Tuesday 22 April 2008

Election News: Crunch Time in Pennsylvania

As Pennsylvanians head to the polls, Andy Rudalevige offers his insights into the ongoing race to the White House:

Some thoughts on a “Bitter”-ly Fought Pennsylvania Primary

Today Pennsylvania Democrats finally go to the polls. Pennsylvania, whose frequently dysfunctional state government failed to agree on how to join the February primary frontloading bandwagon, has benefited greatly from this failure – it became not less important to the process but far more. For six weeks the candidates have criss-crossed the state’s diverse topography and demography, dropping millions of dollars (almost $10 million by Obama on TV ads alone) along the way.

It has not been a pretty sight. Indeed, ABC News’ campaign blog, The Note, concludes that “History will record that the Democratic primary campaign descended into full pander-a-thon mode somewhere in Pennsylvania” – centered mainly on the notion of “authenticity,” with the candidates trading shots of whiskey and beer chasers at various rural taverns that they would, in “real life,” avoid like the plague. Does Hillary Clinton – whose family, tax returns reveal, has earned $109 million since President Clinton left office - really spend her free time in a bar? Could Barack Obama really have managed to avoid bowling alleys his whole life? (It would appear so. But at least he drinks Yuengling, the pride of central Pennsylvania.) In any case there has been serious pandering on the issues too, especially around the issue of free trade. As in neighbouring Ohio, each candidate has kept up attacks on trade pacts such as NAFTA; Senator Clinton now says President Clinton was wrong to sign it.

Against this background, Senator Obama, in a clumsy (at best, clumsily worded) effort at sociological analysis, suggested – in San Francisco, of all places – that small town white Americans were “bitter” about their economic prospects and the broken promises of successive presidents, not least the Clinton administration, to repair them. He suggested that as a result they “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” The point, he later sought to clarify, was that such voters often respond to divisive social policies; but the result has been to give his opponents – who by now certainly include GOP nominee-in-waiting John McCain – another brush with which to paint him as elitist and out of touch. From the tone of the ABC News debate last week in Philadelphia, the media will be very happy to avoid questions of substance when given the chance. (Of course, the Clinton campaign would suggest that Obama’s record on substance is weak too, as her most recent ads make clear. See here.)

The most recent polls (here and here) show Clinton with a six point lead or so, just outside the margin of error. The polls vary in how many undecided voters remain – from six to fourteen percent of likely voters, larger in some regions. This could matter a lot. So will the spin of the outcome – how large a margin does Clinton need to “win”? The UK press reports without comment that it must be 10 points or more (see here, for example), but this is assertion, not fact. It is true, though, that a close race overall probably suggests a very small net gain in delegates for Clinton – since, as in other states, delegates are awarded by Congressional district, not by the statewide vote total. So it is possible that huge Obama wins in southeastern Pennsylvania (Philadelphia and its suburbs) could net him half the overall delegates available. If so, as in her quasi-win in Texas, the Clinton victory will do little to change the underlying math of the race.

And yet another poll - this time a national one - suggests that math is getting harder for Sen. Clinton. She needs her party’s superdelegates to decide she is the most electable Democrat in November. Hence her campaign’s constant rhetorical stress on her victories in “swing states” – as if the Democratic primaries in those states were useful in foreshadowing how a Democratic candidate would do against a Republican candidate given a wholly different election and electorate. Yet this poll’s results suggested this message has not taken hold: by a bizarrely-huge 62% to 31% margin respondents picked Obama as the stronger candidate against John McCain. Senator Clinton has been hurt by broadening perceptions of her campaign’s negativity. Only 39 percent of respondents in the Post/ABC poll viewed her as “honest and trustworthy,” meaning that she must surmount a high foundation of scepticism in her statements and attacks. While 63 percent of Democrats respond affirmatively, only 39 percent of independents and a tiny fraction of Republicans (16 percent) do so. There is a gender gap here, as might be expected, but the problem is not limited to men – 53 percent of women doubt her sincerity too. Full poll data, with historical baselines for the same questions, can be found here.

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