Jump to content

The State of the Race: The Democrats


Recommended Posts

March 05, 2007

The State of the Race: The Democrats

By Richard Baehr

The likely Presidential nominees of both parties will be decided by February 5, 2008, (if not earlier), when more than a dozen states, including the largest five, may hold primaries. The frontloading of the primaries suggests that only candidates with a sizable bankroll of $100 million or more accumulated this year will be able to compete in January and February of 2008.

On the Democratic side, this means that Chris Dodd and Joe Biden might as well check their oversized ambitions in the Senate cloakroom, and give it up. And despite the kind words from David Brooks, Bill Richardson, who is undoubtedly a more capable and experienced candidate for national office than any of the other Democrats running, would probably be better off telling the world he will accept the VP slot if offered.

Pundits love long-shots, but they are long shots precisely because they almost never come in. Hillary Clinton has spent 2/3 of her life preparing for this moment, and she has a fundraising machine and a husband who is a very savvy political strategist, both of which will propel her forward despite certain grave inadequacies as a candidate. Barack Obama may be deified before he is elected President, but he is clearly the flavor of the season, and people are seeing in him what ever they choose to see. He has the legs for a long race, despite his inexperience (two years removed from the Illinois State Senate). At the moment, as explained below, the fundraising contest, and the media energy is all about Hillary and Obama.

John Edwards seems to have been on a mission to run for President since his oldest son died in a car accident. He will have trial lawyer and union money this time around, though he will probably be unable to come close to matching the Hillary or Obama fundraising totals. The union enthusiasm was build by Edwards appearing to show solidarity at just about every labor union strike in America the last two years, and presumably not by the endless repetition of his "Two Americas" (those building 28,000 square foot homes, and those who are not) theme. Edwards will also not likely fold up his tent early, though he has slipped in the race since Obama decided to enter it.

The idea that a candidate can come out of the middle of the pack at a late date is fantasy. In the last half century, Gary Hart, and John McCain came close to upsetting established frontrunners after winning the New Hampshire primary, though both ended up losing. George McGovern in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Michael Dukakis in 1988, and Bill Clinton in 1992 all came out of crowded fields to be nominated, but all were positioned as front runners or one of two serious contender relatively early in the cycle.

The following states have either already moved their primary date to February 5th or are in the process of doing so:

New Jersey

New York





North Carolina






New Mexico


West Virginia.

Michigan may move up its date even earlier to join South Carolina, which will follow the first three states out of the gate: Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada.

While the frontloading of the primaries to February 5th means that some states that typically get little or no attention in the nominating process, such as California and New York, will get more of a say (and more campaign spending on their airwaves), the earliest contests, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, will likely still be decisive if one candidate runs the table, or wins most of them.

If the race is undecided going into February 5th, much of the money raised during 2007 will be spent on media buys in the big states that week. John Kerry was nominated for president in 2004, because he beat John Edwards by a few thousand votes in the Iowa caucuses (38% to 32%). Had Edwards won Iowa, the enormous free publicity generated by the win would likely have boosted him in enough other states to win the nomination. Kerry went on to win all of the remaining primaries and caucuses except for two states, powered by his narrow Iowa win, which resulted in the collapse of the frontrunner Howard Dean.

The real national primary will be the money primary this year, and probably not the February 5th primaries.

The nominee is still likely to be determined in the earliest races, unless they are split among several winners. Some Democrats have objected to having Iowa, and New Hampshire, both states with small minority populations, determine their nominee. This year, Nevada, with a 15% Hispanic population, and South Carolina, with approximately a 30% African American population, (and higher percentages than these among registered Democrats) will be in the starting scramble. But they will follow Iowa and New Hampshire, and so might still be too late, if the same candidate wins both Iowa and New Hampshire.

The most recent polling data on the Democratic race shows that Hillary Clinton's 20 percentage point lead over Obama was sliced in half in the last two weeks. Dick Morris argues that Obama was gaining on Hillary before the exchange between the two camps initiated by Maureen Dowd's column showcasing David Geffen's pointed remarks about the Clintons and their honesty. For Dowd, a woman whose connection to serious political commentary has been in decline for years, her story was a brief moment to glow again as a "player" (or more accurately, an attempted slayer of Hillary Clinton). As one of the Times' columnists hidden behind the Times Select pay barrier, fewer and fewer people are reading Dowd's columns (it is hard to imagine people who can get everything else free on the Times website, paying for the "privilege" of reading Dowd or Paul Krugman).

Morris suggests that the Clinton camp, panicked by Obama's rise, felt the need to draw him into a mud-fight, and damage his above-the-fray message. Other pollsters say the slippage in Clinton's poll standing began after the brouhaha. In any case, the Clinton camp's most powerful argument for itself - its inevitability - is now in tatters. Another sign of panic was dragging Bill along to Selma, Alabama this weekend for a competing rally with Obama's to celebrate the anniversary of the civil rights march on the Pettis Bridge.

