Give Me a Break
It is that time of year again, when families all across America engage in the annual ritual of winter break. This week it is New Hampshire's turn to join in the tradition. So, I will be taking a break from posting this week, for the first time since this website went live in early October. I will be back on Monday, March 3rd, with new content for you, just in time for the crucial Texas and Ohio primaries. In the meantime, you can check out my archives, and relive your favorite presidential primary moments from the past five months. See you next week. - Dean
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McCain Rides the News Cycle
It has been a little over 24 hours, since The New York Times dropped its piece alleging an inappropriate relationship between John McCain and a Washington lobbyist. By virtually all accounts, McCain has been quite successful in controlling the trajectory of the initial news cycle that spun out from the story's publication. Not only did the article generate a lot of head-scratching among the mainstream media (with a few exceptions), but the Times also succeeded in accomplishing something for McCain that he had been unable to achieve on his own, which is the coalescing (at least for the moment) of conservative support around his candidacy. Conservative political observers have long been suspicious of the underlying motivations driving much of the Times’ political coverage, and they view this episode as a classic hit or smear by the liberal media on their party’s likely nominee.
After reading some follow-up commentary by the Times, my sense is that the paper sorely misjudged its ability to run a piece making a fairly nuanced argument about McCain’s uneasy proximity to the special interests that he regularly excoriates. The paper should have known that the suggestion of specific sexual and professional indiscretions by McCain with an identified woman would create a politics and media frenzy sufficient to obliterate any ability to make a more subtle big-picture argument about ethics. As I noted in yesterday's post, these kinds of stories tend to incubate over time on the internet, even after the initial firestorm has passed, so I will be interested to see whether a new variant will emerge around convention time, or during the general election campaign.
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A Very Special Interest
John McCain has his hands full at the moment. Allegations in today’s New York Times that he had an improper personal and professional relationship with a Washington lobbyist strike at the heart of McCain hagiography. Any hint of a sexual relationship would scandalize socially conservative “values” voters, while any trace of influence peddling would quickly alienate moderates and independents who cherish maverick McCain’s longstanding war against special interests.
Having seen John Kerry’s slow response to attacks on his war record do irreparable damage to his 2004 White House bid, the McCain campaign has responded to the lobbyist story with an all-out assault, immediately attacking the newspaper’s credibility in a variety of media outlets. While the Times piece is maddeningly vague in several respects, experience suggests that this story will not go away anytime soon. Even with McCain’s strong denial of every aspect of the article this morning, reporters will continue to dig into the subject matter for the foreseeable future, until they have explored every conceivable avenue of investigation. The problem for McCain is that, even if he is eventually exonerated of any inappropriate behavior (and The New York Times is taken to task), given the reality of how partisan warfare plays out on the internet, the whispers and innuendo will never completely disappear.
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If It Looks Like Momentum
Last week, I put up several posts asking whether the traditional notion of campaign momentum was still operative in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. These posts were predicated on the possibility that Barack Obama could win as many as 10 consecutive primaries and caucuses, during a two-week period in February. At issue was the question of whether such an unbroken string of victories would restore candidate momentum as the driving force in a contest that had otherwise seen few signs of it, and which had settled into a grinding, pitched battle over delegates.
Now that Obama has won all ten contests by double-digit margins, political observers appear increasingly comfortable with the idea that momentum has indeed returned to the race. This conclusion is not based simply on the number and margin of the victories, but on the extent to which Obama has cut measurably into Clinton’s core electoral constituencies – women, working-class voters, union members, etc. Political observers first noted evidence of these shifts in Maryland and Virginia last week, and last night’s victory in Wisconsin reinforced the trends, suggesting that some old-fashioned candidate momentum is at work.
So, Hillary Clinton’s task of building simultaneous firewalls in Texas and Ohio, prior to their March 4th contests, is now appreciably more difficult than it was just two weeks ago. As any political consultant will tell you, a much stronger barrier is needed to stop a campaign charging with a full head of steam.
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What's My Line?
