When Madam Speaker Calls
I was intrigued by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent comment that she was prepared to intervene in the Democratic Party's nomination process, in order to prevent it from dragging on to the convention in August. While her initial statement did not elaborate on precisely what she meant by intervene, additional reporting in the New York Times today suggests that both Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are pressuring uncommitted superdelegates to make their preference public shortly after the final two primaries in Montana and South Dakota are held on Tuesday.
The expectation among political observers has long been that this kind of mass declaration would result in large-scale superdelegate movement toward Obama, sufficient to put him over the delegate threshold required for the nomination. After months of watching Obama receive a daily trickle of new superdelegate support, it would be quite a spectacle to see finality brought to the long nominee selection process in such short order. Given that the Democratic Party is not exactly known for its hierarchical party discipline, I would be interested to learn exactly what sort of leverage Pelosi and Reid believe they have at their disposal, and whether they are truly prepared to wield it should superdelegates hesitate next week. The two Congressional leaders are said to be encouraging superdelegates to decide, but we know that in politics persuasion can take many forms.
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Roving Critic
It has been fascinating to watch Karl Rove emerge from behind the bureaucratic curtain of the Bush Administration, especially since he joined Fox News as a political analyst in February. It certainly feels like we’ve heard more opinion from him in these past few months, than during his previous seven years in the Bush Administration. While Rove has often been described as the chief strategist behind Bush’s electoral success, he typically maintained a low media profile while serving as senior adviser and deputy chief of staff in the White House. Perhaps even more interesting to watch has been Rove’s evolving relationship with the McCain campaign. While he downplays any connection, some reports suggest that Rove is playing an informal advisory role with the campaign.
In a post a few weeks ago, I noted the gradual emergence of a conservative cultural critique of Barack Obama’s patriotism, and speculated about who would be most likely to level this kind of attack against him in the general election. Well, if you read Rove’s scathing Op-Ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, you’ll get a pretty good idea of what I had in mind. Rove hits a veritable trifecta of cultural reference points, including mentions of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, flag pins, and presidential visits with dictators. Any obvious ties between Rove and the McCain campaign could be problematic, given McCain's need to distance himself from the Bush Administration. But this kind of freelancing by Rove and other Bush associates could be a potent weapon in the ideological battle to be waged over the next six months, if conducted at arm’s length from the McCain campaign.
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Read 'Em and Veep
Try as I might to avoid it, I’ve been thinking once again about vice presidential running mates. For the moment, I am not so much focused on which individuals would best fill the slot for each party, but more on how the selection process in general might play out for the Democrats. I have been quite open about why I think an Obama-Clinton ticket is not a great idea, but I also understand the tremendous disappointment that will befall a significant chunk of the Democratic primary electorate, should Hillary Clinton be completely excluded from the ticket. It is not clear what impact that kind of negativity would have on Barack Obama’s ability to build a winning electoral coalition this fall.
As a result, Obama will have a critical executive decision to make should he wrap up the nomination next week as expected. How he makes this decision will be as important as who he actually picks to be on the ticket with him. Obama needs to decide whether he will offer the spot to Clinton, before he proceeds with the standard vetting process typically undertaken when selecting a running mate. Subjecting Clinton to the vicissitudes of a broader vice presidential search would be a mistake. Not only would Clinton’s supporters view it as yet another slight to her leadership status in the party, but should she ultimately not be selected, the news cycle would be dominated by their negative reaction to her exclusion, rather than by positive coverage of Obama’s actual choice.
So, while I stand by my earlier post that Obama-Clinton would not necessarily be the optimal pairing for the Democratic ticket, Obama nonetheless needs to proceed with caution. As the presumptive nominee, he will have two separate decisions to make. Combining a decision about Clinton with the many others pertaining to a standard search would be a recipe for a very rocky start to his general election campaign. If it looks like the Obama campaign is making Clinton compete with others for consideration, the potential for hard feelings among the party faithful will be greatly increased. Again, I am not suggesting that Obama pick Clinton as his running mate, only that he should be aware that how he goes about making his selection will have real implications for his ability to unite the Democratic Party this fall.
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Inside Paulitics
In case you are wondering what Ron Paul has been doing lately, well, he’s still running for the Republican presidential nomination. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that as recently as last Tuesday Paul took 15% of the vote in the Oregon Primary. An article in Sunday’s New York Times, takes a closer look at the remarkable level of commitment among Paul’s supporters, but unfortunately doesn’t provide us with any new insight into how they plan to make their presence felt at the Republican convention in Minneapolis later this summer.
