ticket. His populist rhetoric has some resonance, but he seems to be losing traction everywhere.

Edwards tried to play the role of the grown-up on stage who wanted to keep the focus on the issues facing ordinary Americans:

"(paraphrased quote) Americans don't care about our bickering. All our squabbling is not going to give hardworking Americans healthcare."
For politicos who have been paying attention, this is exactly what Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden were saying at previous debates, but none of them was rewarded for it. Because Edwards is now the weakest candidate remaining, will his remarks be ignored just as Richardson's were? After all, Richardson talked about stopping the petty bickering at the debate before the New Hampshire primary. He won lots of applause for those remarks, but they didn't translate into lots of votes.

Several pundits identified Edwards as the winner of the debate, but I'm not so sure. He was reminded of previous votes he had taken that contradict his campaign rhetoric now (e.g., votes regarding trade with China) and several of his attacks on Obama were successfully parried. While Edwards may have won in terms of trying to focus more on the issues, too many voters may have already written him off for his arguments to resonate.

In addition to this, he sometimes allied himself with Obama to attack Clinton as not being a true agent of change. The problem with this is that Obama is viewed as the main "change" candidate in the race. Edwards needs to find a new niche because the "change" mantle has already been taken. Sometimes Edwards joined with Clinton to attack Obama as well, but he doesn't have much to gain by pursuing that strategy either because the Edwards and Clinton camps simply don't like each other and are not likely to have their supporters defect to the other's campaign.

The Republicans

John McCain seems to be the candidate the Democrats are expecting to face in November. The fact that his name was brought up more than once should delight McCain's campaign and be good for his fundraising because he could tell his donors that "the Democrats are more worried about me than they are about fixing the economy" or something like that. That has the added bonus of allowing McCain to make an "us vs. them" argument in which "us" means Republicans--the very group he needs to win over the most because of his weaker appeal among those voters compared to independents.

George Bush's name also often came up, usually for the sake of criticism. The Democrats seem intent on running against Bush this fall even though his name won't be on the ballot. Look for McCain to be turned into a proxy for Bush despite his popularity among independents and his perception as a maverick. That might not be easy to do because Republican dissatisfaction with and distrust of McCain is well-documented and could be used as evidence to show that he is not as close to Bush as the Democrats may claim.

The fact that Mitt Romney's name was not mentioned at all despite having won more states than his rivals and leading the delegate race is probably a psychological blow for him. However, Romney could be what Obama was last year in that Republicans were expecting to face off against the inevitable Clinton. Should the Democrats view McCain as the inevitable Republican, a surprise Romney nomination could force the Democrats to search for a new political playbook.

This is not to say that the Democrats plan on ceding all of the Republican votes to the Republican candidates. Obama was the only Democrat that talked about getting a few disenchanted Republicans to join him, thus further buttressing the idea that he is a unity candidate. Clinton talked more about having faced the Republicans before and being able to beat them, thus reminding Democrats that she's "tough" and "tested." Edwards' populist rhetoric could potentially appeal to both Democrats and Republicans because poverty knows no politics, but his nomination looks far less likely now than it did a few months ago.

The media

With this debate taking place on Martin Luther King Day and being sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus in South Carolina, a lot of questions were related to the issues of race and poverty. Some of the questions, however, were a bit unnecessary, as they did not really reveal anything important about the candidates. For example, why was Obama asked if Bill Clinton really was "the first Black president?" Fortunately he had a witty response ("let's see how well he dances"), but couldn't the time spent on this question have been better spent asking about the candidates' views on withdrawing troops from Iraq?

The moderator (CNN's Wolf Blitzer) did not really have control over this debate, but the ground rules he mentioned at the beginning of the debate made this lack of control seem less obvious. Having had so many of these rules be ignored in previous debates, CNN did a good job of just letting the candidates have at each other, even though they had a tendency to stray off topic and go negative. (Again, to his credit, John Edwards tried to keep everyone focused on the issues instead of on each other.) The moderators simply asked the questions and tried to give the candidates a fair chance to offer rebuttals to their rivals' charges. So while they might not have had total control over the debate, at least they did not embarrass themselves by pretending they did.

All in all, judging from this debate I'd say that Clinton is thinking more about Super Tuesday than South Carolina, Obama is thinking about exposing Clinton as a negative campaigner, and Edwards is still thinking about finding a way to become the third person in a two-person race.

1/16/2008

Las Vegas Debate Analysis (D)

The Democratic debate in Las Vegas tonight was a generally disappointing affair. Only the top three candidates (Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama) were allowed to participate in this debate, so one would assume that the candidates had many more opportunities to flesh out their policy details and be more specific about their platforms. Also, there were no Mike Gravels or Dennis Kuciniches on stage to distract the other candidates or interrupt the flow of the debate. In light of all this, this debate was a bit of a letdown because the three candidates did not really engage each other and the moderators' questions did not force them to speak in anything other than generalities.

One of the more interesting moments happened towards the beginning of the debate when a heckler said, "These are all race-based questions!" or something similar. Clearly, this man was frustrated with the focus of the questions at the start of the debate, which centered on the overheated rhetoric regarding race over the past few days. Both Obama and Clinton were clearly trying to bury the hatchet and move on, but the moderators belabored the issue by asking one too many questions about retracting statements, citing what went wrong, and whether racism sunk Obama in the privacy of voting booths in New Hampshire. While the heckler was out of line, he was definitely correct in identifying one of the agents that was complicit in advancing the race issue: the media.

John Edwards seemed out of his depth tonight when the questions centered on foreign policy. The moderator asked him what he would do about Kuwait and how foreign countries were investing so heavily in American companies, but he sidestepped the question and pivoted to a discussion about financial insecurity concerns among middle class voters.

Edwards also got caught flatfooted when the moderator reminded him of his previous support for the bankruptcy bill during President Bush's first term that made it more difficult for individuals to declare bankruptcy. When the moderator said that this bill threatened middle and lower class voters who were unable to pay their medical bills, Edwards was forced to admit he was wrong to support that bill. This was potentially damaging because it contradicted Edwards' rhetoric of fighting for the little guy.

Later, he was asked about nuclear energy and storing nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain. Edwards sidestepped this question too, but Hillary Clinton reminded him, "But John, you did vote for Yucca Mountain twice and you did not answer the moderator's question." Again, Edwards had to acknowledge that he was wrong or that circumstances had changed since those votes.

Another weak moment came when the debate switched to illegal immigration. The moderator asked what was wrong with making English the official language of the United States. Edwards went into a long discussion about the need for immigration reform but never really answered the question. Neither Obama nor Clinton were asked about this, but should one of them make it to the general election, they will need to articulate a much more credible response because this is one of the few issues on which Republicans are on the side of public opinion.

In general, Edwards tried to make sure voters knew he was the candidate who would come down hard on lobbyists, special interests, and corporations that exploit their workers. He also made these arguments forcefully and with a great sense of authenticity. However, he came across as a one-dimensional candidate who was incapable of or uncomfortable with talking about anything other than the impact of corporate greed and an ailing economy on the middle class.

Hillary Clinton fared better than Edwards, but she had a problem with responding to questions directly. She also seemed to pander, as she commonly reminded the moderators that "this is a Black and Brown debate" and that it was "unfortunate" that "Black and Brown issues" were not being addressed. In light of all the recent controversy about playing the race card, these lamentations from Clinton may have seemed a bit insincere. Will the media pick up on this and wonder if Clinton was "trying to play the race card" again?

Clinton also was a bit evasive when confronted with direct questions or when asked to explain herself. If these debates are supposed to be about explaining one's views, why did Clinton say "I'm not going to characterize it," when asked to explain her statement before the New Hampshire primaries about how "our adversaries abroad are watching our elections closely and we have to remember that we are hiring a president who will be there when the chips are down?" Obama called Clinton out on these remarks by saying that was an example of politicians using the specter of terrorism to influence elections.

Clinton also did not directly answer the question about whether Bob Johnson, who made the recent veiled remarks about Obama's past drug use, will campaign with her in the future. This was not lost on voters who view her as calculating and conniving, especially when she said that sometimes one's political supporters are "exuberant and uncontrollable." This "uncontrollability" seems to be a pattern with Clinton's supporters.

George Bush was Clinton's main target tonight. It seemed as if she was reverting to her earlier strategy of ignoring her rivals because she was the inevitable nominee. I am not sure about the wisdom of this strategy, however, as Democratic voters already know that Bush is not their friend. So she was essentially preaching to the choir in that regard. Also, Clinton is no longer the inevitable nominee, so she probably should have challenged Obama a bit more.

To Clinton's credit, she did challenge Obama to join her in supporting her legislation about President Bush's responsibility to come before Congress when considering establishing permanent bases in Iraq. This was a shrewd move by Clinton because it would make her look like a leader if Obama accepted her challenge (and thus diminish Obama by making him look more like a follower), further blur the differences between the two candidates on Iraq (regardless of Clinton's initial vote to authorize the Iraq War), and make Obama look like he wasn't prepared to bury the hatchet and be the unity candidate if he rejected her offer.

In my estimation, Barack Obama probably won this debate, although nobody really shined tonight. To Obama's credit, he seemed the most comfortable and the most confident when answering questions, although he seemed to meander at times. Obama also did a good job of drawing distinctions without drawing blood, so he appeared firm and civil at the same time. He had one of the better responses of the night when he was asked to talk about Black males and why the education system was failing them. That response likely resonated with Black voters in South Carolina and maybe even piqued the ears of conservatives because Obama did not come across like a typical liberal Black politician who solely blamed the government for the plight of young Black Americans.

The big loser in this debate was the media. A lot of time was wasted asking questions that were more about making news and advancing media storylines than explaining policy:

"What is your greatest strength and weakness?"

"How did we get [to this sorry dialogue about race]?"


Strike two for the media: Obama was also shortchanged by the moderators when he was not allowed to ask his preferred question to one of the candidates because he wanted to respond to a point made by Edwards in the form of a question. A bit of moderator discretion would have made for a better debate, in my opinion.

The other losers tonight were Iowa and New Hampshire. How many voters were ripping out their hair when they listened to these candidates address issues of foreign policy by nibbling at the edges and speaking in generalities? I've mentioned this before, but I think the Democrats will regret that the three veteran candidates (Richardson, Dodd, and Biden) were winnowed from the field prematurely while three fairly similar and weaker candidates survived.

Overall, this debate lacked fireworks, memorable one-liners, a discussion of specifics, and a sense of reassuring competence regarding foreign policy. The three candidates seemed to change their positions on Iraq again (this time they talked about getting most of the troops out during their first year in office). Pakistan barely came up, and Edwards fumbled the question about Kuwait. People may talk about how this election is the Democrats' to lose, but based on the relatively uninspiring performances I witnessed tonight, I think the Republicans have a better chance of retaining the White House than the pundits think.

The new candidate Democrats should be worried about is Mitt Romney, who won the Michigan primary tonight. This victory places the onus on Mike Huckabee to win South Carolina this weekend. For all of Romney's flip-flops, he at least comes across as competent. Unfortunately for Democrats, Bush won't be on the ballot this fall, and Romney is wisely adopting the "change" mantle and coupling it with a focus on economic issues. I don't know if "a new kind of politics" or "fighting for change" or "fighting for the mill workers" can trump that because Romney is an outsider who won and successfully governed in a very blue state. So he could potentially match up quite well against any of the Democrats.

1/07/2008

New Hampshire Predictions (R/D)

The New Hampshire primaries are tomorrow and the fact that several wildly divergent results are possible is a tremendous gift for politicos everywhere. So many candidates' fortunes depend how well people who aren't even their direct competitors perform. As everyone knows, the current front-runners are John McCain and Barack Obama. However, one of those candidates' leads is secure while the other one's is considerably more tenuous.

John McCain's problem is obviously Barack Obama, and Obama's strength is what makes this primary so difficult to predict. Because independents can vote in the party primary of their choice in New Hampshire, McCain has to be worried that the very independents he needs to propel him to victory there will be gobbled up by Obama, whose support is surging. McCain still only gets lukewarm reviews from Republicans, so if he has to rely solely on intra-party support, the advantage will shift to Romney. Put another way, the more Obama racks up the score, the more likely it is that Romney will win the Republican primary.

Obama's Iowa victory gave him a tremendous boost and the compressed calendar has made it virtually impossible for his opponents to blunt his momentum and reconnoiter. Barack Obama is going to win New Hampshire. The question is, by how much? Independents make up slightly more than a third of New Hampshire voters. These voters are more likely to vote for him than McCain because of an enthusiasm gap, but if Obama's support is particularly lopsided among independents, that will have several likely effects:

1. Clinton and Edwards could potentially argue that Obama is more popular among independents than Democrats. Should they pursue this tack, however, Obama could easily counter that this is a reflection of his ability to transcend political lines, thus further buttressing his sense of electability and his message of national unity. Partisan Democrats might resent Obama for being more popular among independents than voters of his own political party, but these partisans don't really constitute Obama's base.

2. John Edwards could potentially place second and beat Hillary Clinton again. This would be absolutely devastating for Clinton and her campaign because Edwards was supposed to be the candidate whose entire hopes rested on Iowa and who was supposed to drop out after not winning there. Should this happen, Clinton still would not drop out of the race (and she shouldn't), but Edwards could come to legitimately be seen as the Obama alternative. This scenario is possible because Clinton has less appeal among independents than Edwards does. Independents who want to vote for "change" will split between Obama, Edwards, and possibly Huckabee. It's hard to see how Clinton picks up much of this independent support.

3. Mitt Romney will be more likely to eke out a victory. I noticed in the debates last weekend that Romney used the word "change" a lot and even had a few kind words to say about Obama. Could he have shrewdly been trying to appeal to independents to either throw their support behind Obama? After all, McCain is running as a statesman, not a change agent. And "change" is what voters seem to want in 2008.

What about Ron Paul...again?

New Hampshire is probably the best state to accurately gauge Ron Paul's support because of its demographic characteristics and political leanings. Paul performed respectably in Iowa, but New Hampshire is the state where pundits, the media, and political observers can finally ascertain whether he is a fringe candidate who just happens to be good at fundraising, or if he is a candidate with new ideas who deserves to be treated with more seriousness and more respect than has received so far. Future debate organizers would also have a hard time making the case for him to be excluded from their debates if he manages another double-digit performance. Paul supporters and even non-supporters are irate over Fox News' treatment of Ron Paul, and justifiably so. (Read the comments section here and this general story here.)

Rudy Giuliani was embarrassed by finishing behind Paul in the Iowa caucuses. If that happens again, pundits and voters will notice. For someone who is banking on Florida at the end of the month, finishing behind Ron Paul a second time will have a severe effect on his fundraising. And how ironic would it be for the candidate who is arguing he is the "toughest" to have his campaign go up in smoke at the hands of the candidate he views as the "weakest?"

Ron Paul will likely finish ahead of Fred Thompson as well, but neither Thompson nor his supporters will care. Thompson, who hasn't campaigned much in New Hampshire at all, knows his political Grim Reaper is South Carolina, not Ron Paul.

What about Mike Huckabee?

