We are just shy of nine months to the general election, and many in the media, in their excitement over Barack Obama, are ready to declare him the Democratic Party nominee, and a likely general election winner over the all but certain Republican standard-bearer, John McCain.
To say this conclusion is premature would be like arguing that Senator Obama is a first term Senator, inexperienced in matters of war and national security, a huge tax-and-spend liberal, and the holder of the most left wing voting record of all 100 US Senators. All of the preceding statements about Senator Obama are true. So the question becomes: will voters in the next nine months learn this information about Obama and ratify that vision for the presidency, or just continue to be carried away with his fluffy high minded rhetoric about change, and unity, and hope? It is impossible to deny that Senator Obama has a lot of momentum at the moment. On February 10th, he was 8 points behind Hillary Clinton in the daily national tracking poll by Scott Rasmussen. Today he is 12 points ahead of her. That is an enormous swing in 4 days: 20 points. For the first time he has pulled ahead of her in the Real Clear Politics average of head to head polls: .
Obama has beaten Clinton in 6 consecutive state contests: Nebraska, Washington, Louisiana, Maine, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, not to mention the Virgin Islands. Every one of these wins was decisive. To say that the Clinton campaign is reeling is an understatement.
The campaign staff has been shaken up. The candidate has had to loan $5 million to her campaign, which is spending money faster, and raising less than the Obama campaign . Obama seems to be able to raise money effortlessly ($32 million in January alone, and at a similar pace of a million a day in February).
But the race is not over. Obama has a delegate lead of 25-75 depending on the counting party (52, according to Real Clear Politics). That is not much with over 2500 delegates already distributed from primaries, caucuses, and super delegate selections to date. Of course, super delegates, who have broken approximately 3 to 2 for Clinton so far among the half who have committed, can change their minds. If Obama appears to be a winner, why waste a vote for Hillary?
But momentum can change quickly, and it has in this race already. After Obama's big win in Iowa, he appeared to be coasting to victory in New Hampshire, up over 10% in most surveys. Instead he lost the granite state by 3%. Overnight, the betting line, which had given him a 70% chance at the nomination, dropped back to the 40s. With his recent string of victories, his delegate lead, and his national poll margins, Obama is now back at the 70% level today. But what happens if he loses Wisconsin next week? Or if he loses Ohio and Texas to Clinton on March 4th?
Despite Clinton's collapse in the national head-to-head polling, she retains a solid lead in Ohio of 15-20%, confirmed the last two days in fresh surveys. In Wisconsin, she is just 4% back. That is a margin that can be overcome. Clinton has new ads up in Wisconsin, pointing out Obama's unwillingness to debate her in the state. If she wins in Wisconsin, suddenly it is a big upset. She is off her deathbed, and has new momentum for the big state battles on March 4th.
That is not to say that this is how it will play out. Only that it is not so clear to me that Democratic voters in each state want to merely confirm the decision of voters in states that have preceded them in the process. If Obama has only a small lead after all the states have voted, then neither candidate will have the overall majority for the nomination due to the exclusion of the delegates from Florida and Michigan. The Democrats will then have a mess on their hands. Clearly some party leaders want Obama's momentum to continue, and for Clinton at some point to give up the chase.
I think these leaders underestimate the fight that is left in the Clintons. I do not think she pulls out until she is mathematically eliminated. She is already arguing, and this argument will be much stronger if she wins in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, that Obama will have won only one big state -- his home state of Illinois, and that many of his victories were in caucus states, where few show up to vote, or heavily red states that no Democrat will win in November. But Pennsylvania, Ohio, California and Florida are crucial to the Democrats and Clinton may be able to lay claim to having won all of them.
The Democratic leaders see that Obama runs stronger against McCain at the moment, and that he is harder to target. He carries far less baggage, and has lower negatives among voters. There is, to be sure, a wildcard aspect to either Obama or Clinton leading a national ticket, since neither a woman , nor an African American has ever done so before. Polling numbers for the general election could be way off due to varying mixes of voters that either Democrat may attract to the polls and the gender and race issues that may motivate voters either positively or negatively. There may be a greater chance that voters will lie to pollsters. If many young people vote (normally they don't), and they only own cell phones, the pollsters may not reach them, and their participation rate may be underestimated.