Since Paul has chosen not pursue the Libertarian Party’s nomination this time (as he did in 1988), I assume that he intends to work within the constraints of the Republican Party’s nomination process, or to at least test its limitations a bit. A few months ago, I wrote about how Paul’s contentious relationship with John McCain could make him a real thorn in the side of the presumptive nominee at the convention. I will be interested to see whether Paul can secure a sufficiently visible platform from which to speak at that time, and, if so, precisely how the McCain campaign will attempt to stage-manage the resultant outpouring of enthusiasm from Paul’s dedicated supporters.
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Rites of Spring
I will be away from the website for a few days for the Memorial Day weekend. I will be back on Tuesday, May 27th with new content for you. Until then, feel free to explore the archives and relive your favorite moments from the 2008 presidential primaries. - Dean
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Prime Time Zone
If you read yesterday’s post and then only watched prime-time cable news coverage of the Oregon and Kentucky primaries, you might have been a bit confused. Heading into last night’s results, I expected (as did many others) that the evening’s narrative would focus primarily on Barack Obama crossing the pledged (elected) delegate majority threshold. But in prime time, you instead saw Democratic elites engaged in several hours of hand-wringing over how Hillary Clinton’s big margin in Kentucky underscored Obama’s continued struggle with white working-class voters and spelled trouble for his electability as the Democratic nominee. With Oregon on the West Coast not reporting its results until 11 p.m. on the East Coast, there really wasn’t any other storyline for party elites and network commentators to pursue.
What a difference a few hours makes. Once it became clear shortly after 11 p.m. that Obama would win comfortably in Oregon and that he had performed more strongly with working-class whites in that state, the tone of cable news coverage shifted dramatically, and the night’s political narrative returned to expected form. If Obama becomes the party’s presumptive nominee, he will still need to address his weak performance among Appalachian whites (and the uncomfortable way it raises the issue of race), but this did not appear to slow him from closing in on the nomination late last night.
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When the Web Stops Buzzing
In the days after the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, I have been amazed by the speed with which the blogosphere has moved beyond the Democratic nomination contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, in order to focus almost exclusively on the likely general election match-up between Obama and John McCain. As a test, I went hunting this morning for some of the traditional web buzz that has characterized the hard-fought battle between Clinton and Obama over the past 18 months, and I must say that I found precious little on which to chew. A piece over at Politico suggests that a large margin of victory for Clinton in Kentucky tonight may bolster her case for electability among the remaining undeclared superdelegates, but my sense is that in reality it just won’t have much of an impact on the outcome of the nomination fight at this point.
The political narrative most likely to be written after the Oregon and Kentucky primaries today will be the one about whether Obama’s speech in Iowa this evening comes sufficiently close to claiming the nomination, so as to ruffle the Clinton campaign’s collective feathers, thereby complicating recent efforts at a détente between the two camps. Along these lines, Dan Balz’s piece in today’s Washington Post provides a useful look at how this delicate end game is playing out, as Obama prepares to claim the nomination in the days following the final primary contests in early June.
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Patriot Acts
One of the by-products of Barack Obama’s difficulties with culturally conservative Democratic voters in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, is the emergence of a nascent general election campaign designed to question Obama’s patriotism. Whether the issue is flag pin visibility, ostensibly supportive comments by a Hamas leader, or Michelle Obama’s first-time pride remarks, it is now evident that one line of Republican attack this fall will be to question Obama’s patriotism by painting him as largely outside of the cultural mainstream in America.
Whether these attacks will come primarily from the McCain campaign, the Republican National Committee, or independent (527) advocacy groups remains to be seen, but it is no surprise to see the Obama campaign now moving in a proactive fashion to address these concerns before the general election is in full swing. Targeting a Democratic presidential nominee on this issue is not exactly new, and the combination of Obama’s unique personal narrative and his relative newness as a politician on the national stage may buy him some additional time to weave a more palpable sense of individual patriotism into the fabric of his campaign. Republicans will attempt to cast this move as the cynicism of a liberal elitist trolling for votes, so Obama will need to be sure that any accompanying cultural spectacle is ultimately believable.