Huckabee did not get much of a bounce out of Iowa, which was not a surprise given how poorly he fits the state. However, he could still legitimately spin a third place showing in New Hampshire as a sort of victory simply because everyone's expectations for him are so low there. Should he place behind Ron Paul, I would expect him to be gracious and praise Paul's ability to generate enthusiasm among new and young voters. This statesmanship would remind voters of his sense of humility and sincerity, both of which are his strong suits. And should he place ahead of Ron Paul, that would be seen as further evidence of Paul's limited appeal. Huckabee will probably finish no higher than third, but if he somehow managed to beat Romney (because McCain's support among Republicans is higher than the polls suggest), then it's hard to see how Romney could recover.

What will happen if Romney wins?

A Romney victory would be bad news for Giuliani in that it would probably eliminate McCain from the race. That would reduce the number of conservative alternatives to Giuliani from four to three (Thompson, Romney, and Huckabee). A Romney victory in New Hampshire would likely be followed by an easy layup in Michigan. Those are supposed to be McCain's two best states, so if McCain wants to have any chance at the nomination at all, he must stop Romney in New Hampshire first. I am still not sure if Republican voters will coalesce behind Romney though because Huckabee has tapped into disaffected conservatives and the evangelical wing of the party still doesn't trust Romney's religion. And Ron Paul has a near monopoly on Republicans who are absolutely angry with President Bush. Romney would need his rivals to cannibalize each other and emerge as the last man standing.

And if Romney loses?

A second silver medal for Romney would be a second major embarrassment. New Hampshire is supposed to be Romney's backyard, but he would be seen as a two-time loser if he fails to beat McCain. This would lead to another hotly contested primary in Michigan where there are a lot of independents (advantage McCain) and voters who are worried about the lousy state economy (advantage Huckabee). By virtue of his own personal wealth, Romney can stay in the race as long as he wishes. If he keeps finishing second place, he could potentially win the delegate race if all his rivals keep divvying up gold medals. However, will he be seen as legitimate?

And as for John Edwards, finishing third would probably send him to South Carolina for his final hurrah. Edwards' survival depends on Clinton's weakness. Clinton may be weakening, but I think she is still a bit too far ahead of Edwards in New Hampshire for him to catch her there.

I deliberately haven't said much about Clinton in this post because even if she places second, she will have serious problems that have received enough ink already. Nevada and South Carolina will go for Obama and Clinton will have to place all her chips on Super Tuesday. She still has strong national polling numbers and voters in places far removed from the early caucus and primary states might not be as antagonistic towards her simply because she hasn't been campaigning there. Because of her own personal negatives, the less contact she has with voters, the better she probably does. New Hampshire was supposed to be Clinton's firewall, but now that firewall is Super Tuesday. An additional problem for Clinton, however, is money. Because of her national organization and her large staff, she has to burn through a lot of cash just to maintain her daily operations. But she has a higher percentage of donors who are tapped out because of campaign finance rules. Obama relies more heavily on a much larger network of smaller donors who donate $20 or $50 instead of the relatively small number of donors who pony up $2300 for Clinton. How much will this fundraising dry up if Obama runs up the score?

And finally, regardless of what happens, expect there to be a serious discussion about reforming the way we go about picking a president. Barring a total meltdown, Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee. Fortunately, the Republican nomination is still a jump ball, but there's a good chance this race will be settled by South Carolina or Florida--which is before about 90% of the other states get their chance to have their voices heard. Also, candidates who are extremely wealthy are able to finance their own campaigns while candidates who rely on public financing are at an insurmountable disadvantage. And a very small number of voters in very small states that represent a very small segment of the population have an unfairly large influence over the whole process. Some of the best candidates have already been marginalized or forced to drop out of the race before voters in other states had their chance to weigh in on who's best. "Tradition" and selfishness are creating a lot of resentment, but nobody running wants to make anyone angry because their own political fortunes depend on defending this ridiculous system.

Final predictions (Democrats):

Obama 38%, Clinton 29%, Edwards 23%, Richardson 4%

Final predictions (Republicans):

If Obama finishes with less than 40% of the vote: McCain 31%, Romney 28%, Paul 15%, Huckabee 12%, Giuliani 10%, Thompson 2%

If Obama finishes with more than 40% of the vote: Romney 34%, McCain 29%, Huckabee 16%, Paul 11%, Giuliani 7%, Thompson 1%

1/06/2008

Thoughts on the New Hampshire Debate (D)

This post will assess last night's Democratic debate. For my take on the Republicans, click here.

As I watched the debate, several facts became immediately apparent:

1. Bill Richardson has become the new Duncan Hunter. He was allowed to participate in the debate by virtue of his fourth place finish in the Iowa caucuses. However, he is a weak candidate and is not viable. Aside from citing his extensive resume, he did not really distinguish himself from the other candidates at the debate. He reminded voters of his wealth of experience, but that may not have been a good strategy to pursue, as Chris Dodd and Joe Biden also ran on experience and lost. And Hillary Clinton tried using "experience" to counter Barack Obama's message of "change" only to have her finish third in the Iowa caucuses. Richardson's problem is that he does not offer anything that the other candidates don't, save for having the most comprehensive resume and executive experience. But again, as Biden, Dodd, and Clinton will attest, that might not matter much. In addition to this, his signature issue, Iraq, is not playing as well as it used to because of recent military successes there, so his calling card of getting all the troops out of Iraq with "no residual forces" has lost some of its potency. Do Iowan voters have any buyers' remorse?

2. John Edwards clearly views Hillary Clinton as his main rival, rather than Barack Obama. He generally refrained from attacking Obama and commonly directed his fire at Clinton. Perhaps he believes that she is the easier candidate for him to beat? Edwards could plausibly argue that he is more electable than she is in addition to being more likable than her as well. It seems that Obama and Edwards are treating Clinton the same way McCain and Huckabee are treating Romney. By double-teaming their main rival, they stand a better chance of taking that rival out. Also, by not going after Obama, could Edwards be angling for the second spot on an Obama ticket?

3. It would be foolish to write off Hillary Clinton despite her poor Iowa finish. While I watched the debate, it was hard to tell who the real frontrunner was at times. She sounded competent and tough, especially when talking about foreign policy and national security. Obama and Edwards spoke more in generalities when it came to stopping terrorism and dealing with nuclear proliferation, a fact that was likely not lost on conservative-leaning voters who are disaffected with the Republican Party. The problem for Clinton, however, is that Obama now controls his own destiny. So no matter how well Clinton does at these debates, as long as Obama does well enough, she will never catch him. Obama made no obvious mistakes during the debate, so he leaves the debate in the same position he was in before it started: ahead. David Broder wrote more about how the race is now Obama's to lose.

4. Obama received a huge boost during the Republican debate when the moderator asked the Republican candidates why they were better suited for the presidency than Obama. The question was phrased to show that the GOP candidates may have been considering Clinton their default opponent a little too soon. I listened carefully to the Republican candidates make their cases against Obama and I noticed that they seemed to have considerable difficulty doing so. Romney, for example, talked a lot about the importance of "change." But the problem for Romney is that he is not the "change" candidate. He is the "manager" candidate. And the negative "flip flop" caricature has more resonance when describing Romney than "change." Huckabee was much more gracious as he talked about Obama and said they both represent a level of civility and pragmatism that the other candidates don't. So he helped build Obama up. Ron Paul did the same when he talked about how they both appealed to younger voters. Compare these remarks with their common remarks about "Hillarycare," for example, and it's easy to see that running against Obama is something they are much less prepared for.

5. John Edwards has tapped into the palpable anger among many voters regarding health insurance, corporate profits, and the struggles of the middle class. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that he would be a polarizing general election candidate who would make the corporate community recoil in horror. He is framing the difference between himself and Obama as how to bring about change. Obama seems to be in favor of a more conciliatory approach, such as negotiating with "the big drug companies," for example. But, as Edwards says, "you can't 'nice' these companies into giving up their greed." Edwards believes "change" should be achieved via a more confrontational approach. He essentially wants to punch "big oil" and "big pharmaceutical companies" in the jaw. I recommend reading this post I recently wrote about the implications of an Edwards nomination.

6. Edwards might not be going after Obama's throat right now, but he will have to engage him eventually. But how can he? How can anyone go after Obama, especially since his favorability ratings are so high? Clinton, whose favorability ratings are considerably lower, can ill afford to drive up her own negatives any further by going after Obama too vigorously. And Edwards runs the risk of coming across as too angry. Attacking Obama's thin resume did not work in Iowa, and criticizing his lofty, inspirational rhetoric only serves to further buttress his own arguments about cynicism and hope. Could it be that this race is closer to being over than we think?

Semi-predictions

If Obama wins New Hampshire, Clinton will be in serious, serious trouble. After winning in two overwhelmingly White states, I highly doubt that Black voters in South Carolina are going to hold him back in the primary there. However, even if Clinton loses New Hampshire and South Carolina, she would still have her high name recognition and deep pockets to help keep her competitive when Super Tuesday finally comes around. Her national polling numbers are about 50% higher than Obama's, so she still has a fairly large margin for error that the other candidates never had.

If Edwards is able to beat Clinton in New Hampshire, he would be able to make a strong case that he is the #2 candidate in the race. But then what? He is trailing Obama badly in South Carolina and doesn't have the money to go the distance with him.

Of course, if Edwards places third, his campaign will effectively be over. He may stay until South Carolina just to see if his heavy advertising here had any effect on the race, but it's hard to see how he could go on with so little money and no momentum.

Hillary Clinton could win New Hampshire. Even if Edwards places second, if he places second to her, he would definitely be finished. The race will then become the two-person race between "Hillary and Obama" that the media have been talking up for months. I can't help but wonder, however, where a lot of disaffected Democrats will go because Clinton is not as popular among Democrats as Republicans think, and a lot of Democrats simply don't have "Obama fever." Will these voters stay home?

Joe Biden and Chris Dodd supporters who value experience and a proven track record of results may throw their support behind Bill Richardson because he's the last "resume" candidate remaining on the Democratic side. However, if they are unimpressed with his campaigning skills, they may consider John McCain, the other "experience" candidate in the race. McCain is not as partisan as some of the other Republicans and he has high favorability ratings among Democrats and independents. Basically, he is an "acceptable" Republican to many Democrats and may win a lot of crossover support.

This is still a three-person race, but John Edwards only has one more chance to remain relevant.

1/04/2008

Digesting Iowa (D)

This is my assessment of the Iowa Democratic caucuses from last night. For my take on the Republican caucuses, click here.

In a word, the Democratic results are earth shattering. Not only did Barack Obama win the caucuses, his strongest rival finished third. Obama will enter New Hampshire with tremendous momentum and the independent voters there will be less likely to defect to McCain because Obama is more energizing and has proven his viability. Doubts about his viability are probably the main reason why people have been reluctant to support Obama even if they do like him and his ideas. More on Obama later.

For Hillary Clinton, this was the worst possible outcome. Even second place would not have been so bad for her, but if she was going to lose, she clearly would have preferred to lose to Edwards because he has less money, weaker polling, and a smaller base. Instead, she finished a distant third to the one candidate who has the money and the supporters necessary to go the distance with her. Worse yet, a lot of voters who had reservations about Obama because they weren't sure if he could win have now had his electability confirmed. Some of these voters are reluctant Clinton supporters. Given the strength of Obama's performance, these voters may defect from Clinton in droves.

And it gets worse. Black voters sitting on the fence in South Carolina were waiting for a sign that Obama could win. Winning convincingly in an overwhelmingly White state over two well-regarded, high profile White candidates who have been on the national scene longer than him is huge. How can Clinton go before Black audiences now and claim she is the most electable candidate who best represents their interests? The answer is simple. She can't.

Perhaps the biggest way Obama's victory has affected the race is that Clinton no longer controls her own destiny. She has ceded this luxury to Obama. For Clinton to win now, she'll need Obama to stumble somehow, be it at a debate or on the campaign trail. If he maintains his campaign discipline, the political inertia he gained from his Iowa victory will be very hard to stop. Prior to Iowa, all she had to do was stick to her gameplan because there was just enough daylight between her and Obama to ensure that she'd have the inside track to the nomination. Not anymore.

The other loser in this race is John Edwards. Edwards barely avoided finishing third. Not one to give up easily, he is trying to spin the results as "a victory for change and a rejection of the status quo." That may be true, but I have argued many, many times in The 7-10 that Obama and Edwards cannot coexist. Edwards had the chance to kneecap Obama in Iowa and he failed to do so. Both Obama and Clinton are performing better than Edwards in both New Hampshire and South Carolina. And the demographics of South Carolina are probably less favorable for Edwards, as roughly half of the voters in the Democratic primary are Black. Edwards is doing worse among Black voters than Obama is among White ones. I don't mean to say that race should be the primary thing that matters in this campaign, but it is a legitimate dimension by which these candidates should be analyzed.

Edwards is also telling his supporters that "he beat Clinton." That is technically true, but he only won by less than half a percentage point. This probably works to Clinton's advantage, as Edwards' refusal to drop out means that she won't have to debate Obama one on one. Had Clinton finished half a point ahead of Edwards, Edwards would have had no choice but to make his graceful exit a la Biden and Dodd. My guess is that Edwards will stay in the race as far as South Carolina, where he is advertising heavily.

And finally, Edwards is saying that "the choice for 'change' is between him and Obama." That is also true, but the fact is that Obama won Round 1 on what was supposed to be Edwards' home turf because he had been campaigning in Iowa for about four years.

It seems like Edwards is about to become the dreaded third wheel, akin to the pesky friend who tags along when two other people are on a date and wish to be left alone. For him to have any chance at the nomination whatsoever, he will need Obama to self destruct so he can become the Clinton alternative. A Clinton meltdown won't help him because Obama has more seniority on the "change" hierarchy.

What about Biden, Dodd, and Richardson? Prior to last night, these three candidates combined were consistently pulling anywhere from 10-20% of the vote in Iowa polls. However, they only snagged about 3% in the caucuses, likely due to the arcane rules involving second choice balloting. The fact that Clinton, Obama, and Edwards won more than 95% of the final vote suggests that the supporters of Biden, Dodd, and Richardson thought that stopping Clinton was more important than ensuring their own preferred candidates' viability. The pro-Clinton vote lost to the anti-Clinton vote by more than 2 to 1.

Biden and Dodd dropped out of the race shortly after learning about their weak finishes. Richardson will live to fight another day, as placing in the top four ensures that he will be allowed to participate in the next debate in New Hampshire this weekend. As for Biden, should Obama win the nomination, do not be surprised if Obama considers him as his running mate because the message of Obama '08 is quite similar to the message of Biden '88 and adding Biden to the ticket would lend Obama's presidential campaign some much needed pragmatism and experience to assuage voters who are not content solely with his message of "change." Ironically, the final reason why this might not be such a far-fetched possibility is because of Biden's mouth. Short of choosing a Republican, the selection of Biden as his running mate would be the ultimate showing of the unity of Obama's message. This is said in reference to Biden's stepping all over his own campaign rollout by referring to Obama as "clean and articulate." Obama-Biden would be the Democratic version of Huckabee-McCain and would make for a spectacular general election campaign.