So far in the Democratic nominating race , there seems to be a lot of excitement about one or both nominees. African Americans are voting in record numbers and overwhelmingly for Obama (80 to 90%). Many well educated, affluent white voters appear to be happy to have an opportunity to vote for an African American, as if this vote demonstrates their lack of bias. Young voters appear to think it is cool to be for Obama, and not much more depth is required to make that choice. The crowds at universities when Obama appears look like the crowds at a Beatles concert in the mid-60s. It is a frenzy, more than a campaign appearance. Clinton has shown an ability to attract significant support from women, in particular single women and older women voters. She has also been strong among groups where Obama has been weak -- lower income whites, Hispanics, Asians, and Jewish voters in particular. There are both simple and complex reasons why Obama's support has lagged in each of these groups.
The Democrats are convinced that the GOP is a divided, listless party this year. They see talk radio show hosts with little enthusiasm for the Party's presumptive nominee, or outright hostility towards him. They see much lower turnout in the GOP contest than in the Democratic nominating process, and much more money raised by Democrats than Republicans across the board. If conservatives and religious voters are unenthusiastic about McCain, there is concern among Republicans that they will not have the ground game that delivered 62 million votes for George Bush in 2004, a full 14 million more than he received in 2000.
Despite all of this, McCain is within striking range of Obama, the Democrats' strongest general election prospect (at the moment), and the closest thing to a political phenomenon seen in decades.
2008 is not 2006. The Iraq War is going much better than it did in 2006. John McCain appears to have been right to call for and back the surge. Many may think, once they are informed of the matter, that Barack Obama was wrong to call for a quick withdrawal and ignore the advice of the new commander on the ground, General Petraeus. It certainly was not Obama's long military experience and national security background that gave him the judgment to trump the advice of Petraeus or McCain. The economy is weaker than in past years, but Obama's solution appears to be the same old liberal dirge: massive federal spending and much higher taxes.
When he shares a stage with McCain, if both are the nominees, he will be challenged on these things. It is not the same as a campaign event, when the floor just belongs to you. McCain will be able to contrast his notion of national service and call for individual sacrifice, with Obama's call for making the government the solver of all problems. There will be a contrast between a basically optimistic vision of what Americans can do and achieve, including the role of the free market and individual achievement, with welfare state dependency and a basically gloomy reading on the state of the country and its people. In recent decades, when the issues have been framed in this way, Republicans have more often won the day.
If Obama is the nominee and he is elected, once he is in office, he will have to govern. Speeches will not be enough. For a candidate who has never run anything more than a Senate staff of a bit more than a dozen people and his campaign team, and has all of 3 years in national politics (one of them on the campaign trail), being green does not begin to describe his inexperience.
We have had other candidates ascend to the Presidency with high minded visions of change, and decency and hope and unity. Some of them even have had executive experience. One of these was Jimmy Carter, who had what is generally considered the most failed Presidency of the last 50 years. For those who will offer George Bush as a better example of a failed Presidency, note that Bush was re-elected and won more votes than any candidate in history (62 million), securing 51% of all votes cast. He carried 31 states. When Carter ran for re-election, he won 6 states with 49 Electoral votes, and received but 40% of the popular vote. That is evidence that the American people considered Carter's a failed Presidency.
Carter, as President, was often hostile to allies, as he pushed a human rights agenda. He abandoned the Shah of Iran, and after he was forced out we were left with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Would a hasty Obama withdrawal from Iraq produce something similar? In Afghanistan, the Russians sensed Carter's weakness, and brazenly invaded the country. Carter's response was an Olympic boycott. Is there reason to think that Al Qaeda, Iran and Syria , and Palestinian terrorists might think a President Obama will not pursue the struggle with radical Islam the way President Bush did, and see opportunities to test his will?
On the domestic front, Carter left a legacy to his successor of high inflation, high unemployment, high interest rates, and what he called malaise. Is there enough revenue from taxing the so-called rich to support all the projects a President Obama has in mind? How many times can you take away the same Bush tax cuts and use it for different new spending programs?
Over the next nine months, the Republicans will have the opportunity, unless Hillary Clinton is successful in the next month or so, of bringing Obama to the ground and talking about substance, and what his Presidency would be like, rather than the ethereal subjects like future versus the past, change versus more of the same, hope versus despair.
Obama has the high ground and will win if the focus remains his chosen lofty themes. If the focus of the fall campaign is the reality of governing, he is beatable.
Richard Baehr is political director of American Thinker.