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The State of Play

Thursday, January 31, 2008
The Democratic and Republican nomination contests are finally reaching the final stage. On the Republican side, McCain has managed to assemble plurality support in a badly divided field, which because of the Republicans' winner-take-all rules will allow him to secure the nomination with ease, assuming that he performs to expectations on February 5.

The Democratic side has also crystallized into a 2-person race. As an aside, I'd like to wish John & Elizabeth Edwards well. They ran an excellent and impassioned campaign, and but for the hostility of the national press and Obama's entry into the race, I think Edwards would have stood an excellent chance at becoming the nominee. I very much hope to see him sitting in the Attorney Generals' chair a year from now.

Edwards' departure introduces yet another element of instability into the Democratic contest. Two weeks ago, Clinton had piled up large leads on the February 5 states based on her institutional support and popularity among women, hispanics, & white working class voters - and seemed the likely nominee. Her surprising thorough defeat in South Carolina gave Obama's campaign a new surge of momentum and put her nomination once more in doubt. Obama's campaign since then has been nearly flawless, as he has dominated media coverage and reduced or eliminated the gap in many state and national polls.

All South Carolina did was put Obama back into contention, however - Clinton still would have to favored. Except for Edwards' withdrawal. Edwards' voters fall into 2 distinct camps - self-styled "progressives" who will likely gravitate to Obama, and white working class voters who were attracted to Edwards' background and populist message. It remains to be seen whether the latter group are anti-Clinton "change" voters who might support Obama, or will gravitate to Clinton, who has done well among that demographic thus far.

Edwards himself has the ability to play a decisive role, if he wishes. The fact that he dropped out of the race the day after the Florida primary ruined the Clinton strategy to build momentum and blunt the effects of the South Carolina disaster - the media focused all of its attention on Edwards, and Clinton's success in Florida disappeared from the front page. If Edwards were to endorse on Sunday or Monday, he would again probably dominate coverage and give one or the other candidate a tiny bit more momentum - which could prove decisive on February 5. One suspects that he would be more likely to back Obama, but you never know.

Clinton's best strategy is to focus on economic issues and concentrate her resources on California. If she wins that state by a comfortable margin, she can reasonably claim victory that day. I would also get Bill Clinton off of the campaign trail - hard as it is to believe, he was a liability in South Carolina, and his prominence has made Hillary look weak.

Obama's task is harder. While he has had a very good few days, he needs to continue to control the national media narrative to have a chance next Tuesday. He's already begun working to improve his support among Latinos (a Bill Richardson endorsement would be handy here, if he could get it), and Edwards' backing would be extraordinarily helpful. He is also hitting the electability question, making the argument that he has a better chance against McCain (which I and a lot of other people, including some Clinton supporters, think is true). But what's missing thus far is the economic component to his message that has been lacking since the beginning. There's no need to get bogged down in specifics, but a general policy that seemed pretty bold would probably do him wonders among working-class undecideds. My personal favorite would be for him to address the question of consumer indebtedness, and maybe he could propose a "Hope Grant for America" - substantial tuition grants to anyone who does well in high school and forgiveness for current student loans. Attacking the problem of high credit card and mortgage debt would be good too. Obama has the spotlight at the moment, and deploying such a proposal in the next few days might put him over the edge.

I have to say, this election season has been the most dramatic and unpredictable since at least 1968. Let's hope it ends on a better note.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 1:46 PM
  • As a die-hard Edwards supporter, my phone was ringing two minutes after the news broke. I've already signed up with Obama.

    In my mind, there are two endorsement options for Edwards: no endorsement (unlikely) and Obama. If he endorsed Hillary, he'd be making a lie out of his change message.

    By Blogger Pershing, at 10:19 AM  
  • Hi Pershing! I don't think I've seen you around these parts before. Welcome!

    And yeah, I'm 50% sure he's going to endorse Obama before Feb 5 - it's when it would make the most difference.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 2:02 PM  
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