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Perception of Electability At Stake For Obama In Coming Primaries

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Two small but significant events happened over Easter weekend in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. First, not only Clinton but also Obama sent out invitations to big donor fundraisers in California the first week of April. (They're rattling tin cups in New York, as well.) Since the O-kitty is nearly three times bigger than hers, Clinton's hitting the money trail isn't surprising. The nooks and crannies in which the campaigns expect to find these $2300 checks is more of a mystery, since Californians who both can and want to give have long since done so. California is beginning to appreciate how Carthage felt squeezed by the Roman Imperium. Obama's dragging himself to fundraisers, however, is more surprising--and revealing. Despite what various pundits say about the race--that Clinton has almost no chance to win--the Obama Campaign must be looking down the road through a different scope. Obama must be estimating that his 30-plus million in the bank is not going to be enough. Internet fundraising from small donors is not going to re-supply him for a coming fight of the magnitude for which his campaign is bracing.

The second significant event, related to the first, is that Clinton has signaled her intention to fight Obama hard for North Carolina on May 6 by sending in Ace Young, who crafted her victories in California and Texas. The conventional wisdom has been that North Carolina, because of its large black population, is Obama's. A month ago, Obama led Clinton there in the polls by 14 points. By last Friday, however, his lead had dropped to a single point. His fall in North Carolina would seem to be a result of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy. Clearly, this is Clinton's golden opportunity. For the first time since her humiliation in South Carolina, she will be able to contest seriously a Southern state, and if she wins--as well she might--she will change the dynamic of the race. If she wins Indiana the same day--another more and more likely victory--she will be able to keep that momentum going for a week until West Virginia, which she also should win, and then another week to victory in Kentucky, which will offset her likely loss of Oregon the same day. (Many experts say that Clinton has the edge in Oregon, but I don't see it. Outside Portland and Eugene and Ashland, the state is very conservative, but those voters are not Democrats.) Clinton should win the Hispanic vote in Puerto Rico on June 1. Moreover, Guam a month earlier (May 3) may not be the predicted Obama win. Sharing the Pacific does not make Guam Hawaii, and Clinton, unlike Obama, has visited Guam several times.

Of the last ten Democratic contests, therefore, Obama may win only the three in the continental West: Oregon and then Montana and South Dakota on June 3. As his nearer goal, Obama absolutely must keep his loss in Pennsylvania less than twenty points. If he cannot, the margin will signal the kind of collapse in white support that Clinton experienced with African-Americans in South Carolina. Either scenario--a sweeping defeat in Pennsylvania or a slow bleed through the last ten contests--will plant the question of electability in the minds of some Super Delegates. For the reality is that Barack Obama cannot win the national election in November without the faith and enthusiasm of a good chunk of white middle class and lower class America. So the Obama Campaign can keep sending out daily press releases reminding us that their candidate leads in pledged delegates, number of states won and the popular vote until the cows come home. They can do the math over and over again demonstrating that it is impossible for Clinton to catch Obama in any of those categories. But absent the bigger picture it's whistling Dixie.

Remember Harold Ford? The arc of his 2006 Senate race may be a prognostication of Barack Obama's political fortunes. The national media loved Harold Ford. He was a very intelligent, St. Albans/UPenn educated black politician with seemingly limitless possibility. During the mid-term elections, Newsweek chose Ford for a cover representing all the Democratic contenders nationwide. But the national media never understood the dynamic of that Senate race in Tennessee. Partly because it took the Republicans until the eleventh hour to field a candidate, and therefore Ford dominated the race coverage for so long, the national media never grasped the unlikelihood of a Ford victory. But Tennesseans knew. For he was not just Harold Ford but Harold Ford, Jr. He came from a family that, since its rise to power in Memphis in the 1970s, had increasingly been in the news both for charges of political corruption and for personal peccadilloes--a sordid saga that all Tennesseans abhored, but that white Tennesseans, unlike black Tennesseans, either could not or would not place in the larger context of Shelby County's long history of public malfeasance.

Like Barack Obama, Harold Ford refused to disown a man close to him. For Obama, the mentor is a father-figure; for Ford, the mentor was his own father, whose House seat he had taken (inherited, really), who had been tried but not convicted of 18 counts of bank and mail fraud. White Memphians, who widely regarded Ford, Sr. as a crook, thought that these charges were only the tip of the iceberg. Stories about the father's questionable behavior had been circulating for two decades. The only chance for Harold Ford, Jr. to grab that Senate seat was to distance himself once and for all from his father and his family, whose scandals are too numerous to recount here. But Ford, a decent man, refused to disown his father. And even if he had, Harold Ford, Jr. had in his family a lot of baggage for white voters in Tennessee. Now Barack Obama has baggage. He is no longer the "post-racial" candidate.

