Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Chase for Change 2008: Pennsylvania Edition After Thoughts - The Race Goes On

If you want to read my coverage of this primary as the results came in earlier tonight click here. So with the final results being a 10 point victory for Clinton my first thought is one I've been saying again and again: despite what many pundits have said Clinton is not finished. I mentioned a scenario back in March in which if she took Pennsylvania by a wide margin she would argue to superdelegates that Democrats are having "buyer's remorse" about Obama and that he's damaged goods. That indeed I'm sure will be her argument going forward.

So let's see where the race stands now from each campaign’s perspective.


The Good:
- She's got momentum and she got the 10 double digit lead her critics said she needed.
- She was dramatically outspent by Obama and he campaign much harder in Pennsylvania then he did in Ohio and yet he still lost by 10 points.
- I still think Michigan and Florida will be seated at the convention and even if Clinton has to compromise in some way (such as manybe spltting the Michigan delegation with Obama but keeping her Florida share) this will boost her delegate tally.
- Framing the race as 1988 all over again may have resonance with some superdelegates. If she successfully casts Obama as being like Dukakis that will spell trouble for him. People have to remember that while there is clear argument on the basis of fairness for superdelegates to vote the "will of the people" these are in the end the party establishment who have had a reputation for not being well in touch with grass roots. You may argue it's a foolish choice but nothing stops superdelegates from coming up with any argument they want to justify giving the race to Hillary such as (NOTE: these are NOT my reasons, I'm just saying what they could come up with as possible rationales): Obama can't beat McCain (in fact polls right now she her doing better on a state by state basis then Obama - see the front page of, Obama can't win working class voters the Democrats need to win, Obama can't win states Democrats need to win (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio), voters in all the earlier states would have voted differently (i.e., for Hillary Clinton) if they knew more about Obama and so on. All these arguments are dubious on some levels but they could be used to justify thwarting the popular will to give Hillary the nomination.
- The narrative may shift now to "why couldn't Obama seal the deal?" or "why can't Obama win working class voters?" away from "why won't Hillary drop out"

The Bad:
- She has no chance of winning the most pledged delegates and has extremely little chance of winning the overall popular vote in the end. (she may yet turn to the electoral vote argument as Clinton supporter Evan Bayh mused about, but I'm not so sure that will fly because it's been a very late tactic and seems all too convenient as the Democrats have a proportional system for a reason). Even though it will be the party establishment deciding the nomination there is no more powerful argument against doing so then they would be dramatically over-ruling the grassroots of the party (don't rule that out though).
-Voters are hungry for change and Hillary still does not embody that. I don't know how many voters will be impressed by her trying to co-opt Obama's slogan and make hers "Yes We Will".
Her speech had some good lines, but for the most part she still doesn't excite voters the same way Obama does.
- Personally, I am turned off by her negative ads (the same goes for any negative ads Obama runs but I've found Hillary's worse) and I hope she doesn't feel those were what give her a victory in Pennsylvania. They may backfire on her yet if they continue as The Democratic Party simply can't afford to have its two candidates continually digging up dirt and slamming each other at every turn - all it does is make for Republican campaign commercials down the line (the Liberals here in Canada should know that all too well). Clinton and Obama wining the nomination is worth nothing if they are too damaged for the general.
- Clinton needs a stronger positive message that resonate to the same level as Obama's change message. Even though her speech was mostly positive, I'm not sure she's found that yet ("Yes We Will" just sounds too much like she's imitating Obama to work).
- She's on pace to lose in North Carolina and may yet lose Indiana (though I think she'll win there by getting a bump from tonight's victory). That could stunt any momentum for her.

Overall, she's got to be happy tonight, but she's still the underdog, she still has a lot of work to do to convince superdelegates to overrule the popular will, but if she takes the lion's share of the remaining primaries (which by no means is a sure thing), her chances will get better. As I've said since New Hampshire don't count Clinton out easily.


The Good:
- Obama narrowed the gap from what could have been considered a blowout (15-20 points) to a 10 point loss. Not great (and I don't think he's happy at all with the results tonight), but no one will call this an absolute disaster for him.
- He's going to win the most pledged delegates AND the popular vote. He will be able to use that argument right till the very end and it fits well within his entire reframe of being the people's candidate who will stand up to the establishment.
- After 8 years of disastrous Republican policies his argument of a clear break from the past resonates very well. Voters in America seem angry with Washington in general and he fits best in the role of Washington outsider who's going to shake things up. Also someone who won't take money from lobbyists or PACS and yet who has raised more money then anyone in history is definitely an inspiring model.
- Clinton is trying to steal his message and co-opt his slogans. I think many people will see this as an admission that she realizes Obama's message is one that works.
- Going forward Obama will have more money to blanket remaining states with advertising. It's not enough at all (as tonight showed), but it certainly doesn't hurt to have this capability.

The Bad:
- Obama just can't seem to seal the deal. All those people who said Hillary just needs to step aside for Obama I think are going to go quiet now. The narrative I think will change to being about why Obama can't wrap things up and that's not going to help him. He's going to be on the defensive over the next week and how he handles that will be important.
- He has to combat the argument that he can't win among working class voters. He can't afford to be painted as Dukakis so he should make the case soon of all the ways in which that comparison is completely wrong.
- He needs new speech material. I'd say both speeches tonight were good and some good new lines, but for the most part were just repetitions of what has been said before. Each of Obama's early primary victory speeches incorporated new elements that made them more memorable, he needs to do that again or he runs the risk of being seen as having a somewhat stale message.
- Even though he actually has talked in depth about his policies on his website and in some past speeches there's still a common perception that all he talks about is "hope" and that he never spells out what he would actually do as President. It's not true, but I think Obama has to find a way to put this myth to rest perhaps by doing a policy focused tour because I think one thing preventing some voters from coming his way as that they think he lacks substance. His speech on race actually went a long way to impressing some of those voters, but that was just one major issue, he should be doing a whole tour about different policies in my view and use all that to frame out some new speech material.

In all, I still say Obama is the favourite, but he's been wounded tonight. If he lost by 5% things would have been different, but a double digit lost is a big symbolic blow for someone many thought had the race in the bag and who actually did campaign quite hard in Pennsylvania. He's got to re-group and re-tool somewhat in order to get his momentum back. Will he accomplish this? We'll see, but he still remains in better shape than Hillary Clinton is in.

I'll be curious to see if Obama agrees to the tentatively scheduled debate for April 27th (as far as I know he hasn't), but if he does I do hope the questions are a bit more substantive than the last debate (I mean 45 minutes until a question came on a legitimate policy issue that's pretty sad).

I say now I can't see how this race gets called before the end of June (for the sake of badly needed progressive change I do hope superdelegates heed Dean's call and end the race by then so Democrats can focus on the general). At the least the Chase for Change series won't have to wait so long till the next primary.

Till then there's lots to talk about in Canadian politics...

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