I have been following the flap over Barack Obama’s appropriation of language from a 2006 speech given by his friend, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. Like Patrick, Obama employs several famous phrases from our country’s political lexicon, including the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to argue that words can serve as an inspirational and effective call to political action. Obama, in particular, is responding to Hillary Clinton’s relentless criticism that his soaring rhetoric is a pale substitute for her own policy solutions approach.
So, how bad is this for Obama? Well, while it doesn’t exactly put him in Joe Biden territory, it is no doubt an unwelcome distraction for the Obama campaign, one that could last for several news cycles. It is fair to say that much of the interest in Obama has been driven by his remarkable oratory, which has inspired many citizens to become engaged in the political process. Any successful challenge to its authenticity would strike at the heart of Obama’s brand of movement politics.
Obama is fortunate that the stirring piece of rhetoric in question was drawn from Patrick. Both men claim to regularly trade speech suggestions, and they share David Axelrod as a campaign advisor. It is also true that were Obama to pause during this portion of his speech to credit Patrick, it would certainly weaken the rhetorical impact of the moment. Still, having watched the video of both speeches, I would bet that seeing Patrick deliver those same dramatic lines first in public makes some Obama supporters just a little bit queasy.
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Hey, the Solutions Store Called
Yesterday, I watched video of separate campaign appearances by Bill and Hillary Clinton. In each case, Hillary Clinton was championed as being in the solutions business. I have seen the word solutions pop up on an occasional placard at previous campaign events, but the mantra-like frequency with which each Clinton incanted the phrase this time made it clear that this was the essence of their retooled message, in response to Barack Obama’s recent streak of electoral victories.
Two problems with this slogan (and its underlying message) came immediately to mind, as I watched these clips yesterday. First, the phrase solutions business has a decidedly late-1990s, dotcom management consulting, buzzword feel to it. It may be that the Clintons are intentionally hearkening back to the first Clinton presidency, but my sense is that they actually intend it to be a forward-looking alternative to Obama’s soaring rhetoricSecond, and more important, the phrase suggests a focus on pragmatism in achieving policy outcomes, and the reality is that most voters do not select a president based on appeals to pragmatism. Perhaps they should, but that is another matter.
So, my guess is that putting Hillary Clinton in the solutions business won’t provide the turnaround moment for which her campaign is searching. For a more – shall we say – pointed critique of Clinton messaging, check out the last three paragraphs of this commentary.
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Think "Huckabee" for Your Next Corporate Event
I’ve been asked on several occasions recently about why Mike Huckabee has yet to drop out of the Republican race. He has no chance of catching John McCain in the delegate count, and, as Huckabee himself notes, McCain is not likely to pick him as the vice presidential nominee. While he would certainly help McCain with Southern Evangelical support, fiscal conservatives have long been unhappy with Huckabee’s brand of economic populism.
So, why is Huckabee still in the race? Well, there may be a more practical explanation. When asked about this recently, Huckabee told a reporter, only somewhat in jest, “I have nothing else to do.” Since leaving office, the former governor has made a living primarily through writing and personal appearances. If a strong run in the presidential primaries helps Huckabee establish himself as a leading social conservative voice in the party, then he has essentially generated a lot more future business for himself.
It has been well-documented that both Bill Clinton and Rudy Giuliani have generated millions of dollars in income from personal appearance fees. That Huckabee is taking a break from his presidential campaign to deliver a paid speech in the Cayman Islands this weekend certainly feeds into this economic narrative. It is easy to forget that Huckabee is the only presidential candidate who is not currently an elected official, independently wealthy, or both. And, like many other Americans, he still has a mortgage to pay.
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Is the Idea of Momentum Gaining Momentum?
In the wake of Barack Obama’s sweep of yesterday’s contests in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, the question of whether candidate momentum has returned to the presidential selection process is more relevant than ever. Obama’s total now stands at eight unanswered victories, since the February 5th contests. The Clinton campaign should be concerned that Obama’s ability to cut into several of Hillary Clinton’s core electoral constituencies yesterday is an indication that momentum effects are finally at work in the Democratic race.
