The 2008 race for president doesn’t look like a Democratic victory parade anymore.
That’s pretty obvious, but somebody should say it.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is the likely Democratic nominee. For various reasons, he either didn’t win or is untried in Florida — we all how important that one is — Michigan, New Jersey, and Arkansas — a small but vital swing state. He’ll probably carry California in the national election, although he lost it in the primary by 10 percentage points.
As for Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., the conventional political wisdom is that she must win the March 4 primaries in both Texas and Ohio. There’s another side to that. Obama only has to win one. He has the time, he has the money and his poll numbers are rising.
Even if Clinton wins those two vital states, she will have only survived. She won’t have won the big race. Whatever happens now, she cannot regain that reputation as a tough, battle-hardened campaigner ready for the Republicans. She can’t beat a rookie. I’d argue that’s mainly because of the absurd Democratic selection process, which includes an Idaho caucus that delivered a bigger net gain of delegates for Obama than more than half of New Jersey primary voters could give Clinton, but the damage is done.
This week, U.S.A.Today and Gallup released a poll that showed GOP front-runner John McCain ahead of Obama by a statistically insignificant 1 percentage point. Clinton, meanwhile, trails McCain by four. Other polls show Obama ahead by more, but most show that lead somewhere between 3 and 5 percentage points.
Let’s put that another way: The Democratic front-runner leads his Republican opponent by somewhere between 3 and 5 percentage points after eight years of President George W. Bush, five years of Iraq, while the economy is hitting the brakes, before the real campaign has begun and while about a third of the GOP doesn’t like their own guy and while the Democrats are having their most exciting primary in decades.
There’s an assumption that the Democrats suffer an embarrassment of riches and will turn out for whatever Democrat wins the nomination. This overlooks or dismisses the most important, repeated and consistent fact in American presidential politics: Independents decide elections. Democrats don’t. Republicans don’t either. You can make a case that Obama is more appealing to independents than Clinton. OK. Is he more appealing to independents than McCain? We’ll find out.
The Democrats are worked up. That’s true. I’ve been asked why I don’t write about the big Democratic turnouts we’ve been having this year and the low Republican ones. I replied that I have eight reasons. They begin with March and end with October. Eight months is a long time. Eight months ago, Hillary was inevitable, McCain was dead and Giuliani mattered.
I’m not saying the Democrats are doomed, not by any stretch of the imagination. I am saying that they are going to have to work to win this election because it’s not the sure thing appeared to be a few months ago.
People talk about the split between McCain and conservatives. They shouldn’t. Let me paraphrase an ancient Chinese proverb that I’ve used before: Put the Hatfields and the McCoys in the same boat in a storm, and they’ll work together like the right hand and the left. Any chance that the right-wingers would go AWOL was blown by the New York Times ill-considered and ill-timed article on McCain’s deference to a female lobbyist and Michelle Obama’s open statement that she’s never been proud of her country in the past quarter century.
I still have a hard time believing that the GOP can pull this one out while the economy’s flopping and with a nominee who’s said he’s willing to keep us in Iraq for 100 years if necessary. Still, it appears that McCain’s “Cinderella Man” comeback may not be ending. It also appears that Michelle Obama may not be proud of her country in November.