Critical Tuesday Comeback
Let's begin with the Republicans, for McCain closed the deal and begins with the general election campaign starting today with lunch at the White House, where he is expected to receive President Bush's endorsement. McCain surfaces as the titular head of the party, a post he has pursued for the last decade, and it is fitting that the crown will be transferred from his chief rival. This ends a long and improbable comeback where the pundits declared him dead only four months ago. His last formidable competitor. Gov. Mike Huckabee, ended his own Cinderella run last evening with a pledge to support McCain with all of his might.
McCain faces an uphill battle as the GOP has held the White House for 8 consecutive years (voters tend to punish the incumbent party after consecutive terms), an unpopular president hanging as an albatross around his neck, a staggering economy making voters receptive to Democratic promises of national health care and middle-class tax cuts, and an unpopular war that the candidate has embraced as the defining issue of his campaign. Moreover, he still must win the allegiance of conservatives who comprise the most active segment of the base, many of whom are threatening to sit out this election. To count out McCain, however, is the business of fools, for he always seems to have the last laugh, from a Hanoi prison camp to the GOP nomination.
For the Democrats, the battle rages on, with contests in Wyoming on Saturday, and Mississippi next Tuesday. Both lean toward Obama, as the former is a caucus state where he has dominated and the latter boasts a large African-American population. Obama won the votes of 9 in 10 African-Americans in both Ohio and Texas yesterday. Clinton edged closer to Obama in the delegate column, but still trails by a substantial margin, and it is very improbable that she will overcome his lead amongst committed delegates in the remaining contests. That said, neither candidate will likely clinch the nomination outright prior to the convention at the end of August short of superdelegates.
What this means is the likelihood of a divided convention grows with each passing contest. Clinton will pin her hopes on Pennsylvania, a state that looks much like Ohio demographically, and where she has the support of popular Gov. Ed Rendell. The PA primary is slated for Apr. 22, seven weeks from now. As a point of comparison, the Iowa Caucuses were held 8 weeks ago, so the buildup to the Keystone contest is likely to rival that of the Hawkeye State. Furthermore, it's hard to see Hillary waving the white flag there, meaning a fight through the checkered flag on Jun. 7 in Puerto Rico.
As I've said previously, this may come down to a dispute over seating delegates from Michigan and Florida, both states where Clinton won handily. In sum, to quote the baseball philosopher Yogi Berra, "It's getting late early." If you could pardon me one more sports reference, this prizefight is bound to end in a split decision, with the judges (aka superdelegates, DNC officials, the seated delegates themselves) declaring a victor.
A look inside Clinton's one-two big state punch of Ohio and Texas is informative as we move forward to the remaining contests. She won back the allegiance of the so-called Dunkin' Donuts Democrats, the blue collar white voters she rode to victory in early contests before Obama's 12-state winning streak commenced on Feb. 9. The gender gap appeared once more in both states, but she made even more dramatic gains amongst white men when compared to the Badger State results two weeks ago, for instance.
Clinton also dominated amongst Latino voters, and narrowed Obama's lead amongst younger voters. She continued her success with seniors, and also resonated in rural areas. Obama still polls well with African-American voters, along with Starbucks Democrats, the more affluent college-educated voters who tend to congregate in suburbs of large cities. Obama also bests her among independents and Republicans, but Clinton won big with fellow party members.
Beyond exit polls, a couple of other factors likely played a prominent role in yesterday's outcome. One, late-deciding voters shifted to Clinton in a big way. This may be attributed to the controversial red phone ad (it's actually white) which questions who voters would want to answer the phone at 3am in the case of a national security crisis, implying that Obama lacks the experience to inspire confidence is such precarious situations.
Another factor was the economy. Much of the debate in the closing days centered on the candidates' support for NAFTA, even though both committed to revisiting some of its provisions and scrapping it entirely if such compromises with Canada and Mexico cannot be achieved. I recounted the story in yesterday's post, but Obama's authenticity was called into question when his campaign dismissed a report that the candidate was only posturing on the issue.
The final straw may have been the media scrutiny directed Obama's way, some would argue for the first time. This thorough vetting is likely to continue in the coming weeks, and Obama must perform better than he has in recent days, for as Harry Truman was apt to say, "If you don't like the heat, get out of the kitchen." Count on Clinton and the national press to make it down right tropical for the IL senator as winter yields to spring and this thrilling contest chugs along for at least two more months.
The spin cycle is also likely to enter its next phase. Expect Obama to point to his "insurmountable" delegate lead, his success in "red states," and his competitiveness in a head-to-head match-up with John McCain. Additionally, Obama will likely answer Clinton's criticisms more directly, as he has the financial resources to air response ads within hours of an allegation, and his opponent clearly wounded him over the last week.
Clinton will trump her big state successes (CA, TX, OH, NY, NJ) as indicative of her strength as a general election candidate. She'll continue with her mantra that Obama is not qualified to serve as Commander-in-Chief on Day One. Clinton will also ask Obama to move beyond hollow platitudes and qualify what he means by "change."
In the end, Critical Tuesday left the outcome more muddied than when the day dawned, at least for the Democrats. The most compelling election season in my lifetime lives on for another day. See you in PA, where the Keystone State may well live up to its name a long seven weeks from yesterday.