As one pollster noted, Obama “obliterated” the class divide that had typically separated their respective bases of support in previous contests. While several reporters at Politico suggest that Obama is indeed gaining some momentum, Clinton’s communication director, Howard Wolfson, continues to dismiss the idea, telling The Washington Post, “Momentum is a media narrative, not something voters consider.” As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, we will soon know whether Wolfson is correct in that assumption.
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The Clinton Firewall
Yesterday, I noted that the Clinton campaign views contests in Texas and Ohio on March 4th, as a firewall against any momentum Barack Obama might gain from a potential string of 10 victories in February. An article in today’s New York Times underscores, in rather stark terms, just how central these two states have become to the Clinton campaign’s strategy.
On the specific issue I raised in the post, of whether the concept of momentum is still applicable to this race, Hillary Clinton’s communications director, Howard Wolfson, thinks not, telling Patrick Healy, “There is no evidence that voters are voting based on momentum — in fact the evidence is to the contrary.” The future viability of the Clinton campaign may very well hinge on the accuracy of Wolfson’s assessment. In three weeks, we will know if he was correct.
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Is There Still Momentum to be Had?
I recently wrote a post suggesting that fears about momentum effects and a frontloaded schedule prematurely anointing party nominees were largely unfounded. Victory in early primaries and caucuses did not translate into unstoppable momentum and a free ticket to the convention for any of the frontrunners this time around, especially among the Democratic contenders.
But, Barack Obama now has the potential to win 10 consecutive contests in February. The question is whether such a string of victories would generate any traditional momentum effects for him heading into the big contests in Texas and Ohio on March 4th. The Clinton campaign views these states, taken together, as a critical firewall for protecting Hillary Clinton’s path to the nomination. They could, in theory, provide Clinton with sufficient delegate totals to keep her competitive, even after multiple losses in February.
So, I am curious to see whether these victories (if achieved) provide Obama with new momentum sufficient to alter the pro-Clinton dynamic typically posited for Texas and Ohio. Given what we have seen so far in this electoral cycle, I am interested to hear whether you think there is still momentum to be had.
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Too Late the Conservative
After a long, hard year of getting pummeled from all sides, Mitt Romney finally got what he truly wanted – a conservative homecoming from high-visibility media personalities like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham. I have listened carefully to all of these opinion-makers, and I must confess that, after watching Romney closely over the past year, I am still somewhat bewildered by his recent transformation into a conservative purist.
Spend a little time watching YouTube clips of Romney from his 1994 Senate run and 2002 gubernatorial campaign, and you will see him articulate views that are far afield from his current political orthodoxy. Given what political scientists have long known about how political worldviews are hardwired in fairly early in life, it is hard to believe that a smart, accomplished individual in his early 60s could still be so ideologically malleable, for reasons other than political expediency.
In an election year when voters seem preoccupied with candidate authenticity, Romney was unable to clear this significant hurdle to the nomination. The extremely late coalescing of conservative elites around Romney speaks more of desperation in the face of certain McCain victory, than it does of Romney’s campaign somehow finally hitting its stride. Romney has of course left the door open for a return in 2012, should John McCain lose in November. Perhaps he would return as a more moderate, pro-business Republican, but given his by-the-book withdrawal speech at CPAC yesterday, I wouldn’t bet on it.
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Same Time Next Week?
Yesterday, the Clinton campaign proposed having a debate-a-week between the two remaining Democratic candidates. Clinton had earlier signaled her willingness to participate in as many as five debates, leading up to the March 4th contests in Texas and Ohio. In response, the Obama campaign has agreed to only two additional debates, one in each of those states. You can read the Clinton campaign’s debate proposal here, and the Obama campaign’s counteroffer here.
My sense is that the Clinton campaign believes that Hillary Clinton’s recent debate performances have, for the most part, helped the Senator make her case to voters. With the nine primaries and caucuses scheduled over the next two weeks likely to favor Barack Obama, the Clinton campaign’s underdog-style debate challenge is no doubt designed to keep Hillary Clinton projected favorably in the media, at a time when much of the press coverage could be focused on successive Obama victories.