It's not that white voters in North Carolina, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania are racists. It's that a jug of Tide detergent now costs $12.99--about double what it did a year ago. With rising prices and all the other economic worries, middle class voters don't want to have to deal with one more thing--and a presidential candidate with uncertain baggage is that one more thing. Certainly not all--but many--middle class white voters are bewildered by Reverend Wright and Obama's refusal to disavow him. They have been dropped down in the middle of an ongoing story in black America for which they don't have the context. They are once again aggrieved, perceiving, rightly or wrongly, that they have made the effort, as one teacher told me, "to love all my students equally," while "these black separatists" have not done the same. Inadvertently, Barack Obama has opened an old wound. Obama truly is a post-racial candidate, but therein lays tragedy if he loses the Democratic nomination. It's precisely because he didn't grow up on the Southside of Chicago, or elsewhere in the continental United States, that he lacked the sense of place to divine where Trinity Church fit into the larger African-American narrative; and therefore he never grew the political antennae necessary to sense the price of a membership there. I hope I will be proved wrong, resoundingly, about white middle class voters soon to line up at the polls. But having talked to family and friends in North Carolina over the past two days, I fear not.

While Barack Obama has acquired baggage, Hillary Clinton has finally got a narrative--and for her this is a very good thing, far outweighing any consequences of losing the possibility of revotes in Michigan and Florida, or of losing this or that endorsement, in an election where endorsements have not meant much. Voters firmly rejected her first queenly claims to the nomination--that she deserved it, that she was the inevitable winner--and punished her for the presumption. But now, almost despite herself, and certainly despite the royal style of her campaign, she presents a consistent persona of the hard-knock candidate, both giving and receiving blows, who refuses to lay down and die. There's a grudging respect for her now in middle America and, more importantly, a growing sense that as a nation we are so screwed--damned if we stay in Iraq, damned if we don't; the government needs to spend big on health care and education and infrastructure and rebuilding the military at the same time it needs to rein in the deficit--that it well may take a tough-as-nails, Washington-bitten, willing to get-down-and-dirty closer like Hillary Clinton to hack a path through the swamp.

In addition to placing North Carolina in the hands of Ace Young, last week the Clinton Campaign brought onboard P.R. maestro Howard Paster. This (undoubtedly very costly) hire also signals a victory strategy through Electability. Bill Clinton has already said that they are going to take it to the Super Delegates on that issue, and if Obama cannot hold onto enough of the white vote, the Clintons may get a hearing. Bill Clinton has made the cynical assessment that African-American voters will return to Hillary in November. (See "San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom Spills The Beans On Clinton Strategy," my earlier piece on how Newsom has been parroting what Clinton told him in Texas.) As Carl Bernstein writes in A Woman in Charge, "'His [Bill Clinton's] ground zero assumption is that you're an asshole, but he can charm you.'" An unnamed source is talking to Bernstein about Clinton's attitude toward the press (former attitude, surely) but it is an apt description of the ex-President's condescension to his audiences out on the current campaign trail. Moreover, Bill and Hillary Clinton have been working to mend fences with African-Americans: attending a black leadership event in New Orleans, speaking with black pastors, seeing what worked and what did not in Mississippi, where all three Clintons campaigned vigorously even though Senator Clinton had no chance of winning. Therefore, the Clintons are not likely to credit the possibility that overturning the expressed will of the voters will fracture the Democratic Party.

Adding to the possibility of success for an Electability strategy are two recent polls on how Democrats would like to see Super Delegates make up their minds. In a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll of March 14-16, 49% of respondents said that the Super Delegates should choose "the best candidate;" 27% said the Super Ds should heed the race results in their own state; 19% said that the Super Ds should make a decision based on all primaries and caucuses combined. In a Newsweek poll taken March 5-6, 43% of respondents said that the trailing candidate should concede and 42% said that the Super Delegates should determine the winner. Unless these percentages change over the next few months, they undercut the belief that Super Delegates shouldn't feel free to choose on the basis of Electability over other (even though quantifiable) criteria.

So I'm dubious about your assertion that "Clinton has virtually no chance of winning," Messers VandeHei and Allen over at Politico, and that Clinton's long shot "seems to have grown a little longer," Mr. Adam Nagourney of the New York Times. Maybe I'm too much of a Faulknerian Southern pessimist. But I think you guys are sitting in the middle of the forest and draping narrative trees with spring solstice paper chains of reason, sanity, goodwill, hope, relief, healing, new beginnings and the higher truth of number theory. Meanwhile the Clintons gather again beyond the forest over the horizon, and whether the next nasty fight--and I predict North Carolina is going to be very nasty indeed--is the Ardennes (Clinton makes a terrific last push but is defeated) or the Wilderness (Clinton and Obama fight to a draw, inflicting serious wider damage) or Transalpine Gaul (Obama is Vercingetorix and Caesar Clinton triumphs) remains to be seen. But it's going to be one hell of a story, and I've already got my plane ticket to Charlotte.