Are Democrats deciding to end the race for their party’s presidential nomination? For the first time, Senator Barack Obama has overtaken Senator Hillary Clinton in a poll of Pennsylvania primary voters. Obama now leads Clinton by two points in a new poll conducted by Public Policy Polling, an opinion research firm with a pretty good track record this season. Obama’s lead is well within the margin or error, yet what is truly remarkable is that two and a half weeks ago, the same poll showed a twenty six point lead for Clinton. The new poll also shows an increase in the number of undecided voters. This is significant because those new undecideds were in all likelihood pro-Hillary a month ago. All this may point to an emerging tectonic shift in the Pennsylvania political terrain. Other polls show Clinton still leading, but by substantially reduced margins from just days ago.
What is happening? Hard to say, but several factors seem to be at work:
1. Primary fatigue and general fears: Democratic voters are increasingly aware that a protracted primary fight hurts the party’s chances in November. Add to that a growing awareness of the long odds Clinton faces to win the nomination, as well as a current of fear powered by the recent surge of McCain, and that’s a recipe for edgy Democratic voters eager to get on with it.
2. The Jeremiah Wright Affair: Clearly the controversy surrounding the loud and provocative musings of his minister hurt Obama, but it also gave him an opportunity to talk about race in America in a successful speech that was at once challenging and reassuring for voters. In other words, it looked presidential.
3. The long Pennsylvania primary: One of the things we have come to know with some certainty during this primary season is that the longer voters have to get to know Obama, the more they like him, Iowa being Exhibit A. Time is not Clinton’s friend and it has been a month since the Texas and Ohio contests. That’s a lot time for Obama to have "get to know me" moments with Pennsylvania voters.
4. Obama 2.0: The Illinois Senator has moved away from big rallies and lofty speeches with the Starbucks set and spent a lot of time in the last month meeting and greeting in the diners and bowling alleys of Pennsylvania’s working class. In the political business they call this "going retail," as in retail politics, with all of its attendant handshaking and baby kissing. Also, Obama’s remarks are focused more now on pragmatic solutions to pressing practical problems of working and middle class people. In this sense, he has deftly co-opted the Clinton pitch.
Senator Clinton will probably still pull off a win in the Keystone State, but it’s looking more and more like it won’t be by the decisive margin she needs to really keep this race going. Yet with all due respect to my talented colleague, Michael Sean Winters, I never count out either Clinton. They are the comeback kids: smart, tenacious and dedicated campaigners. The cleverest of political cats, however, still has only nine lives at most and the Clintons are on at least their seventh.