Here is something the Clintons (yes, plural) should seriously think about. Barack Obama destroyed Hillary Clinton when it came to younger voters. Voters under 35 or so are a generation behind every other presidential candidate, save for Mike Huckabee, who also emerged from Iowa victorious. (That is no coincidence. More on that later.) Most of these younger voters were children or ignorant teenagers during Bill Clinton's presidency. I myself was a high school sophomore when Bill Clinton was first inaugurated, so my memories of the 90s were about Nintendo, MC Hammer, late night pizza in my college dormitory, and being shy talking to girls. As for politics, our generation remembered Clinton's impeachment, but most of us thought that was overkill and couldn't understand why everyone was making such a big deal about "lying under oath" because the lie involved was about something absolutely stupid to us. But that did not endear younger voters to the Clintons. Rather, it succeeded more in turning younger voters away from the Republican Party. The point is, our generation never really developed a connection with Hillary Clinton. Obama, who happens to be the youngest candidate in the Democratic field, is someone who voters in their 20s and 30s can relate to. (I encourage you to read one of my favorite posts about the political disconnect with the younger generation here.)

What happens to Obama now?

There is a critical debate before the New Hampshire primaries. New Hampshire voters will look for Obama to close the sale with them. A poor performance in the debate will blunt the slingshot effect Obama is enjoying now from his Iowa victory. Should Clinton get the better of Obama in this debate, she will likely arrest her fall and get the unfavorable stories about her Iowa defeat off the front pages. Remember, Clinton no longer controls her own destiny. If she does well and Obama does well, nothing will change. Obama has to stumble in order for Clinton to take advantage.

New Hampshire's independent voters can participate in the party primary of their choice. These voters will have to decide between Obama and McCain. Given that Democratic participants outnumbered Republican participants in the Iowa caucuses by about 2 to 1, that suggests that Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are far more enthusiastic about their candidates than Republicans are about theirs. Remember that Iowa is a swing state that narrowly went for Gore in 2000 and narrowly went for Bush in 2004. Could this discrepancy in caucus turnout portend a sea change taking place among the electorate at present?

It has long been argued that Clinton was the candidate of Democratic voters' heads while Obama was the candidate of their hearts. It appears that the heart is stronger. And given Obama's appeal among such a wide swath of voters (entrance poll data is here), it appears that a lot of Democrats "heart" Obama.

Is Clinton likable? Again, she lost to Obama and Edwards by a combined 2 to 1 ratio. Republicans may have done Democratic voters a favor by stressing her high unfavorability ratings. Perhaps these Republicans were unaware of the fact that there are a lot of Democrats who also don't want Hillary Clinton to win the nomination. This is very bad news for Rudy Giuliani in particular, who has made stopping Clinton one of the pillars of his campaign. (You can read more of this argument here. ) Other Republican candidates would be wise to develop a contingency plan for the general election should their nemesis not even make it to the general election because that scenario is a lot more likely now than it was two or three months ago.

It is worth noting that Mike Huckabee has not made Hillary-bashing a focal point of his campaign. And Obama has generally run the most civil campaign of the Big 3 Democratic candidates. Both of these candidates won the Iowa caucuses by healthy margins. Perhaps the electorate is looking for someone not just who wants to bring about a change in direction, but also a change in our political dialogue. Politicians who ran the nastiest campaigns and launched the harshest attacks fared the worst (Giuliani, Clinton, Edwards, Romney). Are we on the cusp of post-partisanship?

An assessment of the entrance poll data will be written later.

1/02/2008

Iowa Predictions (D)

I handicapped the Republicans in my last post. Now I will address the Democratic caucuses and offer my predictions (again, against my better judgment).

The Democratic race is particularly difficult to predict because the three leading candidates can easily place first or third. In addition to that, because of the uniqueness of the Democratic caucus rules, second choice preferences can further throw pundits' projections out of whack. Knowing this, there are three main questions:

1. Who will win?

This is the easy part. By most pundits' predictions, the winner of the caucuses will be Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or John Edwards. If it's Clinton, the race for the Democratic nomination is likely over unless Obama places a very close second. If it's Edwards, that's great news for Clinton bad news for Obama and the so-called "second tier" candidates because that would prolong the notion that this is really only a race between the same three candidates. If it's Obama, while that would be terrible news for Clinton, that would be absolutely fatal for Edwards and good news for one of the "second tier" candidates who will fill the void left by Edwards, who must win the caucuses to remain viable.

Clinton has the best name recognition and is seen as the "experienced" candidate. As an added bonus, Democrats generally like Bill Clinton and long for the peace and prosperity of the 1990s, even if they grew weary of the scandals. Voters who like Richardson, Dodd, and Biden because of their experience, but fear they are not viable, will probably come back to Clinton. There are also a lot of female voters who are excited about the prospect of a woman president, so they may turn out in droves to "help make history." Obama and Edwards supporters may also grudgingly support Clinton because of fears those candidates are not quite ready for prime time against a Republican opponent in the general election.

Obama has been the media darling for months and has tapped into something the other candidates have been unable to do so far--the hunger for a new beginning. Clinton cannot credibly represent "change" unless she means a "change" from Bush. Edwards is a bit more credible when talking about "change," but his rhetoric is often as confrontational as the general state of our political dialogue at present. The other candidates further back in the pack are not running as "change" candidates. So this leaves Obama as the second coming of JFK in the minds of many voters. Obama has argued that "experience" is overrated, as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld would suggest. Reminding voters of Clinton's Iraq vote is also a sharp attack, although recent successes in Iraq may have diluted the potency of this attack somewhat. Then there are also a lot of White voters who view Obama as a vehicle through which they can make a statement about how far they have come regarding issues of racial prejudice. So Obama's message of "change" has many meanings.

Edwards performed strongly in the Iowa caucuses in 2004 and has campaigned heavily in the state since the Kerry-Edwards defeat in the general election. He has established numerous invaluable connections with local leaders and is a generally likable candidate. There is no doubt that his supporters will turn out for him. He can also portray himself as a hybrid of Clinton and Obama in that he wants to bring new voters into the process (by "fighting for working men and women" and "giving the other America a voice") and having a bit more experience than Obama at the federal level. There are also many voters who may not quite be ready just yet for a female or Black president. (That's an ugly truth that likely characterizes more Americans than we would like to think.) Edwards' message of being able to play in all 50 states because he won a Senate election in a red state may also have some appeal. And his populist message also has a lot of resonance among Democrats in light of the housing crisis, the price of oil, and the destruction of the middle class.

2. Who will disappoint?

This will also be Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or John Edwards. They are all essentially tied for first place, and of course, the higher you are, the harder you fall. However, "disappointing" has different meanings for different candidates. For Edwards, "disappointing" means placing second to anyone or worse. For Obama, "disappointing" means placing second to Clinton or placing third overall. For Clinton, "disappointing" means placing second to Obama, placing third to Edwards, or placing fourth overall. In other words, Clinton is best able to survive a poor showing in Iowa. Edwards is the least able to do so.

This is not to say that Edwards will be the candidate whose bounce out of Iowa will be a resounding "thud." All three candidates are at risk of having this happen. Clinton, for example, may be punished by Iowans for her hardball politics and the unseemliness of some of her campaign acts. Issues like the rumors about Obama's religion, citing quotes from his kindergarten teacher, and dredging up his past drug use probably left a sour taste in the minds of many voters. The real consequences of this are likely to be observed when it comes time for second choice voting. Obama may reap a windfall of sympathy votes or votes from people who want to punish Clinton for the way she ran her campaign. Voters may also decide that they simply want to make a break from the Bush-Clinton infighting and start over with something fresh. Clinton's biggest problem is that she stands to lose support faster than she can gain it because of her high negatives. Also, because she has universal name recognition, if a voter is not in her camp by now, that voter probably never will be. Voters looking for "experience" without the polarization may drift over to Richardson, Dodd, or Biden. Voters looking for "a first" would probably go to Obama.

Obama could also be the candidate for whom the clock strikes midnight. He has galvanized Democrats with his rhetoric about "change." However, Clinton has warned voters about the risks of nominating someone with so little "experience." Clinton also does not have a bevy of experience either, but she does present a credible and potentially potent argument that strikes at one of the weaknesses that has plagued Obama since he entered the race. The turmoil in Pakistan also reminded voters of how the person they are voting for should be someone who is competent and strong. Obama may represent "change," but does he also represent strength? If voters decide they can't vote for Obama even though they like him, I would expect his support to go to Biden, Richardson, or Dodd because Obama supporters probably view Clinton as a last resort and they may be turned off from Edwards' confrontational tone and similar lack of experience.

One of Edwards' greatest strengths in Iowa is that voters there know who he is. Unfortunately, that's also one of his greatest weaknesses. Voters may decide that he had his chance in 2004. Dick Cheney mopped the floor with him in the vice presidential debate and he was not able to deliver his home state of North Carolina (or Iowa) in the general election. Edwards has run an angry and often negative campaign which may remind Iowans of Dick Gephardt's doomed 2004 presidential bid. Voters who like Edwards' message of "change" but don't like his negativity may decide to defect to Obama.

3. Who will perform better than expected?

This is where Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden enter the equation. While these candidates don't get a lot of attention in the press, I strongly believe one of these candidates will supplant one of the "Big Three." Clinton and Obama have too much money to fold up their tents after a failure in Iowa, so this leaves Edwards as the most vulnerable "major" candidate.

I would not be surprised if these three candidates told their supporters to pool their support and throw it to the most viable of the three candidates when it comes to second choice voting. Richardson has the best resume, but also has had the worst debate performances. Biden has a good resume and has had the best debate performances, but he still has lingering doubts about his message discipline. Dodd has been the steadiest campaigner and has a good record, but he has the worst polling.

Taking all of this into consideration, I believe Joe Biden is the best positioned to vault from obscurity into contention. People who support these three candidates are probably more inclined not to support Clinton, Obama, or Edwards because those candidates' resumes pale in comparison to those of Richardson, Dodd, and Biden and these hefty resumes are likely why they are supporting these candidates in the first place. I would expect them to stress the importance of these credentials when it comes to wooing other voters during the negotiation period of the caucuses, especially supporters of candidates who far exceed the 15% threshold of viability.

Final prediction: Obama 27%, Edwards 20%, Biden 18%, Clinton 17%, Richardson 10%

1/01/2008

John Edwards: Then and Now

The 7-10 wishes all of its readers a Happy New Year.

While the real Christmas may have been a week ago, a second Christmas for politicos everywhere will take place in just two days: the Iowa caucuses. After crisscrossing the state and giving speeches, fundraisers, and interviews for the better part of 2007, the results and effectiveness of these efforts will finally be able to be ascertained.

I've written a lot about the Clinton vs. Obama storyline, as those two candidates have generally led the Iowa polls for the past six months. However, one candidate is not going away. Assuming Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden don't gain any traction, this candidate is Hillary Clinton's best friend and Barack Obama's worst nightmare. This candidate is John Edwards, and what a journey he's had.

Last February I wrote about Bloggergate and the political fallout involved. While this gave Edwards several days of bad press, this mini-brouhaha goes to show you that in politics, it's far better to make your mistakes and get your unflattering stuff out there for all to see a year before the election, rather than a month or even a week before. (Imagine where Mitt Romney would be right now had he addressed his Mormon faith last spring when nobody was paying attention! Mike Huckabee would probably be a nonstory right now!)

In March, Edwards was befallen by a personal tragedy--this time involving his wife Elizabeth, who was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. I argued that Edwards should drop out of the race because he would run the risk of being seen as placing his political ambitions above his wife's health, a mindset that could destroy his chances with female voters.

In July, I addressed the budding caricature of Edwards as an elite hypocrite who gets $400 haircuts and lives in a huge estate while claiming to be an advocate for the poor. Voters who are a bit more discerning may view the haircut and house size as nonstories, as most politicians probably live in large houses and splurge on things that average people don't, such as cars, clothing, and vacations. However, a lot of voters may penalize Edwards for this, although I'd venture that voters who hold Edwards' haircut against him were likely never to vote for him to begin with. Nevertheless, it gives Edwards' opponents another weapon they could use to portray him in a negative light.

Edwards really started slipping in August, as he relinquished his lead in the Iowa polls to Hillary Clinton, pulled his campaign staff out of Nevada, opted for public financing, and risked having his wife overshadow him because of her attacks on his opponents. These developments caused me to wonder if Edwards could even survive until Iowa. Shortly after that, I accused Edwards of childishness, as the nastiness of his rhetoric paled in comparison to the absurdity of his denials of these attacks.

Fortunately for Edwards, his fortunes began to change in November as Clinton made a rare misstep at a debate and doubts about Obama's toughness were creeping in. While Edwards had been attacking Clinton for months, I argued that he could pivot from attacking her to attacking Obama for not being able to fight. Restless Obama supporters might have been receptive to this charge, seeing that Obama was running in place in most polls at the time.

And finally in December, Obama began to catch fire and his ascension crowded out all other political news. I speculated that Edwards stood the risk of getting lost in the shuffle not only because Clinton and Obama were sucking all the political oxygen out of the room, but also because Richardson, Biden, and Dodd could pool their support and open up a new front that Edwards could not match--experience and gravitas.

And now we are just two days from Iowa. Despite all of these stories and developments I just mentioned, many of which are unflattering, John Edwards is quietly keeping himself in contention in Iowa. He was even leading a recent Mason Dixon poll. Because of Edwards' impressive campaign organization in Iowa and his strength as a second choice candidate, it is quite possible that he can actually win the caucuses on Thursday. Surely Obama and Clinton were not expecting Edwards to stick around this long, but they must now contend with the fact that he can overtake both of them.

But what would an Edwards victory mean?

Should Edwards win Iowa, Hillary Clinton would send him bouquets of flowers and boxes of chocolate because as far as Clinton is concerned, coming in second to Obama is far worse than coming in third to Edwards. The Clinton campaign believes Edwards is an easier rival to overcome than Obama because Obama has so much money and so many supporters. This would allow him to compete with Clinton in all 50 states. Clinton doesn't think Edwards can do that, as he is generally polling a distant third in most national polls. Plus, an Obama victory in Iowa would instantly certify his electability and create a deluge of favorable media coverage for him and a cascade of "Is Clinton finished?" stories for her.

Coming in second to Edwards would fatally cripple Obama because that would blunt his momentum in New Hampshire and allow Clinton to win there. Because independents can vote in any primary they like in New Hampshire, they might turn out for John McCain instead of Obama if Obama doesn't win Iowa first.

Edwards' populist message is not resonating as well in New Hampshire, a fairly wealthy and more fiscally conservative state. He is also polling considerably worse in New Hampshire than in Iowa, so he might not get a big enough bounce out of Iowa to overtake Clinton there. However, he might get enough of a bounce to overtake a wounded Obama.