At a minimum, the Clinton campaign sees these forums as an opportunity for Clinton to bide her time in productive fashion, until she reaches more favorable electoral ground in Texas and Ohio on March 4th. My guess is that the Obama campaign’s measured response is driven by a desire to not let potentially strong Clinton debate performances upstage the campaign, or eat away at valuable time on the stump, in what otherwise could be a very good two weeks worth of press coverage for Barack Obama.
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On Frontloading and Rubber Stamps
During the past year, there has been a great deal of consternation over the potential impact of a frontloaded primary schedule on the presidential selection process. But concerns that a crowded nomination calendar would prematurely anoint the parties’ nominees, subjecting us to an interminably long general election campaign, have not come to pass. Instead, Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina carried out their traditional roles in fine fashion last month, and many other states experienced a quasi-national primary day with record voter participation yesterday.  It may still be a few more months before we know the Democratic nominee, and while the Republican race is significantly closer to a resolution, it is not yet over, either.
This suggests to me that campaign momentum is not driven by scheduling alone. Multiple candidates representing diverse (and somewhat distinct) political interests, and an unusually engaged and mobilized electorate with pressing concerns about war and the economy, have combined to produce a palpable unwillingness to let timing dictate winners and losers. The remaining campaigns have responded to this reality with remarkable grassroots organizing and relentless retail politicking virtually nationwide, in a frantic attempt to secure every last available delegate. They realize that, despite the frontloaded schedule, this time voters have decided to leave their rubber stamps at home.
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Demographic Fault Lines
There has been much talk in the past month about how the Democratic vote has split between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, rather dramatically, along lines of gender and age. Pick a primary or caucus (New Hampshire, for example), and the exit polls will show Clinton drawing significant support from women voters, particularly those over the age of 40, while Obama performs strongly with younger voters (both men and women), especially those under the age of 30.
A recent post at Slate further underscores these demographic fault lines. A male student at Georgetown University has written an engaging piece about his telling experience as a volunteer for the Clinton campaign. His personal observations about gender and age put a human face on two of the central dynamics driving the Democratic race.
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Late-Night Insight
After tomorrow’s big slate of presidential primaries and caucuses, rather than turn in early, you can catch me doing some live, in-studio analysis at WMUR-TV (ABC, Ch. 9), as part of the regular 11 p.m. broadcast.
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Life after John Edwards
(Note: this entry was originally posted on Thursday, January 31st. A server error accidentally removed it from the website yesterday, so I am posting it again.)
John Edwards has been running for president for so long that it will feel genuinely weird to not have him on-stage at tonight’s Democratic presidential debate in California (CNN, 8 p.m.). Edwards has had some of his best moments of the campaign at these forums, and the political discourse will likely be a little less crisp without his participation. While no one was particularly surprised to see Rudy Giuliani drop out of the Republican race in the wake of his disappointing finish in Florida, Edwards’ withdrawal from the Democratic contest yesterday was largely unexpected.

Some supporters have argued that Edwards was simply undone by his inability to match the prodigious fundraising of two celebrity candidates. Insufficient fundraising success may have been part of the problem, but I have been skeptical of Edwards’ chances for other reasons.  While much has been made of the strength of Edwards' populist message this time around, his anti-poverty agenda was too narrow to build the kind of coalition necessary to win a presidential nomination. This inherent limitation was compounded by the fact that, as Edwards struggled to get political traction, his increasingly strident, us-versus-them tone on the stump was a turnoff to some voters in the party.

Edwards might have been better served by a continuation of the centrist Southern gentleman persona that showed so much promise in 2004, but he has said many times that what we are seeing now is his authentic political self. So, as Edwards ponders a possible presidential endorsement, it will be fascinating to watch precisely how he goes about ensuring continued visibility for his agenda, both at the convention and in November.

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