Its the Campaign Stupid!

For the past couple of weeks, we have been examining the critical role Catholic swing voters will play not only in the upcoming Pennsylvania primary but in the general election in November. But, of course, even more important than the Catholic vote is the campaign itself: the daily ups-and-downs, the long-term strategies, the fundraising, the capacity to respond to crises, the quality of the ads and the quality of the candidate. That is the narrative that will shape the issues and personalities facing the electorate.

During these same two weeks, something novel has been happening on the Democratic campaign trail. People are getting tired of the race and want to focus on beating the Republicans. An NPR story yesterday morning catalogued voter fatigue. The long delay between the votes in Texas and Ohio and the primary in Pennsylvania (which is still three weeks away) has given people time to examine the delegate math, and that math seems to indicate that the race is actually over. Most importantly, John McCain has sewed up the GOP nomination, so Democrats know whom they need to beat and they know, too, that continuing to bash each other only serves to provide the McCain camp with future soundbites for their ads.

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Even the Clinton camp seems to have gotten the word. They released a new campaign ad yesterday, a revised version of the 3 a.m. ad that so powerfully attacked Obama’s inexperience in the run-up to Ohio and Texas. But, this time, the ad does not attack Obama, it attacks McCain. Obama, convinced he has the lead, has been playing very nice with Sen. Clinton, not wanting to alienate her core supporters.

So, to be clear, the race is over. Barack won. But, neither he nor any of his surrogates need to trumpet that fact, which will only serve to energize Clinton’s base and provide a strong disincentive for his largely youthful supporters to actually get to the polls. Obama needs to pretend he has not won. Clinton has to pretend he has not won, and pray that there is a big banana peel in his path in the next three weeks.

This is stunning. The Clintons carry the only Democratic brand name to win re-election since FDR. For Democratic primary voters, the 1990s were the good times, with America prosperous and at peace, and those were Bill Clinton’s years. If anyone controlled the levers of local political machines, it was the Clintons. How then did she get to where she is now?

The answer is simple: She ran a terrible campaign. After Super Tuesday (Feb. 5), she had no organized campaign effort in the next 11 states. It was not that Obama won them all, it is that he won them all so handily that he built up the lead in pledged delegates that is, today, insurmountable. You could give the Obama campaign a pass if they had said: "Look, we’ve never run a national campaign before, we did not appoint all these DNC members, etc. It is very hard for us to organize and win a caucus in Idaho." Instead, it was Clinton arguing about the difficulty of organizing Idaho. Huh? How do you run on your experience and competence but then argue that organizing the Democrats in Idaho – how many are there? 5? – was just too much for your campaign?

I shed no tears for the demise of the Clinton campaign. If eight years of George Bush have taught us anything, it is the price of surrounding yourself with those whose most important characteristic is not competence or intelligence but personal loyalty. Clinton’s campaign was chock full of people who were there because of their devotion, not their capacity to ask a single tough question, namely, what if we don’t achieve a knock-out punch on Super Tuesday? They did not ask that question, but Barack Obama answered it.

Michael Sean Winters

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