Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Clinton wins – narrative v. numbers

Senator Clinton carried the popular votes in Rhode Island, Ohio and just barely in Texas. Senator Obama carried Vermont. This brings the Clinton campaign a total of fourteen wins out of forty-one contests held so far. Three out of four in a single day is quite a feather in the hat of the Clinton campaign and they are to be congratulated for their wins.

However, keep in mind this is a race for delegates. Delegates are allocated proportionately in each state not just on the statewide level but also by congressional districts or other electoral jurisdictions. Senator Clinton went into yesterday’s contests with a significant deficit of delegates and it does not appear she will gain much from the March 4th contests. According the Washington Post she needs to win 60% of all the delegates in the remaining dozen primaries to pull even with Obama. So far she has pulled off 60% of the vote only in her home state of Arkansas. She didn’t do it in her adopted state of New York or even in Michigan where Obama wasn’t even on the ballot. Her only hope is to convince the superdelegates that, contrary to the evidence, she is the real choice of Democrats and the strongest candidate for the fall election.

She doesn’t seem to be able to expand on her base of voters so the only way she can hope to keep her campaign alive is to go negative against Obama and chip away at his base. She also can hope, as Josh Marshall hypothesizes, to bloody him enough so that he appears to be damaged goods to the superdelegates and therefore they will rally to her. There is risk in that for her. First, she can alienate voters who claim to be offended by negative campaigning (although most of the evidence is it works). Second, if she is going to dish it out then she can expect to receive it in return meaning the Clinton marriage soap opera and the post-Whitehouse business dealings making the Clintons millionaires are all fair game. Third, if she damages Obama to the point that the effect is to put John McCain in the Whitehouse then Democrats will, rightfully so, remember that in 2012. Obama will be tested by this negative campaigning, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it is a little frustrating that Clinton will be test marketing themes and issues for the McCain campaign’s use in the fall.

How all that plays out will become clearer in the weeks to come. For today it all comes down to the Clinton narrative regarding yesterday’s wins versus the Obama delegate numbers.

Here is John Dickerson’s take in Slate
…what exactly did Clinton win? The Democratic race has come down to a contest of numbers versus narrative. The numbers are on Barack Obama's side. Clinton won three of four primary contests but did little, or perhaps nothing, to eat into Obama's pledged-delegate lead of more than 100. Barring a cataclysmic event, Clinton isn't going to take the delegate lead from Obama, which means he can still make the case that he is the candidate of the people. He will argue that the 800-odd superdelegates who will determine either candidate's victory should side with the voters. When Georgia superdelegate Rep. John Lewis this week switched from supporting Clinton to Obama, he said he wanted to be with the people and on the right side of history. Obama will bank on the fact that the party of voting rights is not going to overthrow the will of the people to deny the nomination to the first African-American candidate.

Exit polls show Obama has support for his argument. Roughly two-thirds of voters in the four contested states said that superdelegates should vote with the people and not their own priorities.

Hillary Clinton is trying to make the story matter more than the numbers, and what she won Tuesday were some good talking points for her narrative. She's got to make the case to the roughly 500 undecided superdelegates that they should overlook Obama's advantage among pledged delegates. Her argument has two parts: Obama doesn't represent the Democratic Party, and he is a flawed general election candidate.

How is Obama a flawed Democrat? He can't win big states, her aides will argue. Clinton has now won Ohio, Texas, New York, California, and New Jersey. Obama has only limited appeal, they will argue, whereas Clinton wins the kinds of Democrats necessary to win in big, electorally rich states. But it's not that simple. Obama won electorally crucial swing states such as Missouri, Colorado, and Wisconsin, and he's won all across the country, so his appeal isn't that limited. He lost Texas by only a whisper.

Clinton aides will try to take advantage of the party's perception of itself. She fought back. Democrats like fighters. She's a blood-and-guts Democrat at her core, which makes her a natural fit for the party. In making her third comeback of the race, Clinton showed voters that she could do for herself what she'd been promising to do for them on the stump. Clinton hit that theme in her victory speech. "For anyone ... who's ever been counted out but refused to be knocked out," she said, "for everyone who's stumbled and stood right back up ... this one is for you."

The second prong of Clinton's argument—that Obama is a risky choice for the general—is more tenuous but may be more potent. Clinton played hardball during the past week, raising questions about Obama's position on NAFTA, his unanswered questions about longtime fundraiser Tony Rezko, and his qualifications to be commander in chief. The Obama campaign complained that this was a part of what one Clinton ally called the throwing the "kitchen sink" strategy, but the attacks were inbounds.

Unlike Clinton's loony effort to tag Obama as a plagiarist, these attacks may have been effective. The attacks picked up in the final days before the vote, and Clinton won handily among voters who made up their minds in the last three days. In earlier contests, Obama had done better with voters who had decided in that time period. But the attacks were not cost-free for Clinton. Voters by a margin of 52 percent to 36 percent told exit pollsters that Clinton was the candidate who attacked unfairly.

Did Clinton's
children-in-peril ad pay off? Even before the results were in on Tuesday, it seemed to. As late as 3:30 p.m. on Election Day, the Obama campaign held a conference call to push back hard against it. Greg Craig, an Obama supporter but longtime Clinton friend and Bill Clinton's lawyer during his impeachment trial, unloaded on Clinton. Saying that she would "do anything to win this nomination," Craig repeatedly asserted that she had failed her "commander-in-chief test" multiple times with respect to the Iraq war.

Exit polls don't give clear evidence that the ad paid off. When voters were asked which candidate was the most qualified to be commander in chief, Clinton won 54 percent to 40 percent in areas of Texas where the ad ran, but Clinton has always done well on that question, and those differentials were in the midrange of her previous performances. On the question of which candidate has more experience, voters gave Clinton her usual wide margin of more than 80 percentage points, but only 28 percent of voters in Ohio said that was the most important quality.

The larger point the Clinton aides will make to superdelegates and voters in the next big primary state of Pennsylvania is that the Texas and Ohio results reflect what happens when the two candidates are compared side by side. Obama can give speeches and draw crowds, but when it comes to matching him against a competitor, as the general election will demand, Obama can't stand up to the comparison. Will any of the Clinton arguments work? We'll see in the coming days if hundreds of superdelegates allow the primary process to continue without continuing to move toward Obama. Clinton is pleading for time, arguing that voters should be allowed to have their say in future contests. But even in this she comes up against a contradiction posted by Obama's lead. Because she must rely on the superdelegates to beat back Obama's likely lead in the popular vote and among pledged delegates, she is essentially asking those superdelegates to listen to the people—but only long enough to be persauded to vote for her. Then she expects them to undo the will of the people by voting against Obama in Denver. Clinton has rescued her campaign from free-fall, but the ride from here to the nomination is still going to be very bumpy.


Comrade Kevin said...

She is going to rip this party in two and destroy not her legacy, but also Bill's in the process.

There is already talk of drafting Obama as an independent if she could pull some sort of backroom tactic at the Convention and get the nomination, assuming it gets that far.

Obama is going to have to find a way to go negative in a very careful way that does not increase his negatives while realizing it is difficult to go negative on a woman.

Anonymous said...

He is doing a fine job of going negative. Every single remark made is turned into a racial slur. Ferraro in trouble, but CNN reported Mississippi voted 97& Afro-American vote. Can't somebody just admit that Afr0-Americans who had not cared about voting before are suddenly caring now. Is this also racist? For the love of God, stop overreacting over every comment thought to be less than politically correct.