The so-called first black President may have been called in too late to stem the defection of African American voters from Hillary to Obama. In but a few weeks, a voting block that accounts for more than 20% of Democratic primary voters has shifted from a 3 to 1 Hillary lead over Obama, to a 4 to 3 Obama lead over Hillary.

Another group assumed to be in Hillary's corner, and even more so on the fundraising side, is Jewish liberals. As Ed Lasky has described, Obama made a key speech to an AIPAC audience in Chicago on Friday. While the speech was standard boilerplate for a talk to an AIPAC audience and offered nothing new or insightful, it probably touched enough of the bases for Obama to be accepted into the pro-Israel camp. At least among Jewish Democrats.

Unlike Jewish Republicans, who primarily choose among candidates on their foreign policy record, support for a strong national defense and support for Israel, Jewish liberals tend to make common cause these days with candidates mostly on their degree of opposition to President Bush and the Iraq war, and with plenty of attention to candidates' positions on domestic agenda issues: abortion, gay rights, stem cell research, the environment, expanding health care access, and the need to raise taxes on the wealthy among them. Israel is a threshold issue for most Jewish liberals, but the bar is not set terribly high, and if a candidate can get over it, then he is free to compete and pander on all the other issues.

Obama talked Friday of the need for two states, Israel and the Palestinians, to live side by side in peace and security, and for the US to support so-called Palestinian "moderates", such as PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and to engage more with the parties, whatever that means. To utter these stale bromides today, is as if the Oslo process and the vicious Palestinian intifada which followed it, and the rocket attacks from Gaza after the Israeli disengagement, and the landslide election victory by Hamas, came and went without leaving any impression on Senator Obama.

As a State Senator in Illinois, Obama was a favorite among some pro-Palestinian advocates, who have expressed disappointment with his climbing aboard the pro-Israel train, (and taken the opportunity to distort almost every recent event in the region while so doing). Obama may be leaving the door open to the Arab/Muslim camp by his bridge-building talk on the conflict.

It is likely that Hillary will raise more money than Obama, though Obama will raise plenty, and almost certainly enough to compete. Obama will also benefit from more free media than Hillary. At this point, the first serious black candidate for President is a bigger story than the first serious woman candidate. Hillary's problem is that she is already well known, and after 15 years in the public eye, has little ability to build support among those who don't already favor her. As many Americans have an unfavorable opinion of her as have a favorable opinion. Her negatives (those who would not vote for her) exceed that of all the potential candidates in either party except for Newt Gingrich. For six years as Senator, Clinton has tacked to the center, preparing for a general election battle. Now comes Obama, an almost perfect candidate for the current moment. He is not a Bush, nor a Clinton, and he can offer an appealing toned down political rhetoric with his soothing, healing message (a good looking Dr. Phil) while still attracting support from the left, for his early and consistent opposition to the war in Iraq.

I suspect that there are nights where Hillary awakens screaming Obama's name with an epithet attached to it. If this were recorded, she probably could get a transcript published on the Huffington Post site or read on the Bill Maher show, two of the lowest common denominators in current political discourse in America, as both publicized champions of the view that assassinating Dick Cheney would be a good thing for the country. If Hillary's campaign collapses, it will be one of the least pretty sights in American political history. This is a woman wound up very tight, and always controlled, but completely unprepared for failure in her Presidential quest.

Given that Obama has come close to pulling even with Hillary already, I think there is a very good chance that at some point this year he will pass her, since he has room to expand his base of support, and she is desperately trying to hold on to what she has. If Obama becomes the frontrunner, I think Hillary is finished. While a new face frontrunner would normally get tough critical reviews from the press, the major media is in full swoon mode over Obama.

There is another scenario, less likely I think, in which Hillary maintains or fortifies a lead, due to missteps by Obama, or a very nasty campaign, which damages both of them, but Obama more. If Hillary's poll slippage continues, then the nasty campaign approach is sure to follow. That might leave open a path for Edwards as a compromise candidate, especially if he can win Iowa, where he has been practically living since the 2004 race ended. But I think Edwards is viewed by many as a light-weight, and his repetitive message now sounds hollow.

Another possibility is a late appearance by global warming bloviator Al Gore, already a national figure with the ability to raise money quickly despite a late start. The Hillary camp is supposedly tracking whether Gore starts spending time at the gym to slim down for a national race. Gore, an early and loud opponent of the Iraq war, would come into the primary fight from the left and therefore threaten Obama more than Hillary. Since the left needs to believe it is building a better world with its advocacy, dollars and votes, solving the global warming crisis with Gore might even trump the symbolic significance of an Obama Presidency.

I remain unconvinced that Gore will run, though nobody whoever came close to winning loses the bug for the prize. Gore is already a celebrity, and an acclaimed "great" man, and is making money hand over fist. He seems to be enjoying the good life, and the steak and potatoes that go with it. Gore might be more susceptible to a draft (which has not happened in decades) than to having to navigate and pander to small groups on cold winter days in Iowa and New Hampshire.

It is still early, but at the moment, I think the shorter odds should be on Obama rather than Hillary, with Edwards, and Gore filling out the longer odds field.


Link to comment
Share on other sites


This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

  • Create New...