An Edwards victory in Iowa followed by a Clinton victory in New Hampshire would turn South Carolina into the do-or-die state for Obama because he could ill afford to go into Super Tuesday 0 for 3. I live in South Carolina and I can tell you that Edwards has been advertising heavily here. If Edwards makes it to South Carolina, he would be able to credibly argue that not only is he the "change" candidate, but also the electable "change" candidate. He would be able to argue that he (and not Obama) is the non-Hillary candidate that can win in November while putting more states in play than she can. Obama would have a hard time countering this argument because he would not have any victories in Iowa or New Hampshire to back him up.

Black voters in South Carolina would either have to give Obama one final chance, or they will defect to Clinton, a known quantity for Black voters. However, Obama could not court these Black voters too aggressively, lest he be seen as "Black candidate" rather than a "unity candidate who happens to be Black." Edwards would probably make a play for Black voters by stressing his commitment to fighting poverty and rebuilding New Orleans. Whites would respond to this message of fighting poverty as well, given the rural nature of the state and the abundance of poor mill towns here.

For Edwards to win the nomination, he needs to get Obama out of the race as soon as possible. He can deliver a major uppercut in Iowa and a knockout punch in South Carolina. I've argued many times that there simply isn't enough room in the race for both of them to coexist. They are both running as "outsiders" and "agents of change." Both have high name recognition and exude youth and vigor. Edwards has the advantage of having run a national campaign before, but Obama has the advantage of a huge war chest. Edwards' decision to accept public financing will hamstring his campaign in the future if he has to go one on one against Clinton. However, that will also afford him the opportunity to identify Clinton as a part of "the system" he rails against.

The "inexperience" label is one that has generally been used to describe Obama, but not Edwards even though Edwards only has one term in the Senate under his belt. To beat Clinton, Edwards needs to channel a bit of Obama's message because Obama has tapped into something very real and Edwards is the best positioned to capitalize on this. Obama supporters probably view Clinton as a last resort, so Edwards stands to recruit these supporters in the event that Obama's candidacy falters. Here's the argument that Edwards should make if it comes down to him and Clinton:

"Even though Clinton and I agree on most issues, I am the candidate that is able to bring more Americans together. Fairly or unfairly, I am the candidate that is more acceptable to more voters. Clinton talks a lot about being able to 'beat the Republicans.' Well, I would argue that this statement embodies the problem we have with our politics because 'beating them' is not as important as getting some of them to join us because the problems we face are not just Democratic problems or Republican problems. They are America's problems, and we have to confront them together."
(Please remember that I am not a member of any campaign.)

In short, if Clinton wins Iowa, her inevitability will be confirmed and she will likely run the table and win the nomination.

If Obama wins Iowa, his electability will be confirmed and he will likely run the table and win the nomination.

If Edwards wins Iowa, he will still need to do some work later on in order to eliminate his rivals and remain competitive throughout the primary season. Because his path to the nomination is a bit more complex, even though he may be tied for first or a very close second in Iowa, he is still solidly in third place when it comes to his chances of winning it all and making it to the national party convention in Denver.

12/07/2007

Edwards the Invisible, Edwards the Vulnerable

A month ago I wrote about how John Edwards could pivot from attacking Hillary Clinton to taking advantage of the frustration that had been building among Barack Obama's supporters because of his perceived lack of "fight."

Since then, a lot has happened in the Democratic presidential race. Hillary Clinton has not had a single good week of press since the debate in Philadelphia. Some of her problems were of her own creation, such as how flummoxed she became over the driver's licenses for illegal immigrants question. Others were unnecessary distractions from her campaign, such as the revelation that one of her staffers in Iowa was responsible for the rumor spreading over e-mail about Obama being a Muslim. And then there was news that was great for America, but not so great for her (or Bush), such as the recent National Intelligence Estimate saying that Iran's nuclear weapons program was much less threatening than Bush had been making it out to be. (The problem for Clinton here is that she was much more hawkish on Iran than her Democratic opponents.)

The other major change has been in the polling--particularly Barack Obama's well-timed ascent. He has pulled ahead of Clinton in Iowa and has significantly closed the gap in New Hampshire. He also now has megastar Oprah Winfrey campaigning for him. And he is being a bit more aggressive in his attacks on Clinton. It seems like Obama has all the momentum and is peaking at the right time.

So what does this mean for Edwards? Well, you may have noticed that while Clinton and Obama continue their back and forth, Edwards has become considerably less aggressive. During the summer, Edwards was adopting a highly combative tone. This coincided with Clinton overtaking Edwards in the Iowa polls. Edwards strategy back then was to throw as many grenades and set as much bait as possible in an attempt to get his rivals to respond to him and generate media coverage for his campaign. However, I thought Edwards sounded angry and petty, and I criticized him for that here.

But now that the race has changed and Clinton is the one who is lobbing stinkbombs at Obama (such as quoting his kindergarten teacher about his presidential ambitions), Edwards has changed his tune. Say goodbye to throwing mud at Clinton, and say hello to sitting on the sidelines with a smile on your face. Edwards is now quietly sitting back and letting his two rivals slug it out. After a long year of campaigning and attacking each other, Edwards is banking on the idea that the voters are growing weary of all the pettiness taking place and will reward Edwards for taking the high road and staying above the fray. The thinking here is that Iowa voters will get sick of the negativity and bickering between Obama and Clinton and throw their support to Edwards. The old political adage, "If A attacks B, then C will be the nominee" seems to be Edwards' strategy here.

But is it enough? It seems that there is a new threat that Edwards may have to worry about. Consider this: The Democratic candidates are all trying to carry a particular mantle. Clinton is the "experience" candidate. Obama is the "change" candidate. Of course, Edwards is also trying to be the "change" candidate, so he is having to compete with the better funded and better polling Obama. This is perhaps his biggest problem. Now it seems like Edwards is trying to run as the "outsider" candidate.

Fair enough.

But what does one make of the Iowa voters who are throwing their support behind Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd? According to Real Clear Politics, the average level of combined support for these three candidates in Iowa is from 10-15%. Richardson has been in the low double digits and high single digits for months. Biden is consistently polling outside of the margin of error. And Dodd is pulling in a steady 1-3%, which is higher than Mike Gravel, whose numbers are commonly in asterisk territory. The point I am trying to make here is that there are a lot of voters out there who either 1) are looking for something other than change, experience, or an outsider, or 2) do not believe Clinton, Obama, or Edwards are credible messengers of what they purport to represent. Because of how much the media has concentrated on Clinton, Obama, and Edwards, this 10-15% of Iowa voters is obviously paying enough attention to the race to dig a bit deeper and focus on all the candidates, not just those who are grabbing all the headlines. And if neither Clinton, Obama, nor Edwards has been able to make the sale to these voters yet despite all their campaign ads and all their media coverage, it is quite possible these voters view that trio as a last resort.

What could these 10-15% of voters be looking for if it's not change, exerience, or an outsider? Perhaps not coincidentally, Richardson, Biden, and Dodd each have more government experience than Clinton, Obama, and Edwards combined. And they have impressive records of their legislative accomplishments and a firm grasp of foreign policy. These are not sexy things for a politician to campaign on, but they do form the meat and potatoes of competent governance. Pay special attention to the word competent. That is the one buzzword that hasn't gotten a lot of play in the media. And these three veterans can all run on competence and back it up with their records.

Will Richardson, Biden, and Dodd instruct their supporters to throw their support behind the one of them who emerges as the most viable in the caucuses? If these three camps work together, they could plausibly break the 15% threshhold of viability that is required to survive in the Iowa Democratic caucuses. And of course, there is likely a significant portion of supporters of the top three candidates whose support is soft. Perhaps they are unaware that they have other options. After all, Clinton, Obama, and Edwards have sky high name recognition in Iowa. Richardson, Dodd, and Biden don't. So if one of those veterans emerges in the caucuses, they may be able to peel off more support from the top three candidates than the punditry believes.

As an added bonus, Richardson, Biden, and Dodd could all take the competence mantle and all run on change, experience, and being an outsider. "Change" can be viewed as a change from the incompetent Bush to competent leadership. Their "experience" can easily trump Clinton's. And because they are not the media darlings, they could claim to be "outsiders" in that they are not media flavor of the month politicians.

I wondered in August if John Edwards would make it to Iowa. It looks like he will, but what will happen after that? Should Obama win Iowa, how could Edwards continue? After all, Obama is also running on "change" and being an "outsider." Should Clinton win Iowa, how could anyone continue? And should Edwards win, does anyone think Clinton or Obama is going away? Not with all the money they have! But now what if Richardson, Biden, or Dodd emerges from Iowa with a strong second or third place showing even if Edwards wins? Does he have enough resources and enough political heft to stave off yet another avenue of attack?

Edwards is really in trouble. He's not completely doomed just yet, but he is clearly in the most precarious position of all the Democrats right now. He has no real niche all to himself.

11/25/2007

Current State of Affairs (D)

The 7-10 has returned after a long, restful, festive (and stomach-bursting) Thanksgiving.

Last week was a particularly slow one for political news, but there were a few good stories worth commenting on. The Scott McClellan story shined a whole new light on the Valerie Plame saga, for example, but I will write about that at a later date.

But for now, I want to talk about last week's ABC News/Washington Post poll that showed Barack Obama ahead of Hillary Clinton in Iowa. Obama polled at 30%, Clinton polled at 26%, and Edwards polled at 22%. This was the first time in about two months that Obama has polled higher than Clinton in Iowa.

Why is this important? For starters, positioning is never as important as momentum. Hillary Clinton had been trouncing her opponents in almost every poll this year (especially after Edwards began to fade in Iowa). However, it doesn't really mean much to win in September if you trend downward in December. Voters want to support candidates who have momentum. Momentum creates a bandwagon effect. It changes the media storyline and gives you free favorable press coverage. Mike Huckabee has momentum. Stories about him auditioning for vice president have been replaced with stories about how he could snatch an Iowa victory away from Mitt Romney. Ron Paul has momentum. Stories about him have changed from being the out-of-place antiwar GOP whipping boy on the stage in the debates to being the guy who shattered single-day fundraising records.

And for now, Barack Obama has momentum. How much talk do you hear now about him being too reticent to throw a punch? And what about Hillary Clinton? How much talk do you hear now about her "inevitability?" Polling data such as those I cited earlier have totally reframed this contest. Yes, Hillary Clinton is still trouncing the rest of the Democratic field nationally and in other state polls, but nobody is talking about that now. The only thing people hear is that "there's a real race in Iowa and that Clinton could potentially lose the whole thing."

A second reason why this matters is because this makes Obama seem more credible in the eyes of voters. On anecdotal evidence alone, I can tell you that there are a lot of voters out there who "like Obama, but don't think he can win." These doubts could be a realization of the fact that Clinton is much more politically savvy than him. They could be a lamentation of the notion that America is "not ready" for a Black president just yet. They could be worries stemming from his lack of executive experience and his short tenure in Washington. But whatever the source of these doubts may be, seeing Obama on top of the polls surely makes some of these voters challenge the doubts they had about his candidacy and may make them more likely to support him more enthusiastically and be more confident about his chances. And that often translates into increased fundraising.

...

The poll's internal data show further evidence that Obama may be surging at the right time. Among likely Democratic voters in Iowa, 55% say they are seeking "new ideas" while 33% say they are seeking "experience." Back in July, "new ideas" was only trumping "experience" 49%-39%. Obama has obviously been running as the "new ideas" candidate who frequently talks about "a different kind of politics." Clinton has obviously been the "experience" candidate who can "take on the Republican machine." The widening of this gap between "new ideas" and "experience" suggests that Obama's message is beginning to resonate.

Secondly, Obama is seen as more "honest and trustworthy" than Clinton by a 2:1 ratio (31%-15%). He is also seen as more "willing to speak his/her mind" than Clinton by a 3:2 ratio (76%-50%). Even John Edwards outperformed Clinton on these two issues. It seems that Clinton's widely panned debate performance in Philadelphia has wounded her. The driver's license question followed by all the excuse-making ("politics of pile-on") and gender-baiting ("the all boys club of presidential politics") and position-shifting (before finally settling on a "no") all likely fed into these negative perceptions about her, at least when compared to Obama. To be fair, Obama's mangled response to the very same debate question should have wounded him similarly, but he was able to change the subject more adeptly.

So what does this mean for the rest of the field? Since there are only about six weeks before the Iowa caucuses, it's becoming a bit easier to make predictions about who will make it to New Hampshire. In presidential politics, there are generally only three tickets out of Iowa. (The winner flies first-class, the runner-up flies coach, and the third place finisher takes Greyhound.) The presidential race post-Iowa is a whole different beast because the field is winnowed down to a manageable three or four candidates. The presidential debates become more important then, as there are fewer candidates on stage to prevent someone from breaking out. And that's why every Democrat not named Clinton should be encouraged by Obama's rise in the polls.

I had already written about why the second-tier candidates need Obama about a month and a half ago. But in light of recent polling data and more debates under our belts, now it's time to update that analysis and provide a few more predictions:

The three tickets out of Iowa will go to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the winner of the Bill Richardson/Joe Biden/Chris Dodd race.

Hillary Clinton has enough money, name recognition, and campaign staff to survive a defeat in Iowa. If she wins Iowa, the only way she will lose the nomination is if she is afflicted by some unforeseen scandal or if she commits a grave unforced error. Of all the Democratic candidates, she is clearly the one with the most room for error as far as Iowa is concerned. And the longer the field remains large, the more she benefits from it.

Barack Obama has enough money and supporters to survive a defeat in Iowa, but he is much less able to survive such a defeat than Clinton. He is the single most important candidate in the field right now because he is what's keeping the ABH (Anybody But Hillary) candidates alive. Should Obama win Iowa, look for John Edwards to drop out and endorse him. And even if Clinton were to win Iowa, an Edwards endorsement might give Obama the buzz and firepower he needs to stop Clinton.

If John Edwards does not win Iowa or does not finish ahead of Obama, he is finished. Second place might be good enough for Clinton, Obama, or any other candidate, but it is not good enough for him. And even if he wins Iowa, he will not dislodge his main rivals (Obama and Clinton) from the race because they simply have too much money. Obama is a particularly thorny problem for Edwards because they both are running as youthful outsider candidates who want to change the system. Edwards is also making a conscious effort not to rip into Obama the way he is ripping into Clinton. After all, how can you criticize a rival when that rival is running on your same message? (The message is "change," by the way.) So it seems like he is politically trapped. And for this reason, I don't think Edwards will win one of the three tickets out of Iowa, even if he finishes in the top three.

If Bill Richardson does not place at least third in Iowa, he is finished. More specifically, this means he needs to defeat either Clinton, Obama, or Edwards. If Richardson places fourth behind all of these candidates, he is finished even if Edwards subsequently drops out. On the flip side, it is possible that one or more of these candidates will falter in the final weeks, so Richardson could potentially place second or even win Iowa. However, if Biden or Dodd place ahead of him, he is finished. Regarding Edwards and Obama, there's only enough room for one "change" candidate in the field. Regarding Richardson, Biden, and Dodd, there's only enough room for one "veteran statesman" in the field.