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Bush Lends a Helping Hand
Several political observers have suggested that President Bush’s comments in the Israeli Knesset yesterday were a political gift to Barack Obama. In drawing an historical parallel between those who would negotiate with our current enemies and appeasers of the Nazis, Bush did indeed provide Obama with a surprisingly valuable political opportunity to solidify his position as the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee. Although the White House has denied that the comments were targeted specifically at Senator Obama (and he was not mentioned by name), the remarks have been widely interpreted as such by the media, elected officials, and other political elites.
So, regardless of the Bush Administration’s intent, the episode has the potential to accomplish three useful political objectives for the Obama campaign. First, it elevates Obama as the presumptive Democratic nominee into a direct political conflict with a sitting president. Provided he offers a strong response to Bush's comments, Obama may boost his stature on the international stage as a result. Second, the conflict has the effect of spontaneously unifying Democratic leaders in their defense of Obama, at a time when the party is still trying to overcome the divisiveness of its long nominee selection process. Finally, it allows Obama to once again closely link John McCain, whose own comments on the matter seem to support Bush, to an unpopular president. From news reports, it does not appear that there was any advance coordination between the White House and the McCain campaign, but I’m sure the latter appreciates President Bush’s early help with the general election’s foreign policy debate.
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Scuttling the Swift Boat
According to an article in yesterday’s Washington Post, both John McCain and Barack Obama are calling on their donors to refrain from making contributions to any of the so-called 527 independent advocacy groups. Their premise is that a lack of funds for these groups would mean decreased 527 activity in the general election, which would in turn allow each campaign to better control the tone, content and timing of its message. With the verb to swiftboat now firmly entrenched in the political vernacular, however, don’t get your hopes up that these independent groups will be any less active than they were in 2004. While the Post article correctly notes that the 527s are fairly quiet at the moment, my guess is that there will be plenty of cash available for them to work their mischief on both sides of the partisan divide, once we get into the heat of the general election battle.
It may be true that the McCain and Obama campaigns deplore the work of these groups, or that they would at least like to establish plausible deniability early on, in case they eventually reap political gain from any effective independent attacks. But their sentiments should not be taken as an indication that the campaigns won't run their own negative ads against each other this fall. While they will no doubt denounce anything from the independent groups that is deemed especially scurrilous, I would bet that there will also be plenty of campaign-sanctioned nastiness to go around.
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When You Fail at Retail
Back in March, I wrote a pair of posts arguing that Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race was not really designed to win over skeptical blue collar Democrats. I suggested that he would only be able to improve his standing with this demographic group through a sustained retail politics effort in upcoming state primaries where the preferences of these voters were likely to be decisive. The Democratic race has now passed through several of these states, and as his West Virginia defeat last night underscores, Obama may be offering his politics at retail, but this group of voters isn’t buying.
The art of successful retail politics entails a candidate’s ability to physically demonstrate that he or she can convincingly identify with the everyday experiences of a particular group of voters. That shared understanding should then translate into a candidate persona and a set of policy prescriptions behind which these voters will throw their collective political support. Although Obama’s personal biography suggests that he should be able to find some common ground with blue collar Democrats, his attempts to actually make that connection in the past three months have been nothing short of awkward. Whether it’s bowling in Pennsylvania, shooting pool in West Virginia, or his palpable unease with diner food, Obama’s efforts seem to have instead widened his distance from this group of voters. Mix in the highly sensitive issue of race, and I am not even sure that more of the same kind of retail politicking will eventually provide a solution to this problem for Obama.
So, the task for Obama going forward will be a difficult one. He must continue to speak to the aspirations and experiences of blue collar Democrats, while realizing that as a candidate he will likely struggle in his attempts to demonstrate that he is just like them, and hope that these Democrats don’t really mean it when they say they will vote for John McCain in the fall.
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Is McCain More of the Same?
It has been pretty obvious for some time now that the Democratic strategy for defeating John McCain this fall will be to paint his election as a third term for President Bush. So, McCain is looking for ways to put a little distance between his campaign and an unpopular Republican president. As evidence of this, much has been made of McCain’s significant differences with the Bush Administration on the issue of climate change. While policy ideas like a mandatory cap on greenhouse gas emissions have never been popular with conservatives, the strategic thinking here is that McCain’s support for such a cap might win him some independent voters, for whom the issue typically has greater resonance.
