06/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Reaches For The Brass Ring

The next five months will be no cakewalk for Barack Obama.

The first African American presidential nominee must deal with substantial weakness of support among working class whites, especially from women aligned with Hillary Clinton. He faces a Republican machine sure to demonize him as a pacifist, an intellectual, and as unable to stand up to foreign aggressors. His biography is likely to spur controversy among cultural conservatives, even as it speaks to the most dynamic trends of the past half century -- his open minded and adventurous white Midwestern mother, and the Kenyan Muslim father who abandoned him after his birth. His network of connections in Chicago includes some shady figures, as well as a pair of formerly radical activists on the far left of the ideological spectrum. Inevitably arousing charges of elitism, he looks, talks and acts like the product of an exclusive private school and the Ivy League that he is.

Balancing that, the Illinois Senator has demonstrated fundraising prowess unmatched in the history of the Democratic Party. He has shown himself a master of political rhetoric and a figure of inspiration -- demonstrating that he can bring droves of voters into the system. He won the nomination by building a new coalition, an alliance of the well-educated, reform-minded and culturally liberal wing of the Democratic Party with black voters who have been a partisan mainstay for decades, substantially increasing black turnout. He is either a candidate who could revive the long-moribund Democratic Party, or a passing wonder, soon to join the ranks of revered, but ultimately failed, presidential contenders like Adlai Stevenson.

In picking Obama, according to Brookings scholar William Frey, the Democratic Party is betting "that Obama's demographic core groups -- the young, minorities and well educated -- will reinvent the geography of their support across the nation's key battleground states. In the past, Democrats have relied on slow growing battlegrounds, bastions of blue collar America like Pennsylvania and Michigan, to keep them in the hunt."

Now, says Frey, those "'old white belt' states are not nearly as sure a bet for Obama who fared badly with their working class whites in the primaries. ... The Democrats have an eye on the fast-growing battlegrounds in the intermountain west -- Nevada, Colorado New Mexico and perhaps Arizona, and some new ones in the South -- Florida, Virginia and perhaps North Carolina. It's certainly a gamble, and Obama would have to run the Sunbelt battleground table to replace wholesale losses in the Rustbelt. But it's a signal that even the Democratic cognoscenti realize that the old industrial-coastal state coalition will not be enough to push their party ahead in this new century. In a year when the Republicans appear weak, it's time to roll the dice.

The Republican National Committee is wasting no time trying to fix the dice, declaring: "Obama's primary election coalition of urban voters, young voters, ideologically liberal voters, and elites is far too narrow to sustain him amid a center-right general election electorate. His coalition more resembles the losing coalitions of John Kerry, Michael Dukakis, and George McGovern than it does a supposedly new type of candidate with broad appeal."

The GOP is even more willing than Hillary Clinton to put its own spin on primary election results. First, the RNC defined every vote for Clinton as a vote "against" Obama, and then produced the following charts:


Furman political scientist Jim Guth provided a more balanced assessment:

"Obama has three major assets starting the fall campaign. The first has been his enormous appeal to young people, especially those college-bound, in college or just out. An increase in the usual abysmal turnout rates in the 18-25 year old age cohort would be an important edge. ... The same turnout calculations apply to blacks, of course, with a lot of room for improvement over the past two presidential contests. Obama's third area of strength is his very impressive appeal to the Democrats' new upscale, highly-educated business and professional constituency, evident in his fundraising prowess.

"His weaknesses are clear: he has not really discovered a way to appeal to increasingly marginal Democratic voters such as blue-collar Catholics and evangelical Protestants (neither Jeremiah Wright, or being the most pro-choice one can possibly be, will help with either group). And I'm afraid that for some white voters, residual racism will enter into their calculations.

"But there are several factors that may allow Obama to overcome these weaknesses: the unpopularity of the Iraq war, the current economic uncertainties, and the overwhelming public disgust with Republicans. The final edge he has is that John McCain is not really in a position to take advantage of Obama's weaknesses. He cannot count on enthusiastic support from the GOP's traditional religious and economic constituencies, and his appeal to upscale independents is more than countered by Obama's. McCain can win, but the Iraq war and the economy have to go right, he has to rebuild the GOP base, and he has to offer Hillary Democrats some reasons to vote for him. And he has to run a flawless campaign. I don't see that in the cards."

Rob Stein, founder of the Democracy Alliance, a coalition of wealthy liberal donors that now funds a number of institutions on the left, contended that one of Obama's major strengths going into the general election is his managerial and organizational skill.

"Obama brings three remarkable, actually unique, attributes to his general election candidacy (and ultimately to governing successfully) -- (1) his personal professional development as a community organizer gives him a canny sense of how to build organizing capacity at the state and local levels; (2) he has demonstrated superb managerial competency by running a tight, thoughtful, well financed and highly disciplined primary (indeed, he outmaneuvered one of the most formidable political machines of recent times... and (3) he is an exceptionally gifted orator.

"If these attributes continue to serve him well in the general, he will be able to execute at a very elevated level. I mention these because while he clearly has vulnerabilities and must find ways to 'reach' and 'touch' some important constituencies, organization, management and discipline can overcome any number of weaknesses."

Looking at the other side of the general election contest, John McCain and the Republican Party, Emory political scientist Alan Abramowitz argued that the overall political climate will make it hard for McCain to win:

"McCain's reputation as a maverick and a moderate should help him with independents and moderate Democrats, but he will have to overcome a truly terrible political environment. No party in modern history has retained the presidency with the country in a recession or near recession or a president with approval ratings so far below 50 percent. Ultimately, I think that will be a lot more important than any controversies over former pastors or even any reluctance to vote for a black candidate among white working class voters."

The reality is that this may be an inauspicious moment to make a prediction about November 4. The Democratic Party is split as the nominating contest comes to a close; neither McCain nor Obama have had the chance to define themselves and their opponent to the full electorate; and those who follow politics must now shift from primary to general election mode.

The shaky ground on which current projections rest has not, however, halted wagering on the political futures market where the betting at this stage is tilted fairly strongly in Obama's favor. Two of the major markets, Intrade and Iowa Electronic, both give roughly 3 to 2 odds for Obama.