Joe Biden has said he only needs to place fourth in Iowa to remain viable. That seems to be an attempt to lower expectations. He is running fifth or sixth in most Iowa polls now even though he has picked up more Iowa endorsements than all the candidates except for Clinton and Obama. If fifth or sixth is where Biden ends up in Iowa, then he is finished. However, he seems better able to defeat Richardson because of his stronger debating skills, so fourth place is not out of the question. And if Edwards drops out, then Biden would essentially be the "third" and final Democrat left in the race.

Chris Dodd has not said much about his expectations, but if he does not beat either Richardson or Biden in Iowa, he is finished. Dodd's main advantage and disadvantage is that he is perhaps the least known of the "second-tier" candidates. This is good in that people aren't criticizing him for his weak debate performances like they are with Bill Richardson. But on the other hand, people aren't buzzing about him the way they often buzz about Joe Biden's debate performances. Dodd is essentially the invisible candidate. Perhaps his ground game in Iowa is much stronger than it appears, so it's rather difficult to accurately gauge Dodd's strength. Will Dodd surprise us all? Or is he already a dead man walking?

Dennis Kucinich is already finished, but even with a defeat in Iowa, he will not end his campaign as long as the war in Iraq is still being prosecuted. Dennis Kucinich '08 reminds me of Jesse Jackson '88 in that both candidates are running to promote a cause and remain in the nomination race long after it becomes obvious that they will not win. Perhaps the eventual Democratic nominee will integrate parts of Kucinich's platform into their eventual general election strategy. This prospect should please antiwar liberals and seems to be the closest he can come to getting on the national stage.

As for the Republicans, at first glance, it seems like New Hampshire will be more important than Iowa simply because the field is currently in such disarray. However, they will have their You Tube debate in a few days. After that debate, I will analyze their state of affairs and flesh out what Iowa means for them.

11/16/2007

Nevada Debate Analysis (D)

(NOTE: This post is about the Democratic debate that took place in Nevada in November 2007. For my analysis of the Democratic debate that took place in Nevada in January 2008, click here.)

As promised, here is my analysis of the Democratic debate in Las Vegas last night:

Hillary Clinton: Clinton clearly did her homework and it paid off for her. In addition to squashing the negative news cycles she has been enduring for the past two weeks, she regained her momentum, shifted the negative stories to her rivals, and made no obvious mistakes. But most importantly, she spoke with confidence and seemed to be in control.

Before going any further, it is important to note that Clinton seemed to have home field advantage at the debate. The audience was clearly biased towards her, as they booed John Edwards and Barack Obama when they attacked her on occasion. CNN should have done a better job of establishing a few ground rules prior to the debate because this made the debate seem more like a pep rally at times. It also seemed like she had a heckler or a ringer in the audience that gave Obama a hard time while he was answering a question about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. How Clinton would have responded if she had to deal with these situations is a mystery.

She also benefited from fairly gentle treatment from the moderators, at least in comparison to the other candidates. Barack Obama was questioned particularly aggressively by Wolf Blitzer. Hillary Clinton's final question was about diamonds and pearls. There were rumors that the Clinton camp had been intimidating CNN and Wolf Blitzer, and I can't help but wonder if these rumors were indeed true after watching the debate. She should consider herself exceptionally lucky.

As for her performance, she was not afraid to go on offense. She methodically dismantled Barack Obama and John Edwards when it came to talking about health care, trade with China, and her "double-talk." And as an added bonus, she was able to put down her rivals and pivot to running against Republicans, thus reminding voters of the inevitability storyline that had been developing: "When it came time to step up on health care, [Obama] chose not to do so. Republicans will not vacate the White House without a fight. We need someone who can fight!"

That's how you do it.

John Edwards and Barack Obama certainly think Clinton is most vulnerable on Iran, but she has clearly found a way to be a hawk, a dove, cautious, and tough at the same time. Consider this paraphrased quote: "I oppose rushing to war and want to stress that Bush has no legal authority to go to war. We need aggressive diplomacy and a ratcheting down of tensions. But we must prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. It's important to remember that the Iranian Army is a terrorist group because they are providing training and weapons to people in Iraq who are attacking our soldiers. I oppose war with Iran, but we have to get tough."

How does an opponent respond to this?!

This is not to say that Clinton didn't have her flaws. There were still a few times when she had trouble giving a yes or no answer, such as talking about the success of NAFTA and supporting merit-based pay for teachers. However, because of the gift to her from Obama (who got bogged down by the same question that had dogged her earlier), people will be more likely to remember his inability to answer yes or no than hers.

As for the gender card, she was given a softball question about this from CNN newcomer Campbell Brown and she turned it into an easy home run that allowed her to play the gender card while saying she doesn't need to. The best way for the other candidates to deal with this is to simply not talk about it because her gender will always be a subtext of her campaign and they really can't attack her because of it. A lot of people are excited about the prospect of the first female president, and women make up a majority of the Democratic base.

Interestingly, Clinton praised rival Joe Biden again during this debate when it came to talking about Pakistan and Supreme Court appointments. When she did this at an earlier debate, people wondered if Biden was trying to be her vice president or secretary of state, but Biden shot that idea down. In light of the tightening Iowa polls, could it be that Clinton views Biden as an ally in that he could siphon off support from Obama and Edwards? Edwards stands the most to lose from a possible Biden ascendancy because Obama is clearly the change candidate, not Edwards. Edwards can't run as the experience candidate because that's Clinton. This means Edwards is left with the outsider mantle. Will Biden's competence trump Edwards' outsider status? Keep in mind, Edwards has probably driven up his own personal negatives to the point of no return because of how aggressive he had been towards Clinton in this debate and the one in Philadelphia. By praising Biden, she could be raising his stock value in an attempt to blunt Edwards.

Barack Obama: Obama was inexplicably unprepared to answer the very same question that Clinton got tripped up on at the last debate in Philadelphia. After hammering Clinton for not being able to offer a clear answer on whether illegal aliens should be allowed to obtain driver's licenses, he did the exact same thing he criticized her for. His advisers should have done a better job of prepping him for this debate because the candidates and their handlers had to know this issue would come up.

Obama's response talked about his past votes in the Illinois state legislature, the need for public safety, cracking down on employers, and border security. And the more he extended his response, the worse he looked. Hillary Clinton had to be licking her chops when this happened because it immediately transferred the yoke of evasion from her to him as far as the media were concerned.

This question matters because it will provide a counternarrative to his otherwise passable performance and make it harder for him to pound away at Clinton's evasiveness. In his very first comments of the night, he scolded Clinton by saying "people are looking for straight answers to tough questions." In light of Obama's own inability to do this, this charge loses its potency.

To be fair, Obama did call the driver's license question a distracting wedge issue. He said that "undocumented workers don't come to America to drive. They come here to work." Notice how he was trying so hard to keep referring to "illegal immigrants" as "undocumented workers." This nomenclature will undoubtedly be a major issue next year.

Obama did contrast this low moment with a solid home run, however. When asked about where to store nuclear waste (including nuclear waste from Illinois), he was having trouble giving a direct answer because of NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) syndrome. No politician ever wants to be forced to defend storing nuclear waste in any voters' communities, so it's understandable that Obama could not give a firm answer to this question. Wolf Blitzer tried to pin him down and that's when Obama turned a losing issue into great television. "I reject the notion that we can't meet our energy challenges." This led to a strong reminder of one of the main appeals of Obama: inspiration.

In contrast with this light moment, Obama also took off the gloves and engaged Clinton directly a few times. Their first sharp exchange happened immediately after the debate started and was about whose health care plan covered more people. This exchange was largely bluster. Joe Biden put an end to that spat by putting things back in perspective.

The second meaningful exchange was about Social Security and adjusting payroll taxes. Obama's most memorable attack line was "6% of Americans is not the middle class! It's the upper class! This is what I would expect from a Mitt Romney or a Rudy Giuliani!" However, this comparison to Giuliani and Romney led to a chorus of boos from the audience which was clearly partisan.

One final note: On Iraq, Obama said the troops could be removed from Iraq within 16 months. That is a direct contrast with what he said at an earlier debate in which he could not guarantee that all the troops would be out of Iraq by the end of his first presidential term in 2013. For any politician who dares to run an attack ad on Obama criticizing him for flip-flopping, here's your ad material.

In short, I believe Obama has a lot of potential, but this debate showed that in many regards, he is still a novice politician. His lack of preparation on the driver's license issue was inexplicable. He needs to be more adept at taking advantage of his opponents' vulnerabilities when they arise in debates and avoid setting himself up for accusations of hypocrisy, especially since he has missed several critical votes in the Senate. The moderator reminded Obama that he didn't vote on the Kyl-Lieberman resolution. Obama said "that was a pitfall of running for president" and acknowledged that this was "a mistake." Of course, that opened himself up to be attacked on his "judgment," but fortunately for Obama, nobody did. These are the kinds of things he needs to work on.

John Edwards: I get the sense that the deck was stacked against Edwards last night. Clinton and Obama were placed next to each other and their podiums were located at the center of the stage. John Edwards was placed off to the side in West Berlin and was separated from Clinton and Obama by Chris Dodd. I don't know how the podiums had been assigned, but it is quite coincidental that the "Big Two" were both given center stage positions next to each other--again.

Having said that, Edwards also made some foolish choices that probably ended his campaign hopes. He is generally running third nationally and is fading in Iowa, so Edwards obviously has to take a few more chances. This would explain why he was probably the most aggressive candidate on stage last night, but it blew up in his face.

Exhibit A: Edwards launched a hard attack on Clinton criticizing her for her contradictions on Iraq, Iran, Social Security, and fair and open government. However, Clinton deftly retorted that "Democrats shouldn't throw mud" and that "attacks should at least be accurate, rather than something out of the GOP playbook." This exchange made Edwards look mean. It also probably didn't go over too well with women. Clinton then reminded voters that Edwards had opposed universal health care earlier. Talk about taking one step forward and three steps back!

Exhibit B: Moderator Wolf Blitzer asked all the candidates if they would agree to support the Democratic nominee, regardless of whoever she (or he) may be. Edwards was the first candidate to receive this question. His response: "Is that a planted question?" Ugh. Needless to say, the only person laughing at this quip was him. This remark exposed Edwards as childish, which also happens to be the exact opposite of presidential.

Exhibit C: All the candidates had to field a question about dealing with Pakistan and its state of emergency. John Edwards had the unenviable task of having to answer this question after Joe Biden and Bill Richardson, both of whom are immensely more qualified on foreign policy than him. Biden talked about how he had talked with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto before President George Bush did. Bill Richardson talked about the importance of understanding Pakistani election history. John Edwards tried to keep up with them, but could only address Pakistan using broad statements like "we must do everything we can to ensure a stable Pakistan" and "my goal is to rid the world of nuclear weapons." This direct contrast potentially unmasks Edwards as an inexperienced lightweight while elevating Biden and Richardson.

Exhibit D: Dennis Kucinich also drew blood on Edwards when the issue of Chinese product safety came up. Kucinich railed against Edwards for initially voting to liberalize trade with China, "especially since he was a trial lawyer." Edwards took issue with this and said he "didn't know what being a trial lawyer had to do with this." Kucinich then deadpanned, "product liability."

Zing!

Embarrassed, Edwards then tried to cut his losses by chuckling "that's very cute, Dennis" while trying not to look at him. I haven't seen many people mention this exchange in their debate analyses, but I personally think this was fatal because it showed that Edwards was guilty of doing the exact same thing he had been criticizing Clinton for: taking two stands on the issues and not being a true agent of change. He tried to explain the apparent contradiction by saying that he's not taking multiple positions on issues at the same time, unlike Clinton. I don't think his explanation will resonate with undecideds or soft supporters though.

Exhibit E: Edwards said all candidates should be held to the same standard and that "voters should know the differences without it being attack-oriented." Is this guy serious? When Edwards said this, he was actually booed by the crowd. The crowd's behavior was in bad form, but the fact that Edwards had the gall to imply that he's not "attack-oriented" suggests that he thinks voters aren't paying attention.

To Edwards' credit, he did offer a strong answer on the issue of Supreme Court judges. He talked about the need to have "judges who have a backbone" and placed it in the context of growing up in the South during segregation. That was a strong response that reminded voters of his appeal to Red State voters (most of whom live in the South) who remember the societal advances that came from "judicial activism."

Unfortunately for Edwards though, he is losing momentum and fast. Iowans don't like nasty politics. 2004 losers Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt found that out the hard way.

Bill Richardson: Richardson turned in a stronger performance at this debate compared to previous ones, but he still seemed to underwhelm when considering his extensive resume. He did not really join in the food fight between Obama, Edwards, and Clinton, so that allowed him to remain above the fray. The problem with Bill Richardson, however, is that his policy views don't seem to match what you would expect given his record. Consider his very first opportunity to speak: "John Edwards wants to start a class war. Barack Obama wants to start a generational war. Hillary Clinton's plans don't seem to end the Iraq War. All I want to do is give peace a chance."

This line was obviously rehearsed, but the main problem with it is that this is the type of rhetoric you would expect to hear from an antiwar liberal like Dennis Kucinich, not a pro-gun Western Democrat executive who has gone toe-to-toe with Saddam Hussein and the North Koreans. Why Richardson chose not to run as a moderate on Iraq is one of the great mysteries of his campaign. For moderate and conservative Democrats who worry that the Democratic Party is being pulled too far to the left, there was a tremendous opportunity for Richardson to fill the void that was created by the exits of Mark Warner and Evan Bayh. But he has chosen to run to the left on Iraq, thus allowing Hillary Clinton to occupy the center all by herself without ceding the left entirely to Obama and Edwards. Centrist voters are less likely to want a quick withdrawal from Iraq with a timetable, so this segment of voters is probably not big on Richardson's Iraq policy even if they do agree with him on taxes and guns.

Anyway, on the other issues discussed, some of Richardson's ideas seemed quite popular, especially when it came to education. Teachers would surely love to have a minimum salary of $40,000 and parents would love to have full-day kindergarten. He also demonstrated a solid understanding of foreign policy when he talked about Pakistan's elections and voting patterns.

Unfortunately, Richardson made one terrible political mistake that Republicans will undoubtedly pummel him with should he win the nomination. When asked if human rights were more important than national security (this was a proxy question about torture), he said that human rights were more important. Richardson also said the surge in Iraq is not working. Left wing Democrats may like those answers, but smart Democrats probably winced in discomfort. This plays right into Republican rhetoric about the "defeatist Democrats" being soft on terrorism and placing the rights of terrorists above the security of Americans.

What will the fallout from these remarks be? Well, Richardson's chances of winning the nomination are already slim. People who remember how he rushed to Clinton's defense in previous debates thought he was angling to be her vice president. In light of these remarks about national security, that's not going to happen. Clinton's electoral math is already complicated enough because of her high personal negatives. Giving Republicans another weapon that plays into one of their few remaining strengths is a risk Clinton would be better off not taking.

Richardson also had better find a more effective response to the question of illegal immigration. When asked what he would do to combat it, he said he would tell the Mexican government to "give jobs to your people!" This response did not seem sufficiently serious. Just like Mitt Romney has to be careful with the religion question, Barack Obama has to be careful with the race question, and Hillary Clinton has to be careful with the gender question, Bill Richardson has to be careful with the illegal immigration question. People who had doubted Richardson because of this very issue likely were not pleased.