How far will McCain’s proposals on climate change go in combating the image of the McCain presidency as a third term for President Bush? I took a look at the most recent Pew Research Center data on issue salience among independent voters, and the results underscore the long-standing conventional wisdom that while the environment is of concern to many voters, it does not drive the vote choice in the way that other issues do. When asked which issue you’d most like the candidates to address in the 2008 general election, independent voters ranked the economy first (41%), followed by Iraq (25%) and healthcare (13%). Even if you combine energy and gas (6%) and the environment (4%), you still end up no higher than fourth on the issue list, with a combined 10% of independent voters for whom energy and the environment are driving their vote choice.
I am not suggesting that McCain’s position on climate change is of no importance to these coveted independent voters, but if McCain truly wants to beat back the notion that his presidency would be a continuation of the Bush Administration, he needs to draw sharper distinctions on issues beyond climate change. As important as that issue is, it is not likely to tip the balance for McCain among independents. Only some fresh thinking on the big three issues of concern to voters – the economy, Iraq, and healthcare – can accomplish that goal.
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I have come across several news stories today reporting that Barack Obama is transitioning to a general election strategy, rather than wait for the six contests remaining on the Democratic primary schedule to conclude on June 3rd. While there are a variety of strategic reasons for him to begin this process, what caught my attention was an item reporting that as a result of this decision, Obama would campaign in Michigan on Wednesday, one day after tomorrow’s West Virginia primary. Well, it was actually the Republican National Committee’s reaction to this announcement that I found so interesting. As reported by First Read, the RNC emailed out the following paragraph:
“Barack Obama can travel wherever he wants, but it won’t make his calls for higher taxes, restricted gun rights, and proposed meetings with state sponsors of terrorism any more appealing. Wherever Obama takes his flawed message, voters will learn more about the weak leadership he has demonstrated on important issues confronting the nation. Obama’s punitive tax plan shows he doesn’t understand the American economy or how to rejuvenate it – and that’s no different in Michigan, Florida or the other the states on his itinerary.”
I was struck by how remarkably comprehensive this brief RNC missive is in its itemization of the attacks that Obama will face in places like Michigan and Florida. Keep in mind that this is in response to a travel itinerary, not to anything actually said by Obama in one of these battleground states, and you get a pretty good sense of just how intense the tactical battle between the two parties will be this fall.
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Judging by the Rhetoric
A reader, Sarah, recently emailed me for my reaction to John McCain’s speech Tuesday on the federal judiciary. She writes:
Speaking of ludicrous comments that McCain has made, what do you think about this comment that McCain made yesterday in a speech about checks and balances: "[It] is the common and systematic abuse of our federal courts by the people we entrust with judicial power. For decades now, some federal judges have taken it upon themselves to pronounce and rule on matters that were never intended to be heard in courts or decided by judges. With a presumption that would have amazed the framers of our Constitution, and legal reasoning that would have mystified them, federal judges today issue rulings and opinions on policy questions that should be decided democratically. Assured of lifetime tenures, these judges show little regard for the authority of the president, the Congress, and the states. They display even less interest in the will of the people."
McCain's comments fall squarely within the conservative tradition of arguing that judges (particularly those appointed by Democrats) have taken to circumventing the legislative process (and the checks and balances system), by using judicial rulings to make policy and pursue liberal political objectives from the bench. McCain is no doubt interested in shoring up conservative support for the general election, and judicial appointments will need to be a central component of his strategy. These new statements reflect a rhetorical shift to the right by McCain, likely motivated by the fact that some conservatives have been suspicious of his commitment to the issue, ever since he joined the Gang of 14 judicial appointment agreement brokered in the Senate in 2005.
With a few Supreme Court justices at or near retirement, and other judicial vacancies remaining for the next president to fill, we will certainly hear a lot more about this issue on the campaign trail in the coming months. I expect that the nominees will draw some very sharp ideological distinctions on the types of judges they would be willing to elevate to the federal bench. If McCain’s rhetoric on Tuesday is any indication, the issue could prove to be one of the real political flashpoints of the general election.
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The Loyal Opposition
One of the main arguments made by those pressing for an early end to the nomination battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is that the intra-party nastiness between the two candidates has unintentionally provided Republicans with a wealth of negative talking points for use against the Democratic nominee in the general election. I have already noted that I do not find this argument sufficiently persuasive to convince me that the full primary schedule should be truncated, and that is still the case.
