Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Big Mo

Barack Obama scored another round of impressive victories last night in the "Potomac Primaries". He won with impressive margins in Maryland, Virginia and DC. He has now overtaken Hillary Clinton in the overall delegate count and is now officially the front runner. Everything really does seem to be going his way. Of course we've been here before. After his victory in the Iowa caucus, he seemed to have a head of steam that could not be stopped heading into the New Hampshire primary. And then he lost. To paraphrase a baseball axiom, momentum is only as good as your next days starting pitcher.

The states have lined up perfectly for Obama since Super Tuesday. It would have been a surprise if he had lost any of them. What has been surprising has been the margins of victory. The polls showed Obama with about a 15 point lead in Virginia and Maryland heading into the primary. He ended up winning Virginia by 29 points and Maryland by 22. And while he may have made some inroads into Hillary's core constituency in those two states, I would not be too quick to proclaim that this is the beginning of a trend. Momentum is a strange beast and just as quickly as you can claim it, "Poof, it's gone".

The pundits are falling over themselves to be the first to predict the end of the Clinton campaign. She has had a particularly bad week. From losing 8 straight contests to the resignation of the first and second in command of her campaign to money issues, the wind is definitely not at her back. But at every moment in the past when the Clinton's have been counted out, they have always been able to rise from the ashes in spectacular fashion.

There are two more contests before the March 4 primaries in Texas and Ohio and the Clinton campaign seems to willing to concede those to Obama. No one knows what exactly Hawaii will do since there has been no polling done there (It is assumed that Obama has an advantage in the state because he was born there, but I really have no idea), but Wisconsin seems like a very winnable state for her. Given the makeup of the voters (white, working class), she seems to have a natural advantage. Polls taken a week ago gave her a 10 point advantage, while polls taken this week show her behind by a few points. Wisconsin is more than Madison and Milwaukee and the Clinton campaign needs to spend some resources in order to try and get the more rural voters to the polls. She can offset Obama's natural strength among young voters and the well educated, but taking her campaign to the farms and fields of the state. The problem is that while Obama gave his victory speech from Madison last night, Clinton was holding a rally in Texas. That sends the wrong message to the people of Wisconsin. Basically what she is saying is that Texas matters more to her. And while that may be true because of the greater number of delegates at stake, no state wants to be perceived as an afterthought.

So what happens if she does lose Wisconsin and Hawaii? Not much really. Her strategy now seems to be to focus all her energy on winning in Texas and Ohio (which is well within her grasp). The "Firewall" strategy, which was made infamous by Rudy Giuliani, is what the Clinton camp is counting on to turn this race around. Their thoughts are that big wins in both Texas and Ohio will basically put them back on equal footing with the Obama campaign. As with the Giuliani campaign, there are significant risks to this strategy. The first has already shown up, which is the press coverage of constant loses becomes a major theme. The second is that your supporters start to become disheartened and are less like likely to contribute money or turn out to vote. The third risk is that you can become irrelevant as Giuliani did by the time his firewall burned down in Florida.

Currently Hillary is running ahead in both Texas and Ohio (she has almost a 20 point lead in the most recent polls). The conventional wisdom is that the Hispanic vote in Texas will carry her to victory because they represent about 20% of the vote. What has been overlooked by most observers is that Black vote in Texas is roughly equal to the Hispanic vote. Obama has shown that he can carry the Black vote by a 4-1 margin, while Hillary can count on about a 2-1 margin among Hispanics. This will leave the decision in the hands of the white voters. Obama has shown surprising strength among white males in some of the most recent primaries, but Texas ain't DC or Virginia or Maryland. Texas borders Oklahoma and Louisiana where Obama has had particularly poor showings among white voters. Rural portions of the state are where Clinton will probably run the strongest. Obama has to hope that his support in the big cities of Houston, Dallas and San Antonio can offset some of her strength elsewhere. I think this race will end up being a lot closer than Clinton really needs it to be. I don't think that Obama can win, but I think he can keep the delegate count within 10 or so (or about the difference in delegates that he picked up DC alone).

Hillary's best bet for a big win comes from Ohio. Her current 20 point lead in the polls notwithstanding, Ohio sets up perfectly for her. There are a lot of people who have been affected by the economic downturn; there a lot of rural areas and the African-American vote is minimal. I think Obama will make some headway here, but she should win the state comfortably by something in the 10-13% range.

Will a close win in Texas combined with a comfortable win in Ohio be enough to reclaim the front runner status for Hillary? Probably not, but those wins along with toss ups in Vermont and Rhode Island will be more than enough to stem the supposed Obama steam roller. Before March 4 there will a lot of commentary about the race possibly being decided on that date. I think that most of it will be wishful thinking. Plus, the press doesn't want this to end. This is too good a story. We may see the press do slightly less fawning over Obama in the coming weeks and perhaps be a little more critical of him and his ideas.

Of course if Obama does happen to win in Ohio or Texas then the race will be all but over. He still won't be able to get to the number of delegates needed for the nomination before the convention, but the Super Delegates will step in and put him over the top. Now might be a good time to take up hot air ballooning. There's going to be so much hot air expended between now and March 4 that you should be able to stay afloat for weeks.

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