Joe Biden: If I had to choose a single winner from the debate, it would be Joe Biden. In the limited time he had to speak, he struck a good balance between humor, seriousness, directness, and empathy. The clamoring over Hillary Clinton's "evasiveness" had cast a pall over all the Democrats because of their tendency to not answer direct questions with simple answers, presumably because they don't want to damage their prospects in a general election. But Joe Biden has become the straight-shooting statesman in the field. And the more Clinton, Obama, and Edwards kick up dirt, the more that elevates Biden.

The debate got off to a rough start, as Obama and Clinton fought with each other over not being straight with voters, who the true agent of change was, and whose health care plan covered more people. I thought this debate was going to be one of the nastiest ones yet until Biden got a chance to inject a bit of sanity and maturity into the dialogue. He correctly said that most Americans don't really care about the petty squabbles that have taken up so much oxygen. Instead, they care about paying their mortgages, their kids running into drug dealers, and their family members being sent off to Iraq. And that's when he had one of his best lines of the night: "It's not about experience. It's not about change. It's about action." Then he immediately pivoted to the importance of the next president being able to deal with the high stakes game of dealing with Pakistan and Russia. As he was speaking, the camera switched to the crowd and I saw a lot of people sitting there nodding their heads in agreement.

Biden later gave what was perhaps the most thorough analysis of the Pakistani problem that I have heard in any debate so far, regardless of party. When he talked about the importance of winning over Pakistan's middle class, he displayed a level of depth on this subject that the other candidates all had trouble matching when they were tasked with following up on his remarks.

Like Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich, Biden didn't really get a lot of chances to speak at the debate. However, he was quite adept at maximizing these opportunities. He often began his statements with self-deprecating humor that woke up the audience and captured their attention. When he received his first question about 15 minutes into the debate, he started off by lampooning the lack of questions he had been receiving in these debates. "Oh no! Please! Don't make me speak! You don't want to hear from me! No, no, no!" The audience was roaring with laughter upon hearing that. But as soon as the laughter died down, he was able to capitalize on their now undivided attention with his seriousness and maturity. That was an effective way of turning a disadvantage into a great opportunity.

The forcefulness and directness of his responses also likely pleased the audience. When he said that Bush should be impeached if he were to attack Iran without congressional approval and that Republicans also don't like the situation in Iraq, but are simply too afraid of challenging Bush, he seemed more sincere in his frankness than the leading candidates did with their longwinded responses that were often taken from their stump speeches. For voters seeking straight talk and firmness, Biden's words likely had some resonance.

Chris Dodd: One really has to feel sorry for Dodd. He has never really gotten a fair shake in any of the debates thus far, and this debate was no exception. He barely got any chances to participate and was cut off before he could finish his thoughts. His strongest moment came when he was asked about education and merit-based pay for teachers. Dodd said that excellence could be defined by teachers volunteering to serve in lower income and forgotten neighborhoods. This is an honest liberal argument that counters the conservative argument of taking funds away from underperforming schools that are often located in these lower income areas.

Dodd also received a question about the relationship between illegal immigration and terrorism. The question was asked by what appeared to be a Latino. Dodd burst into fluent Spanish, much to the delight of many people in the audience. After all, Nevada and Las Vegas have sizeable Spanish-speaking populations. However, as Dodd continued addressing the questioner in Spanish, I got the sense that the rest of the audience became a bit uncomfortable because they could not understand what he was saying. (For the record, he said he had served in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic.) Look for immigration and the idea of English as an "official" vs. "common" language making the rounds as a campaign wedge issue in the general election.

The biggest problem with Dodd's candidacy now is Joe Biden. Dodd can match Biden in terms of experience, intellect, and grasp of foreign policy. He demonstrated his understanding of the complexities of foreign policy when he talked about why we couldn't afford to alienate Pakistan despite Musharraf's recent crackdown on democracy because that's our only way into Afghanistan. He also displayed pragmatism and thoughtfulness when talking about the danger of establishing litmus tests for the Supreme Court nominees. Dodd warned that liberal litmus tests under a Democratic president today could turn into conservative litmus tests under a Republican president tomorrow. These types of comments suggest that Dodd is quite wise and capable. However, he is not using his limited talk time as efficiently as Biden is. After breaking out in the Philadelphia debate, he somewhat got lost in the shuffle tonight. Of all the so-called "second-tier" candidates, Dodd is the most obscure.

Dennis Kucinich: Kucinich was visibly irritated tonight and justifiably so. He did not get a lot of chances to participate in the debate and when he actually did receive a question, the moderator commonly interrupted him. Despite his limited opportunities to participate, he did make a few strong points. Kucinich had no allies on the stage last night and commonly turned his fire on them. On the issues of Iraq, the Patriot Act, NAFTA, and trade with China, he harshly criticized his rivals for being on the wrong side of those issues in the beginning only to want to change those positions later after the issues did not work out as they had hoped. This statement alone lent Kucinich a great deal of credibility. After all, this "loony UFO-seeing antiwar liberal crackpot" is indeed on the right side of public opinion on all of these issues and maintained these positions even when it wasn't politically popular to do so.

Unfortunately for Kucinich, he was often marginalized by the moderators. One of the questions was supposedly a "down the line" question for all the candidates to answer. Clinton, Richardson, Biden, Obama, Edwards, and Dodd all got a bite of the apple, but before Kucinich got his chance, the moderator switched to another question which left Kucinich literally flailing his hands and saying, "hello? Hello? You forgot me!" Yes, Kucinich is probably the longest of longshots in the Democratic field, but ignoring him at the debates you invite him to is in very bad form. It shows a lack of respect for him as a candidate and a lack of respect for his ideas. Consider this angry response to a question about illegal immigration: "There aren't illegal human beings. I take exception to the way you phrase that question." While this view might not be one that is commonly shared, it at least deserves to be discussed. But he never got the chance to do so.

Predictions:

Prediction #1: John Edwards will not win Iowa. And because Edwards needs to win Iowa in order to advance to New Hampshire, he will drop out of the race. Edwards is starting to look like a desperate college basketball team full of seniors that is trailing by 15 points with two minutes to go in the NCAA Tournament game that will send them to the Final Four. What do basketball teams do in this situation? They keep fouling and sending the other team to the free throw line in an attempt to stop the clock, hope the other team throws up a brick, and make up their point deficit when they get the ball back. Of course, all this does is lead to jeers from the other team because everybody knows the game is over. John Edwards is going to need help from another candidate in the form of an unforced error in order to salvage any chance at the nomination. But at this point, it looks like he's in danger of placing third or even being overtaken by one of the "second-tier" candidates. Should Edwards' campaign come to an end, look for him to endorse Obama because they both offer the same message of bold and exciting change.

Prediction #2: Joe Biden is the most credible so-called "second tier" candidate. If anyone wants to bet on a dark horse to place in the top 3 in Iowa, Biden is where you want to place your money. The 7-10 is an independent and nonpartisan blog, but it seems quite obvious to me that Biden is the strongest, best qualified candidate in the Democratic field. The media generally don't focus much on anyone not named Obama, Clinton, or Edwards on the Democratic side of the ledger, but when they do, it's usually Biden whose name pops up. MSNBC's Chuck Todd seems to have caught on. And it seems like readers of the Washington Post and New York Times have also caught on, judging from the comments they posted about the debate here (WaPo) and here (NYT). Do not be surprised if Richardson and Dodd instruct their supporters to throw their support behind Biden in the event that their own campaigns come to an end because those two candidates are far closer to Biden in terms of the experience and maturity they bring to the table than they are to Obama and Edwards. I can't help but wonder if Dodd, Biden, and Richardson harbor a bit of resentment towards Obama, Edwards, and even Clinton because even though they have superior resumes, they have been totally ignored by the media. So perhaps they have an implicit understanding that they will look out for each other for experience's sake.

11/04/2007

Edwards: The Clinton-Obama Pivot

Much has been written about last week's Democratic debate in Philadelphia. Judging from most of the accounts I've read, the thing everyone seems to be talking about is Hillary Clinton's equivocations regarding the driver's license issue for illegal aliens. To Clinton's credit, the illegal immigration issue is extraordinarily complex--one that is difficult to reduce to bimodal yes-or-no thinking. However, the political consequences of such caution can be quite harmful, as one's thoughtfulness can easily be spun as pandering, hedging one's bets, dodging the issue, trying to have it both ways, or political expediency.

John Edwards picked up on this immediately and attacked Clinton hard for it during the debate. Since then, he has worked hard to drive "Hillary's double-talk" home, as is evidenced by this tough video his campaign crafted shortly after the debate. However, for the Edwards campaign, his attacks on Clinton have had more than just the benefits of getting Democratic voters to rethink their support for Hillary Clinton and changing the media's storylines about her. They also had the added benefit of getting Barack Obama's supporters to wish that their candidate could be as aggressive as Edwards was.

Dan Conley of Political Insider recently wrote about the frustration and anger that Chicago and Illinois politicos have about Obama's "inept" campaign. According to Conley:

"[T]hose more interested in stopping [Clinton's] nomination now feel that Edwards, or even Biden, would have made better use of Obama's hype and money."
Now, to Obama's credit, as I mentioned in my debate analysis, he did a better job of "showing his spine without showing his fangs" when he attempted to draw contrasts with Clinton.

The problem is that voters tend to respond to hardball politics and hardhitting attacks. It is common for voters to say they hate negative politics, but that doesn't seem to be what they respond to. The 2004 swiftboating of John Kerry, the sliming of John McCain during the 2000 South Carolina presidential primary, and the attacks on the patriotism of former Georgia senator and Vietnam War veteran Max Cleland during the 2002 campaign are perfect examples of this. Note that all three of these candidates lost.

Barack Obama is not being attacked by other Democrats the same way Kerry, McCain, and Cleland were attacked by their Republican opponents. However, all three of these candidates lost to more aggressive opponents who engaged in hardball politics. This is not to endorse the tactics of George W. Bush and Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, but it does prove the point that strong attacks can yield good results. Politicians who try to take the high road and adopt a more cerebral strategy often end up in the loser's column. For example, Al Gore's ability to recite the names of the major politicians and power players in the Balkans during the 2000 presidential debates (done in an attempt to distinguish himself as well versed in foreign policy, as opposed to his "I know nothing about the world" opponent George W. Bush) did not help him.

This is why I believe Edwards stands to benefit from possible defections from Obama's campaign. If Clinton can't deliver change because of her "double-talk" and Obama can't deliver change because of his perceived inability to fight for change, then that would leave Edwards as the lone candidate capable of both fighting for and delivering the change the other candidates jawbone about.

The Iran issue provides another avenue through which Edwards can make the case against Obama. One of the most important political columns I've read this year was written by Nathan Gonzales of The Rothenberg Political Report. In his column, Gonzales cited numerous examples from Obama's tenure in the Illinois state legislature that exposes Obama as potentially unable or unwilling to take a stand on several key issues:
"While some conservatives and Republicans surely will harp on what they call his "liberal record," highlighting applicable votes to support their case, it's Obama's history of voting "present" in Springfield--even on some of the most controversial and politically explosive issues of the day--that raises questions that he will need to answer. Voting "present" is one of three options in the Illinois Legislature (along with "yes" and "no"), but it's almost never an option for the occupant of the Oval Office.

We aren't talking about a "present" vote on whether to name a state office building after a deceased state official, but rather about votes that reflect an officeholder's core values."
Gonzales then goes on to talk about how Obama voted "present" on issues related to partial birth abortion and concealed firearms. His column is an interesting and important read that should provide his Democratic opponents (especially Edwards and maybe even Biden) with a way to weaken him.

How does this relate to Iran?

Last month the Senate voted to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. The resolution passed 76-22. Hillary Clinton voted for it, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd voted against it, and Barack Obama, who was campaigning that day, did not vote. Obama says he would have voted "no," but for voters who are unaware of the reasons behind Obama's missed vote, this missed vote feeds into the narrative that Nathan Gonzales wrote about earlier.

To continue, senators eager to avoid a repeat of Iraq wrote a letter to President Bush stressing that Bush does not have the authority to launch a unilateral strike against Iran without congressional approval:
"We are writing to express serious concerns with the provocative statements and actions stemming from your administration with respect to possible U.S. military action in Iran. These comments are counterproductive and undermine efforts to resolve tensions with Iran through diplomacy.

We wish to emphasize that no congressional authority exists for unilateral military action against Iran."
This is an important letter that provides senators with a bit of political cover while attempting to rein in President Bush. Thirty senators, led by Senator James Webb of Virginia, signed this letter. As Tim Dickinson of Rolling Stone asks, "did yours?" Clinton and Dodd signed the letter, but Obama did not. Again, recall Nathan Gonzales' column. Real Clear Politics' Reid Wilson also picked up on this:
"The missed opportunity is not the first time Obama's Senate record has been put seemingly at odds with his campaign rhetoric on the issue."
Obama did later introduce a resolution stating that Bush does not have the authority to attack Iran, but this invites the criticism of him being absent from the original discussion during the Kyl-Lieberman vote and not getting on the record then. Not signing the letter drafted by Senator Webb of Virginia provides another point of criticism, especially since Obama's resolution generally says the same thing that Webb's letter does.

In response to Clinton's criticism of Obama's resolution, Obama spokesman Bill Burton said, "...Senator Obama knows that it takes legislation, not letters, to undo the vote that she cast." However, this new resolution from Obama could be used to portray him as a "Johnny come lately" because his resolution addresses issues that have been hotly debated before. If John Edwards is paying attention, he can pivot from taking down Clinton for her "double-talk" to using Obama's Illinois record of not voting on several key issues, his reticence to hit his opponents (read Clinton) hard, and his missed vote on Iran to paint him as a candidate of all talk and no action.

"All talk" and "double-talk" has a certain resonance. Whether it paints him as a negative candidate in Iowa remains to be seen, but it would definitely tap into the anger and frustration that many Democrats have about their leading presidential candidates and the Democratic Congress right now.

11/01/2007

Pennsylvania Debate Analysis (D)

The Democratic presidential candidates mixed it up last night in Philadelphia at what was their most contentious debate thus far. One of the many storylines going into the debate was whether anybody could stop the Clinton steamroller. Coming out of the debate, the storyline is that Clinton finally took one on the chin and now looks vulnerable. She committed an unforced error that provided the weapon all the candidates can use to take her down.

About Mike Gravel:

The debate lasted two hours and involved all the candidates except for Mike Gravel. Gravel was not missed, as the flow of the debate seemed a bit less disjointed. In the previous debates, whenever Gravel spoke, I got the sense that listeners would roll their eyes and attempt to tune him out. Because he often said something awkward or outlandish (such as his assertion that he didn't need to repay his credit card debt), the audience would laugh or shake their heads in disbelief. That would detract from the tone of the discussion. There were no such moments in last night's debate, which was appropriate given the fact that the Iowa caucuses are in just two months. Future debate organizers should consider following NBC/MSNBC's lead by being a bit more selective with who they invite to participate.

