I can't sit idly by any longer. After months of being courted by all sides, being told that I should remain neutral for the sake of party unity, and despite last-minute pleas from a certain candidate's indignant spouse, I'm finally ready to hop off the proverbial fence. Conventional wisdom held that there were three brass rings yet to be grabbed by the Democratic campaigns: Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, and "that dude that sometimes blogs on that one website run by that ex-conservative lady with the accent." I just assume they mean me. So Ted and I talked, and we decided that if Al was going to pipe up, he'd need the other two members of the triumvirate to pave the way. I told Ted that I was willing to take one for the team, and that I'd wait 24 hours so as not to steal the media cycle away from him. Time's up, buddy, and here goes...
I'm for Obama for all the reasons that my pal Ted points out, but just as importantly, because of the fundamental electoral advantages that Barack Obama holds over Hillary Clinton, and would also hold over his Republican challenger in the general election. Let's take a look.
1. Hillary's support, while still larger than Obama's at the moment, has likely peaked. There's no potential voter not already familiar with Senator Clinton. Her name-recognition and its built-in advantage is a thing of envy for all her challengers, but here's the thing: while Clinton's support is near or slightly above where it was over a year ago, Obama's base of support has grown steadily as he becomes more and more familiar to the electorate. Obama keeps trending upward, while Clinton has hit a ceiling.
2. To use an economist's turn of phrase, Obama increases the size of the electoral pie, whereas Hillary's pie isn't getting any bigger. This phenomenon was seen dramatically in South Carolina this past weekend. Democratic turnout was so far off the charts precisely because voters who were otherwise apathetic or disinclined to participate in electoral politics finally came out in droves. In South Carolina, it was African Americans; in Iowa, it was the youth and independents. By bringing new voters to the table in the primaries (as he doubtlessly would in the general election), Obama has the potential to capture hundreds of thousands more votes than other candidates. His domination in South Carolina was so total that he not only easily defeated his Democratic rivals, but the Republican candidates as well, garnering more votes than McCain and Huckabee combined. The total Democratic turnout (more than 530,000 voters) was head and shoulders above the GOP's (440,000+ voters). With increase-the-pie electoral math like this, Obama has the unique power to put traditional GOP strongholds in play, turning red states blue (although in his unitive magnanimity, he might say purple). And in the game of presidential electoral economics, where the battles are fought on the margins (think Ohio, Florida, Arizona, Wisconsin), the advantage is Obama's.
3. Perhaps Clinton's greatest potential problem for the general election--particularly against John McCain, who has improbably, and probably much to the horror of the Clintons, emerged as the frontrunner--has been her inability to bring independent voters into her camp. While both Clinton and Karl Rove have argued that Obama's record is more liberal than hers, Obama remains the candidate of bipartisanship who is best suited to capture the centrist vote. In fact, 82% of Republicans (and 54% of all voters) view Clinton as politically liberal, while only 65% of GOP voters see either Obama (47% of all voters) or Edwards (42% of all voters) as politically liberal. What makes this all the more ironic is that Clinton had consciously staked out moderate positions long in advance of her presidential run, for what cynics (probably correctly) adduced were calculated moves to help position her as a stronger (read "less liberal") general election candidate (after what was to be a cakewalk of a primary). Now, however, even after positioning herself as the most hawkish of the Democratic candidates (the DLC's choice, if you will), she finds herself so unable to attract independents that many pundits believe that Michael Bloomberg would see an opening for his centrist candidacy only if Clinton were to become the nominee, but not if it were Obama.
4. Clinton's campaign, as much as she has tried to wrest the "change" mantel from Obama, is about the restoration of bygone era, the 1990s--sure, perhaps an era preferable to that of the current administration, but not one which fulfills the potential of what the Democratic party can become (an ever-expanding majority) in the next twenty years. Obama's campaign on the other hand is about revolution, building a Democratic party for the future by tapping into yet unexploited political will. One model will preserve the Democratic party as it now exists, whereas the other is a growth paradigm. The former is Clinton's, the latter Obama's.
5. Finally, without exception, every friend, acquaintance, and co-worker of mine who is a Clinton backer has told me that he or she would support Obama (often actively) if he became the nominee. The opposite, however, is not close to true. As much as it frustrates me to imagine moderate friends of mine casting a vote for a GOP candidate who would extend and elaborate upon many of Bush's polices, a startling number of them would pledge their votes to McCain, Bloomberg, or reruns of Seinfeld on November 4, 2008, rather than hold their nose and vote for Clinton. Whether this is mere bluster and insincere threat, I can't say. But what's clear is that these current Obama supporters will not be marching head held high into Clinton's camp.
This election season, pundits have hedged their near-unanimous prognostication that a Democrat would assume the reins in 2009 with variations on what's become a self-deprecating, yet often self-fulfilling theme: "If anyone could possibly lose this election for themselves, it's the Democrats." If our pick is Clinton, that prophecy may just become reality.