I have based my skepticism of this argument on the idea that regardless of what happens in the Democratic contest, the McCain campaign and Republican Party are fully capable of conducting their own opposition research, with a thoroughness that would likely uncover all or most of these trouble spots for the general election anyway. Sure enough, we now learn that the Republican National Committee already possesses extensive opposition research dossiers on both Clinton and Obama. And, I am sure that the Democratic National Committee’s file on McCain is just as thick.
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For political scientists used to candidate momentum as an important tool for predicting the likely outcome of a presidential nomination battle, this election cycle has been quite a rollercoaster ride. Back in February, I wrote several posts on the question of why momentum has not been particularly helpful for understanding the dynamics of the nomination battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. If you are so inclined, you can track back through them all, starting with the links in this post from February. At the time I wrote it, Obama had just completed a string of 10 consecutive double-digit primary and caucus victories, and political observers were suggesting for the first time that a sense of candidate momentum was driving the presidential race toward its conclusion. That was until Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania brought things to a screeching halt for Obama.
Now we’ve just completed a particularly intense two-week period in which Hillary Clinton finally seemed to be building momentum of her own, as Obama, dogged by lackluster campaigning and a high-profile series of campaign controversies and missteps, struggled to stabilize his candidacy. Yet, what a difference twenty-four hours makes, as momentum-based expectations were once again turned upside down by voters in yesterday’s two primary states. Just as momentum failed to carry Obama in March, so too did it fail to work its magic for Clinton in North Carolina and Indiana. Her candidacy is instead once again seriously in jeopardy, and Obama seems re-energized and is increasingly looking like the presumptive Democratic nominee. So, while we have seen some features of a classic momentum-driven campaign on occasion over the past five months, it has mainly served to confound the expectations of those very same political observers (myself included) who have relied on its predictive power in so many previous election cycles.
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Now Hear This
In case your cable news marathon tonight leaves you still wanting more analysis, I’ll be doing a North Carolina and Indiana wrap-up tomorrow morning on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange. You can hear the show live (lower left) at 9 AM, or listen to it later.
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It's a Gas, Gas, Gas
I will be interested to see if tomorrow’s exit polls in North Carolina and Indiana can shed any light on whether the current gas tax holiday debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is having an impact on voter decision-making in those states. It is one of the very few issues in this election cycle for which the two candidates have adopted such distinctly oppositional policy positions. Given how critical a concern gas prices have become, the conflict over this tax relief issue (Clinton, pro and Obama, con) just may provide a nice little (albeit rough) test of whether voters sometimes choose candidates based on their issue positions, rather than on other personal criteria.
I raise this question because last fall I wrote at length about how, despite all the talk of the importance of candidate issue positions leading into the early primaries and caucuses, voters typically make their selections based on more intuitive and emotional criteria, rather than on issue-oriented responses to the candidates. This is particularly true during the primaries, when there are usually few real policy differences between candidates of the same party. This gas tax relief debate has turned out to be an unusually high profile exception to that rule, and may provide some interesting insights into the primary voter calculus.
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2108 is the Magic Number
If Barack Obama must contend with the Rev. Wright controversy for the foreseeable future, then for John McCain it is his 100 years comments on American troop presence in Iraq that will surely follow him into the general election. As McCain’s reaction in Denver today underscores, Democrats are framing his original remarks quite effectively, in a way that is clearly getting under his skin. Tomorrow, it will be exactly four months since McCain made those off-the-cuff comments in Derry, New Hampshire, and I don’t anticipate that his Democratic opponents will stop using the words against him anytime soon. Just as voters must assess the significance of Obama and Wright for the future of presidential governance, it remains for them to decide if McCain’s remarks have been misinterpreted and whether Democrats, in endlessly replaying them, are unfairly characterizing his overarching vision for Iraq.
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Better Late Than Never?
In yesterday’s post, I concluded that Barack Obama will have to deal with the Rev. Wright controversy in the general election, even if the intensity of the current flare-up dissipates over the next few months. In particular, he will have to contend with the question of why it has taken him 20 years to finally break with the Reverend. Writing in today’s Washington Post, David Broder takes an initial stab at answering this question, and Obama, himself, seems to grapple with it in an interview with the Today Show’s Meredith Vieira. It seems to me that if this critical question is left to linger, Republican opponents will use it to stoke the controversy again this fall. So, the sooner Obama paints a plausible backstory for this two-decade period, the better his chances of not getting sidetracked yet again as the Democratic nominee.
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