About the moderators:

Regarding the moderators and the debate format, I was a bit disappointed by Brian Williams' and Tim Russert's performance. While I highly respect them as journalists and pundits, I believe they demonstrated a lack of discipline and exhibited poor judgment in the following regards:

1. The appropriateness of the questions. At the end of the debate, Dennis Kucinich received a question asking him if he had seen a UFO. Even though the debate had essentially entered garbage time (there likely wasn't enough time for the candidates to engage each other over another substantial policy difference), I thought this question made a mockery of Kucinich, his platform, and his campaign. Kucinich's performance overall was quite steady and forceful, but instead of being remembered for his challenges for Democrats to impeach President Bush and Vice President Cheney for launching what he calls an illegal war, he will be remembered as the loony liberal wacko who saw a UFO. How he responded to this question was not Kucinich's fault, but I can't help but wonder if the moderators asked him that question in an attempt to broadside him and make his candidacy seem less credible. This, in turn, could be used to serve as a rationale for excluding him from future debates. If that's the case, I think this is a tacky and unprofessional way to go about doing so. (It is worth noting that the moderator then asked Barack Obama the same question, but he wisely avoided it.) Maybe this question was benign, but I think a more appropriate garbage question would have been to ask each candidate down the line what they would dress up as for Halloween. Anyway, in our current political culture of soundbytes and character assassinations, anytime a politician is caught off message or in an awkward conversation, that can be fatal. Brad Warthen over at The State wrote an excellent post about these out-of-bounds questions.

2. The balancing of the questions. Excluding Kucinich's UFO question, Hillary Clinton received as many questions as Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden combined. Yes, Clinton is the candidate sitting at the top of the polls, but if you want to have a debate that allows for the maximum exchange of policy differences, I believe it would be more effective to involve as many candidates as possible.

3. How they handled their responsibilities as moderators. The moderators did an appalling job of dealing with candidates who either didn't answer their questions or talked over their allotted time. There was little enforcement of the rules when the candidates filibustered, especially during the so-called "lightning round." For some reason, politicians are not capable of condensing their answers to 30 seconds, although Joe Biden tried his best to do so. What's the point of having a 30-second rule if there is no penalty for speaking for 2 minutes? When the candidates ignored the moderators' prompts to wrap up their responses, that undercut the moderators' authority.

Also, why did the moderators use the "lightning round" to ask questions about education policy? How can issues as complicated as school funding and No Child Left Behind adequately be addressed in 30 seconds? That's how long it takes for most politicians just to get through their talking points!

About the candidates:

Hillary Clinton: Clinton had a scarlet X on her back throughout the debate, as she was the target of most of the attacks and most of the moderators' questions. For the first 75% of the debate, she stuck to her playbook of keeping her responses general, her rivals unnamed, and her focus on the failings of President Bush and the Republicans. She clearly had done her debate homework, as she came up with some good responses to prickly questions. In response to questions about her positions being similar to those of Republicans, she said the Republicans think she's a liberal based on how much they attack her. That was a clever way to defuse that question because it's difficult to refute.

She also hit Obama hard by saying "change is just a word if you don't have the experience to make change happen." (Can you imagine Obama delivering a line like this?) Of course, this set her up for an attack by Obama later on when the discussion switched to her issue of "experience." (More on that later.)

Clinton's main threat during the debate wasn't Obama, however. It was John Edwards. Edwards kept hammering home the idea that Clinton didn't take a clear stand on major issues and was evasive in her responses. In other words, she talks a lot, but only says a little. As he kept bringing this up, Clinton offered more and more evidence that supported Edwards' assertions. She offered vague and squirrelly responses on her Iran vote ("I'm not in favor of a rush to war. I'm not in favor of doing nothing."), troop levels in Iraq ("We'd bring out combat troops, but not troops fighting Al Qaeda."), Social Security ([paraphrased quote] "Hyping up the Social Security threat is a Republican talking point, but to address Social Security, we must first achieve fiscal responsibility."), and taxes ("I want to get to a fair and progressive tax system, but I won't get committed to a specific approach."). The moderators tried to pin her down, but she remained vague and noncommittal.

This strategy seemed to serve her well until near the end of the debate when "The Moment" happened. Moderator Tim Russert asked Clinton if she supported New York Governor Elliot Spitzer's proposal to offer driver's licenses to illegal aliens in their state. Clinton gave a thoughtful, but tortured answer about how "undocumented workers" should "come out of the shadows" and how "comprehensive immigration reform" was necessary, but never quite said whether she supported his policy. Russert pressed her on this, but she offered the same vague response. Chris Dodd then jumped in and said he thought driver's licenses were a "privilege" that should not be extended to illegal aliens. The conciseness of his response contrasted greatly with Clinton's longwinded, convoluted expressions of support for the goals of Gov. Spitzer's policy without actually endorsing it. John Edwards and Barack Obama soon jumped in and suddenly Clinton looked vulnerable and flustered.

She tried to say this was an example of "gotcha" politics, but the problem with this is that illegal immigration is a much more concrete issue than tax policy or access to records in one's presidential archives. The "I don't do hypotheticals" line won't work either because this is the type of issue that everyone has an opinion on and comes in contact with regularly. While the issue is complicated, it is also an issue on which voters expect a level of clarity from their elected officials. She ultimately proved John Edwards' attacks for him and introduced a new storyline into the race: her evasiveness.

Clinton put herself into a box because she will have to either go against the Democratic governor of the state she represents in the Senate, endure a steady stream of brutal interviews trying to flesh out her views on this issue, or risk angering a political constituency (be they immigrants, Latinos, or immigration hardliners) by taking a stand one way or the other. Another risk for Clinton is that her responses to other questions in the future will receive greater scrutiny. She will need to find a way to be more forthcoming because John Edwards and the other candidates will attempt to drive a bus through this hole in her armor.

John Edwards: No candidate was more aggressive at last night's debate than John Edwards. His poll numbers in must-win Iowa have been on a steady downward trend over the past few weeks, so he had to do something to claw his way back into the race. He repeated several themes: 1) that Hillary Clinton represented the status quo, 2) that Hillary Clinton is not leveling with the American people, and 3) Hillary Clinton is not capable of bringing the change she is promising because she represents exactly why this change is needed in the first place.

The second point is the most damaging. He kept using the word "doubletalk" and applied it to her Iran vote when she said that was a vote for "vigorous diplomacy." In response to Clinton saying that she wanted to put "pressure" on President Bush when it came to a possible war with Iran, Edwards questioned how she could put "pressure" on him if she supported the Kyl-Lieberman resolution. "If you give Bush an inch, he'll take a mile. This resolution enables Bush to do whatever he wants to do and keep using the same lies that he used in Iraq. Some of us have learned the hard way."

It was unclear how effective Edwards' attacks on Clinton's credibility and conviction were until she threw him the golden nugget that was her painful tap dance around the driver's license question.

Win or lose, this is the line that will seal Edwards' fate: "I think our responsibility is to be in tell the truth mode, not in primary mode or general election mode." That was a harsh zinger that was aimed right between Clinton's eyes. Pundits are saying that Edwards might be penalized by Iowa's voters for being too negative, but I'm not so sure. I believe going negative can be effective if your accusations are true and your opponents prove these accusations themselves. It's one thing for Edwards to incessantly say "Clinton doesn't answer questions." But when you can witness her doing just that for yourself, I believe the attack has considerably more resonance.

Barack Obama: Obama was more restrained than Edwards and did not play the role of attack dog as some had anticipated. This is not to say that he left his boxing gloves backstage. However, it is obvious that he is uncomfortable going on offense. The very first question of the debate went to Obama and asked him to elaborate on how he planned to be more aggressive towards Clinton. He balked at the question and turned in another meandering response about civility and cynicism while refusing to attack Clinton directly. For his supporters, this response was probably what they did not want to hear, especially at the start of the debate.

However, he became a bit looser as the debate progressed and he seemed to find his sea legs. When Clinton hedged on the question about releasing documents from Bill Clinton's archives relating to her work in his administration, he effectively used her "turn the page" line against her while questioning her experience by saying "[paraphrased quote] This is an example of not turning the page. We are in the midst of the highly secretive Bush Administration. How can you say you have experience when you're not open about letting people access the documents that show the experience you cite?" That was a good example of Obama showing his spine without showing his fangs.

However, for every time Obama went on offense, he also blurred the distinctions between himself and his main rival. Their responses to the question of taxes for higher income Americans and the breaking point for going to war with Iran were strikingly similar. While Obama did go on offense a bit more at this debate than at the previous ones, I believe he did not meet the high expectations that had been set for him. The media coverage of his campaign from here on out should be interesting to watch because the "Clinton vs. Obama" storyline may become "Obama vs. Edwards." Even though Obama would like to keep the focus on his rivalry with Clinton, having stories about his duels with Edwards is preferable to stories about Obama's fall from grace. Is Obama becoming the Fred Thompson of the Democrats? The hyped up candidate that never quite delivers? He is not out of the race yet by any means, but I sense a growing sense of impatience among his supporters, pundits, and the media.

In short, Obama basically played good cop to Edwards' bad cop when it came to attacking Clinton. But who will win out? Will Edwards' attacks be seen as courageous or nasty? Will Obama's attacks be seen as civil or weak? That will be the new "Obama vs. Edwards" storyline.

Bill Richardson: As qualified as Richardson is on paper, he is turning out to be a weak candidate on stage. Richardson's debate performance was not particularly spirited, nor did he have any memorable lines. He did try to stress his foreign policy credentials and the fact that he has actually achieved results in terms of dealing with dictators and negotiating with rogues, but were the voters listening? He also inexplicably defended Hillary Clinton during the debate because he felt the attacks on her were becoming too personal. Politicians often claim to "take the high road," but they normally do so when citing their own refusal to engage in personal attacks, not to stop their opponents from attacking each other. If your opponents are digging holes for themselves, why take away their shovels? This lends credence to the notion that Richardson is angling for a spot on a Clinton ticket or in a Clinton administration.

Richardson has two problems. The first problem is that he does not come across as credible on Iraq. While he doesn't have any war votes to atone for, there seems to be some level of disconnect because he is maintaining a liberal Democratic position on Iraq ("no residual forces") even though his legislative record as governor of New Mexico clearly demonstrates that he is a moderate (pro-gun rights, fiscal conservative, etc.). His Iraq policy makes him seem like the political equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a tutu. This policy just doesn't seem to match his true identity.

The second problem is that an unflattering caricature of him has congealed: Great candidate on paper, but underwhelming candidate on stage. I had written about overrated and underrated candidates back in August and cited a National Journal poll about this very subject. Richardson received 7% of the vote for the most overrated Democrat. The lone quote National Journal provided about Richardson from one of the poll respondents was "Big resume; big blowhard." Ouch. While I certainly don't think Richardson is a "blowhard," I can see how he may be "overrated." Most of his debate performances so far have been less than inspiring.

In last night's debate, Richardson kept reminding voters of his achievements when he was an ambassador and hostage negotiator. He even mentioned someone in the audience whom he said he had rescued from the Abu Ghraib prison. But as stellar as these accomplishments are, they didn't really resonate with the audience because itemizing these accomplishments ultimately trivializes them. Saying you negotiated with Rogue Thug A and Hot Spot B sounds similar to saying you wrote Bill X and Act Y. In other words, it sounds senatorial rather than inspiring. And now because of the vacant Senate seat in New Mexico that he could easily win, Richardson's presidential campaign is being questioned. He did not do anything to ease these doubts last night.

Joe Biden: Biden did not get a lot of chances to participate in the debate tonight, but he did make the most of the time he did receive. Biden's most impressive response was in response to a question about Iran. Biden methodically talked about the relationship between Iran and Pakistan and how Musharraf was sitting on a powder keg that could be exploited by rogue and terrorist elements, thus helping Iran achieve its nuclear ambitions far more quickly. The depth of this response shows that he would be a tremendously difficult candidate to brand as weak on foreign policy. Biden also got off one of the best lines of the night in a hit on Rudy Giuliani: "Rudy Giuliani is the most underqualified person to run for president since George W. Bush. His sentences only have three things: a noun, a verb, and 9-11." That was a clever line, although Giuliani fired back the next day by invoking the specter of his past plagiarism. ("I don't think Biden came up with that line by himself. You know he doesn't write his own stuff." Ouch.)

Biden was also aware of a gaffe he made at a recent forum in Iowa in which he appeared to blame poor school performance on the percentage of Black students in the school. Statements such as these cause Democrats to only offer tepid support for Biden's campaign. However, he did an excellent job of cleaning up his message on the issue of minorities and education and should have defused this controversy. In general, Biden was strong when he needed to be strong and funny when he needed to be funny. In light of new doubts that have been raised about Clinton, look for Biden to get a second look from Democrats who want an experienced candidate who doesn't enter the general election with a 50% unfavorability rating.

Chris Dodd: Dodd turned in his greatest debate performance by far. He turned in thoughtful responses to questions about education and the environment and gave the lone shoutout to Al Gore. He also launched effective veiled attacks on Barack Obama and John Edwards ("[paraphrased quote] We need a president who has exhibited good judgment and leadership at critical moments. Experience and proven results matter."), but also forcefully called Hillary Clinton's electability into question. The best thing of all about his attack on Clinton was that he was strong without being mean. Clinton's electability has long been the bugaboo that kept so many Democrats from enthusiastically supporting her. Her steady rise in the polls as of late has largely been a result of her persistence in allaying these fears. But Dodd turned back the clock and ripped the scab right off of this sore.

The most important moment of all for Dodd was his fiery exchange with Clinton over the driver's license question for illegal immigrants. When Dodd challenged her over the issue, that led to Obama and Edwards subsequently piling on, which ultimately led to today's news stories about how Clinton was finally bloodied. Not only did Dodd's opposition to granting driver's licenses to illegal aliens match public sentiment in general (most Americans regardless of political party oppose this), but whenever news outlets or YouTube users replay Clinton's stumble, Dodd will get free media time because he's the candidate who brought this entire brouhaha about. Dodd's stock value has gone up quite a bit since 48 hours ago.

Dennis Kucinich: Due to Mike Gravel's absence, Kucinich assumed the role of the gadfly candidate on stage. This is unfortunate, as he represents a very real wing of the Democratic Party. Kucinich's problem is that the perception has overtaken the platform. In other words, I get the sense that people think of Kucinich more as a kook than as an unabashedly liberal candidate. His strength at the debate was his repeated calls to impeach Bush and Cheney and his genuine anger at the weakness of his Democratic opponents and the Democratic congressional leadership. ("Democrats won't stand up to Wall Street, won't end the war, and won't stand up to for-profit insurance companies. What's the difference between Democrats and Republicans?") There is likely more than just a fringe group of Americans who feel the exact same way. Impeaching Bush and Cheney, getting rid of NAFTA, getting out of Iraq, and providing universal not-for-profit healthcare coverage certainly resonate with working class voters, base voters, antiwar voters, and the labor wing of the Democratic Party. And he has more ideological purity on Iraq than any other Democratic candidate. This is the Kucinich platform. But the Kucinich perception is that he is the short, goofy liberal with the big ears who has no shot at winning the nomination. The unfair question about UFOs at the end of the debate totally canceled out an otherwise strong performance because it made voters remember the Kucinich perception at the expense of the Kucinich platform.

