Last night was an almost perfect outcome for the GOP. Hillary Clinton won by a wide enough margin to keep her in the hunt, infuse her campaign with much-needed cash, and keep super-delegates from breaking en masse to Obama. But the results by themselves are not enough to change–at least not yet–the eventual outcome. Barack Obama will probably still win the nomination. But he is looking far less formidable than he did even six weeks ago.
Senator Obama outspent Clinton by around 3 to 1–and he was wiped out. He lost badly among women, Catholics, union households, working class voters, and those who didn’t attend college. Clinton carried both white voters 45 and older and weekly churchgoers by more than 60 percent. Only six in ten Democratic Catholic voters said they would vote for Obama in a general election; more than one in five said they would vote for McCain. Nearly one-third of Clinton voters said they wouldn’t vote for Obama if he’s the nominee. As Fred Barnes wrote, “After Pennsylvania, Clinton’s argument that she’s a stronger opponent against McCain will be impossible to ignore or dismiss.”
The Democratic contest, which is already heated and personal, is only going to get worse. The anger that supporters of Obama and Clinton feel for the other candidate is palpable. The Democrats appear headed for what Andrew Sullivan calls a “death struggle.”
Senator Obama is still the favorite–the math, the rules, and the calendar are all in his favor–but he’s now on the ropes, cut and bleeding, and even a bit wobbly. He could have put Hillary Clinton away with victories in New Hampshire, in Texas, and in Pennsylvania, but he let those opportunities slip away. And now he’s paying a high price for it.
One of the problems faced by Obama is that his appeal has been largely stylistic and aesthetic, based on his personality and character. The core of his campaign is not built on his ideas, as was the case with Ronald Reagan. It’s based on his assertion that he embodies unity and change, a new era in politics, a way past the deep divisions and polarization that have characterized so much of our politics. Which is why this paragraph in today’s Washington Post is worth noting:
Unable once again to score a knockout, Sen. Barack Obama is likely to make his new negative tone even more negative…. the candidate who rocketed to stardom as the embodiment of a new kind of politics — hopeful, positive and inspiring — saw his image tarnished in the bruising fight for Pennsylvania. Provoked by Clinton’s repeated references to his remarks about the state’s voters and her charges that he is an “elitist,” Obama struck back in the closing days of the campaign.
Obama has no choice but to fire back against Clinton–but in doing so, he badly undercuts the rationale for his candidacy. He is discovering what many other sincere and even high-minded candidates have found: changing the tone in Washington is a lot harder than it seems. Politics in America has been a contact sport since about 1800, when Jefferson and Adams went after one another viciously. If one’s political purpose is philosophical and policy-driven rather than tonal, then “negative campaigning,” while regrettable, is not fundamentally harmful. But if, like Obama, hope, change, and unity are your main appeal, it can be lethal.
Barack Obama has presented himself as a fundamentally different kind of political figure. But he now looks more and more conventional–in his liberal policy positions, in how he is conducting his campaign, and in his associations (including Reverend Wright, William Ayers, and Antoin “Tony” Rezko). All of this is building a narrative quite problematic for the junior senator from Illinois. People are beginning to wonder whether his candidacy of transcendence was merely an illusion.
Politics constantly teaches us not to draw too many sweeping conclusions from particular moments in time. It’s true that Obama offers a far more target-rich environment than he did earlier this year, and his appeal to key constituencies is (from his perspective) troublingly limited. But the GOP temptation to write him off as a fatally flawed or easily beatable candidate ought to be resisted.
The political environment still favors Democrats. And Obama is a money-making machine, his political operation is quite good, and he still possesses impressive skills. Every person who has run for the presidency goes through a period of trial and testing, when things seem bleak and sometimes even hopeless (like John McCain in the summer of ’07). But if and when Obama secures the nomination, he’ll receive a big boost. Democrats will begin to rally around him just as the GOP rallied around McCain and his poll ratings vis-à-vis McCain will get better. But what seemed improbable just three months ago now seems possible: a Republican victory in November.