Psychology for Losing
There are two times when a political campaign is in most danger of making critical mistakes: first, when a campaign stalls, threatening to go into a tailspin and, second, when a campaign clears a tough hurdle and its self-congratulory sentiments divert it from the next task at hand. Both the Clinton and Obama campaigns showed evidence of these mistakes this week.
Clinton was shellacked in the Potomac primary, losing by wide margins and in all demographics. The campaign was clearly stalled. At a time when they needed to avoid going into a tailspin, and re-direct the debate with the voters, they were flooded with stories about the internal convulsions of the campaign. They blamed the voters and the process--pesky caucuses--for what were their strategic mistakes. They began sending out contradictory messages, arguing that they had been prepared for a bad spell while firing the campaign manager.
Clinton decided she had to go negative and then put up one of the worst negative ads I have seen in years. The anonymous, disembodied voice-over telegraphs that a negative hit is coming and it jars with the sprightly classical music in the background. But, most damningly, the message is terrible: she complains he is not debating him. Is that the chief concern of the downscale white ethnic voters she needs to rally? If you are going to go negative, go negative. Hit Barack as weak on defense. Or do a sustained two week long hit on his connections with the nuclear power company Excelon. But the Clinton campaign is furtive, desperately trying to avoid a fatal mistake that will bring on the tailspin. And that is when you start making the kinds of small mistakes that leads to a slow death by a thousand cuts.
Obamas campaign has been noticeably better than Clintons since at least November. So, I was surprised to read that his campaign manager, David Plouffe, told reporters on a conference call Wednesday that she cant catch us. Why would you invoke a sense of inevitability? Because it worked so well for Hillary? More importantly, if I am a voter, or more likely a news reporter in Texas or Ohio, why would I warm to being told that my vote will not matter, that the race is over. This is not about votes its about delegates, Plouffe said, in words that could come back to haunt him is the race for delegates remains tight and the Obama campaign must argue that it would be a sham for super-delegates to over-turn the electorates verdict. The impressive wins on Tuesday, in fact, may have sealed the deal, but there was no good reason for Obamas campaign manager to say so.
So everyone is waiting for the fat lady to sing. Another blowout for Obama in Wisconsin next week could do it. It is not a good sign for Hillary that a handful of super-delegates previously pledged to Clinton have withdrawn their endorsement and now back Obama, most notably Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis. But we are also at that stage of a campaign when desperation and hubris affect political judgment and no one should be counting chickens.
Friday Feb. 15
Time to begin thinking about the Veep choices. (Note to Obama staff: you keep thinking about winning Wisonsin, Ohio and Texas, and let the rest of us worry about Veep choices.) And wed like to encourage Americas readers to send in your suggestions to Veepstakes@aol.com. We will note your suggestions, debate them, invite readers to post on this and subsequent posts, and get a real debate going.
To start it off, heres my Veep candidate for Obama: Sen. Jim Webb from Virginia. He is perfect from almost every angle. In the old days, VP selections were used to balance a ticket geographically or ideologically. Jimmy Carter, conservative Southern governor chose Walter Mondale, liberal northern Senator. Bill Clinton broke that mold choosing instead to reinforce his own image as a moderate, southern new Democrat by choosing someone that also fit that description, Al Gore. Jim Webb is enough like Barack Obama to reinforce the biographical sketch: he is not a Washington insider, not only can he work with Republicans he used to be one, and his political style is new and fresh, accessible and authentic.
But Webb also brings unique strengths to the ticket. He was Ronald Reagans Secretary of the Navy and was a decorated Vietnam War veteran before that. Yet his opposition to the Iraq War was the basis of his successful Senate campaign in 2006. McCains anticipated attacks on Obamas lack of military and foreign policy experience would be blunted as would his claims to have been a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution.
Webb also defeated an incumbent senator who had previously been a successful governor of Virginia, George Allen. Yes, Allen suffered many self-inflicted wounds, but beating a popular incumbent senator is still not an easy task. He was called upon to deliver the Democratic response to President Bushs State of the Union address, an assignment that is almost impossible to do well, and Webb gave a speech that was widely credited as superior to Bush, even without the standing ovations and the trappings of office the President could command.
If all that was not enough, the Democratic Party learned on Tuesday night that Virginia, where more people voted for Obama then voted for all GOP candidates combined, is looking very purple. The last Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. With its 13 electoral votes, it would be a huge pick-up for the Democrats in November. Not every VP choice can deliver his home state. John Edwards could not swing North Carolina into the Kerry column in 2004. But Webb would be an asset in a state that is suddenly in play. Combined with the way he amplifies Obamas central message of changing the way politics is done in DC, he should be at the top of the short list.
Thursday Feb. 14
The Potomac Primary
The results from the Potomac Primary are in. Obama and McCain swept all three races. But, the most important result was in Virginia where Independents can vote in either primary. Obama has been beating Hillary handily among Independent voters but in Virginia last night, he also beat McCain among Independents. In fact, Obama won almost twice as many votes in Virginia as McCain. The last Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia was Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
There is still a long road ahead. Even with lopsided victories, neither Obama nor Clinton can win enough delegates in the remaining contests to win the nomination outright without relying on the votes of super-delegates. And once the contest includes the super-delegates, all bets are off.
A recent, thoughtful analysis at the Loewe Political Report argued against the possibility of the super-delegates overturning the peoples verdict because they are cowards. No one is going to win an argument that politicians are more likely to display courage than cowardice, but my quibble is different. Even the press corps seems unable to agree on any way of measuring who is winning.
It seems entirely possible that Barack could end the primary season winning more pledged delegates and more states. But a graphic on MSNBC showed that Hillary Clinton had won Michigan and Florida, even though no one competed in those races. Still, if you count their votes, Hillary leads the national popular vote. And, if she does register big wins in the remaining big states Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania she might reasonably claim the popular vote mantle. The super-delegates would then face equally compelling arguments and they would have to choose.
Clintons campaign points to their victories in large states like California and New York as the reason to see her as more electable, but thats spin. Any Democrat is going to win California and New York next November. Obamas campaign spins that he has won, and won by huge margins, in traditionally red states like Idaho and Alaska, but frankly, no Democrat is going to win one of those states in November. Winning a Democratic primary now tells us very little about how a state will vote in November unless that state is purple.
The November election will be decided by the unaffiliated or Independent voters in key purplish states like Iowa, Kansas, Arkansas, Ohio, Arizona and Colorado. Super-delegates, many of whom will be sharing the ballot with the nominee, will have noticed how Barack did among Independents in Virginia last night and they must be viewing his candidacy more favorably. If he wins next week in Wisconsin, and can pick off either Texas or Ohio on March 4th, the nomination will be within his grasp. Unless, of course, there is a banana peel in his path, and you can bet the Clinton campaign is busy tonight looking for that peel. The operative phrase in the Clinton camp tonight? Opposition research.
Wednesday Feb. 13