Future debate organizers are going to have to do a bit of soul searching with Kucinich. His polling numbers are not better than the margin of error, but the same could be said of Chris Dodd. So if Kucinich were excluded from a future debate, he would have a legitimate gripe if Dodd was also not excluded. Of course, Dodd turned in a strong performance and likely gained some buzz. So why couldn't Kucinich do the same thing? Or is he "too liberal?" What does "too liberal" mean anyway? Far right candidates like Pat Buchanan and Tom Tancredo never generated such disrespect, so why the discrepancy? Basically, if they (the media) are going to invite him to future debates, they should treat him with the same amount of dignity and respect that they afford to the other candidates. Otherwise, it's a bit disingenuous to invite him and then set him up to look like a bozo.

In closing...

Clinton has a very real problem to worry about now.

Obama is on the verge of having the media and his supporters abandon him unless he benefits from Edwards' negativity.

Edwards employed the sword at this debate. The problem is that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword. For now though, he should be feeling pretty good about what happened.

Richardson has become the biggest disappointment among all the candidates.

Biden is quietly gaining street cred with his consistently strong debate performances.

Dodd helped his campaign the most and may become the next buzz candidate. Illegal immigration is a hot issue and he may experience an uptick in support among independents in New Hampshire.

Kucinich was railroaded. Even voters who don't support him probably thought what the moderators did to him was in bad form.

And the debate format and moderating left room for improvement.

But most importantly, we now have a race again.

10/31/2007

Pennsylvania Debate Initial Thoughts (D)

Having just watched the Democratic debate in Philadelphia, I can confidently say that the Democratic horserace just became considerably more competitive. The major news story of the night is that Hillary Clinton proved what John Edwards has been attacking her on all along: her obfuscations, evasiveness, and "doubletalk."

In short...

Hillary Clinton's poll numbers should come crashing back down to earth. Expect her to spend a lot of time doing damage control in the near future because a huge hole was exposed in her armor and the other candidates and the media are going to drive a bus through it. She had better hope the word "doubletalk" doesn't stick. In the meantime, she better find a better answer to the illegal immigration question, and quick.

Barack Obama did not score any knockout punches tonight, but he did well enough to stave off being written off by the media. He started off weak, but gained steam as the debate progressed. He was better able to find an effective balance between drawing contrasts with Hillary Clinton without drawing the ire of voters for engaging in slash-and-burn politics. He did not turn in the strongest performance, but he at least showed that he knows how to fight while being a bit genteel in the process.

John Edwards turned in a considerably strong performance and is more of a threat to Barack Obama than Hillary Clinton simply because he is more direct and more forceful in his contrasts. He damaged Clinton while hurting Obama at the same time because he demonstrated the scrappiness that Obama's supporters wish he had.

Joe Biden could legitimately become the Clinton alternative for voters seeking experience. His views on Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan demonstrated a level of depth and seriousness that has not been shown by any other candidate of either party thus far. There shouldn't be anymore talk about him becoming her Secretary of State.

Bill Richardson has gone from the most attractive second tier candidate to the least attractive over the course of these debates. Expect him to have to bat down stories about shooting for a cabinet position in a Clinton White House from here on out. His already slim chances of winning the nomination took a major hit tonight.

Chris Dodd has arrived, and I think Democrats like what they see.

Dennis Kucinich offers more in these debates than Mike Gravel, but look for him to be the next candidate to be dropped from the list of participants despite the fact that he has a clear campaign platform. Unfortunately, it's never a good sign when your most memorable line is that you saw a UFO. Obviously, that question from the moderators was not really fair, but most voters will only remember what Kucinich said.

This race just got a whole lot more interesting.

A more detailed analysis will follow shortly.

10/29/2007

Before the Pennsylvania Debate (D)

All the Democratic candidates (sans Mike Gravel) will participate in their next debate tomorrow evening at 9:00 in Philadelphia. The debate will be broadcast on MSNBC and will be co-moderated by Brian Williams and Tim Russert. Brian Williams moderated the very first debate held in Orangeburg, South Carolina, so this debate serves as a bit of a homecoming of sorts.

The link I just provided was to the debate preview I had written in April in which I assessed each candidate's positioning, rivals, weaknesses, and ways they could make their path to the nomination a bit less bumpy. That was six months ago, and it is now the end of October. We are no longer in the preseason, as the Iowa caucuses are set for January 3, which is in just a little over two months. The race has taken on numerous storylines since this spring and several facts have been learned. Here's where things stand now:

1. Iraq's importance to Democratic voters is not as important as the media and pundits are making it out to be. This is not to say that Iraq is not a big deal because it obviously is. But think about this. Barack Obama has stated numerous times how "he was against this war from the very beginning." Voters also know that John Edwards has apologized for his war vote and said he was "wrong." And Democratic voters know that Hillary Clinton refuses to apologize for the war she voted to authorize. She also won't make any guarantees about withdrawing troops by a certain date even though timetables for withdrawal are considerably more popular among Democrats than Republicans. So in some regards, Clinton's Iraq policy sounds like a continuation of Bush's Iraq policy. And yet, Hillary Clinton's support in the polls among Democratic voters continues to rise. But if Iraq were such a dealbreaker among Democrats, then shouldn't Obama be performing better than he is now? Or should we expect a surprisingly strong showing of support for Dennis Kucinich come caucustime?

2. Barack Obama has tapped into something very real, but his reluctance to firmly engage Hillary Clinton is blunting the potential strength of the movement he is trying to represent. Until the third quarter, Obama was leading the money chase and had the most donors. After the third quarter fundraising totals showed that Clinton had raised the most money, Obama appealed to his donors for them to help him "close the gap" with Clinton. His success in this endeavor shows that his support is deep and that his supporters are collectively powerful. But the fact that Obama is not able to "close the gap" in terms of polling against Clinton has to be discouraging for even his most ardent supporters. It's no longer enough for him to say "it's still early" because it's not. Obama continues to talk about how he'll be more aggressive, but it never comes. And when it does, it's often in the form of veiled attacks on Clinton that might be a bit too cerebral for the average voter to pick up on. He's running out of opportunities to draw blood and risks having his supporters quietly defect to other campaigns. Right now, Obama is not coming across like a fighter. How can voters fight for their candidate at the caucuses when that candidate is barely willing to fight for himself?

3. Talk about lobbyists and corruption seem to make good talking points, but they are a bit less successful at moving the needle. Or is it the messenger? Consider John Edwards, who is running an unabashedly populist campaign. Edwards' numbers are slowly declining in Iowa and South Carolina, both of which are states where he should reasonably be expected to do well. He has been the most aggressive candidate in the debates and is not hesitating to attack Clinton and her corporate ties. Anyone who watches Lou Dobbs knows that corruption, lobbying, and broken government are galvanizing issues. And Edwards is railing against these very issues. So what gives? He is an attractive Southern politician who connects with rural voters. His electability argument has some resonance as well, as his geography could potentially put some red states in play to counter Rudy Giuliani's assertion that he could put some blue states in play. And yet, he is falling off the pace. Do the haircut and hedge fund stories make him a hypocrite who has no credibility? Or is he regarded as a has-been because of his failed candidacy in 2004?

4. None of the second-tier candidates has emerged as the primary challenger to the comparatively less experienced Barack Clintedwards. Bill Richardson has the better fundraising and polling, while Joe Biden has the more credible Iraq message and more endorsements. Richardson and Biden are mired in the 5-10% range in most polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. Just like Obama and Edwards, these two candidates cannot coexist because they both appeal to voters who desire an experienced candidate not named Hillary Clinton. If one of these candidates drops out, the other would clearly benefit and have a much easier road to gaining visibility. The newly open Senate seat in New Mexico is a tempting destination for Richardson, but he has expressed no interest in it (yet). And Biden's poor fundraising is not putting an end to doubts about his viability. Who will outlive who? Will it not be a Senate seat or fundraising prowess, but rather Iraq that delivers the knockout punch to one of these candidates? What do defections like this portend?

5. Nobody still knows who Chris Dodd is. His politics put him squarely in the Democratic mainstream. He has an impressive resume and a likable personality, but his polling is as anemic as Mike Gravel's. He has failed to distinguish himself in the debates and is not a particularly compelling speaker. This could work to Dodd's advantage in that voters may tire of all the warts of Barack Clintedwards and be leery of Richardson's and Biden's tendency to have their mouths get away from them. This would leave Dodd as the untainted statesman. But it would certainly help his case if Dodd had at least some favorable buzz about his campaign because how comfortable will Democratic voters be with entrusting their hopes to Mr. Invisible?

Stay tuned for my post-debate analysis.

10/03/2007

A Lack of Democratic Leadership

I found this interesting piece in the Politico by David Paul Kuhn about the fears of nervous Democrats who wonder how they'll manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the 2008 presidential race. Kuhn's piece includes a lot of damning quotes and examples of recent Democratic flops (see Dukakis, Michael, for example), but doesn't really address the issue of why Democrats even end up in these situations to begin with. However, looking at the current "top tier" of the Democratic field, it's easy for me to understand why.

Exhibit A: Consider this piece by the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson. In his commentary, Robinson assails the (three leading) Democrats for not showing straight talk or leadership on the Iraq issue. Perhaps the most important quote in his piece is this:

"The Republican candidates' view of Iraq, Iran and the Middle East is dangerously apocalyptic, but at least it's a vision. What's yours?"
That just about covers it. I can only imagine how frustrated and dejected the antiwar left felt at the recent debate at Dartmouth in which neither Clinton, Obama, nor Edwards could guarantee that the troops would be out of Iraq by 2013. Obviously, these three candidates didn't want to say anything that would jeopardize their chances with moderate and swing voters in November, but the problem is that by showing such timidity and political calculation, they risk losing their base and not making it to November at all.

Richardson, Biden, and Dodd have all expressed firm positions on Iraq, but they are starved for media attention because they are generally considered second-tier candidates. And on top of that, instead of giving their Iraq policy differences a bit more airtime, the media choose to focus on garbage, such as Clinton's "cackle". (Yes, the way a candidate laughs is considered more newsworthy than a substantial difference of opinion regarding our Iraq policy.) Anyway, I don't think it's a coincidence that the three best qualified candidates for president on the Democratic side of the ledger happen to be the three who have expressed the clearest positions on Iraq, but I digress...

Barack Obama had the "judgment" to be against the war from the start, but he doesn't seem to have any plans that deal with the fact that we're there now. He identifies "bad" options and "worse" options, but doesn't really say which options he'd like to pursue. And the fact that he couldn't make any guarantees about withdrawing all U.S. troops by 2013 only serves to muddy his Iraq "purity" just a bit.

John Edwards wants to get 50,000 troops out immediately, though it's unclear where they will be sent or how long it will take to accomplish this. He doesn't believe in keeping troops in Iraq to battle Al Qaeda because he considers that a way of "continuing the war in Iraq." But he also won't pledge to take all the troops out by 2013, so it's hard to understand what role the remaining troops would even have there. And what does he plan to do about the foreign terrorists who are obviously in Iraq now if he doesn't want to "continue the war" there?

Good luck to anyone who endeavors to figure out what Hillary Clinton's position is. She voted for the war, "takes responsibility for her war vote," voted against funding for the surge, blames George Bush for mismanaging the war, says we must get out responsibly, and then voted to designate the Iranian military a "terrorist organization." In other words, she's everywhere.

Remember Robinson's words. At least the Republicans have a vision.

Exhibit B: Consider this piece by Jason Horowitz of the New York Observer. Horowitz's piece talks about anxiety in the Obama camp stemming from the fact that he's not closing the gap with Hillary Clinton. His supporters and donors are uneasy while his campaign staffers and aides try to allay their concerns by reminding them that "early polls don't mean anything" and that "Obama is well positioned in the early states--the states that matter." Okay, that's all well and good, but it illustrates a major problem that Gore '00 and Kerry '04 had: When your current strategy is not working, change it! You would think that most Democrats who criticized Bush for not changing his failing strategy in Iraq would be able to pick up on this. But for some reason, Obama is continuing down his path of optimism, limited engagement, and subtlety. And Clinton is only widening her lead.

Al Gore should have easily trounced George Bush in 2000. Gore was clearly the superior candidate. He had a lot more relevant experience and the advantages of incumbency during a period of unprecedented economic growth. However, he pursued a strategy of running away from the politician who was his greatest weapon. Instead of the focus being on the good things about the '90s, the campaign focus switched to "earth tones, multiple Al Gores, and woodenness." After a hugely successful national convention speech, his lead in the polls began to evaporate. But even though the polls tightened up, Gore did not really change his strategy. (The changes he did make were more in his own personal style, which only intensified the "multiple Al Gore" charges.) The point is, he did not do what he obviously should have done and let the commander in chief become the campaigner in chief. As a result, Gore lost.

The 2004 election was even more winnable. John Kerry had a long record of public service and was a decorated war veteran. By this time, a large segment of the public had soured on the war and was growing tired of George Bush's perceived incompetence (which was later validated in his second term after Katrina and Harriet Miers). Kerry should have mopped the floor with Bush when it came to foreign policy and he could have even towed the traditional Democratic line on social programs without penalty. Instead, Kerry tried too hard to be as likable as Bush was. So rather than engage Bush in a discussion about an end game in Iraq (something that would have played to his strengths), we ended up with an obviously out-of-place John Kerry in hunting gear that became emblematic of his campaign. He was an out-of-touch panderer. And worse yet, Kerry did not seem to make any real changes in his political strategy to change the subject! Bush's 2004 reelection campaign could basically be summed up as "You might not like my positions on the issues, but at least you know where I stand. And in these dangerous times, it's important for a leader to be firm and to know where he stands." As a result, Bush earned "political capital."

Now Obama '08 seems to be traveling down the same woeful path of Kerry '04 and Gore '00. Is Obama really a fighter? Can he be counted on to change his approach when things are obviously not working? Is he really that averse to going on political offense, or has he boxed himself into a corner because of his own rhetoric about "the politics of hope?" (And just for the record, the only reason why I'm singling out Obama here is because he is the best positioned to overtake Hillary Clinton.)

As for Clinton, she doesn't really have to change her strategy to overtake a candidate in a superior position simply because she is the dominant candidate right now. However, Clinton's cautiousness (such as her refusal to engage in "hypotheticals" or to "put anything on the proverbial table when it comes to Social Security") gets at what Bush was able to win against in 2004. You have to be bold if you want to be president. It seems like Clinton is trying to say as little as possible and win the nomination and the presidency on a lack of specificity.

2008 is a very winnable election for the Democrats, but if they do not stop pursuing strategies that aren't working (Obama's subtlety), don't evoke leadership (Clinton's "hypotheticals"), and have little vision (Clinton, Obama, and Edwards on Iraq), then the Republicans may end up turning 2008 into 1988 and win the White House for a third consecutive time. Should that happen, the Democrats will be absolutely devastated.

However, if that happens, the Democrats will have no one but themselves to blame. In politics, you can never beat something with nothing.

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.