Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Bill Murray primaries

I pore over the myriad tallies of Tsunami Tuesday, and all I can hear, in my imagination, is the comedic actor Bill Murray, delivering one of his droll pronouncements:

"This is one...nutty...campaign."

There’s no other way to say it. This date on the political calendar was supposed to clarify the two races, not confuse us further. Nothing decisive has occurred. There has been no finality, only the hint of fresh skirmishes ahead. Frontrunners have not closed the sale. Challengers and upstarts have found ample reasons to soldier on.

Take the Republican race, for starters. The guy in the lead, John McCain, racked up a series of big-state victories in places like New York, New Jersey, California, and Illinois – thereby cementing his top-dog status in the delegate hunt. The problem is that those states generally vote Democratic in November. In other words, McCain is strongest with moderate Republicans (the type of Republicans who are populous in blue states), but still can’t seem to draw well among red-state conservatives who comprise the base of the party.

Which brings us to Mike Huckabee, who seemed to have vanished after winning Iowa way back on Jan. 3 – only to surface last night as the favorite of red-state southerners who yearn for an authentic conservative. He defeated McCain in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Tennessee. And remember, the Republican party has long considered the South to be its home region. By performing well at home, Huckabee has every incentive to stay in the race and squeeze McCain on his right flank.

Yet while Huckabee vividly demonstrated that McCain is still weak with the base, he also did McCain a big favor. He has thwarted Mitt Romney’s greatest desire, which is to take on McCain in a two-person race and unite all anti-McCain conservatives under the Romney banner. Huckabee swiped an enormous share of those voters. He is weighing Romney down, to the point where it’s fair to wonder why Mitt would want to keep spending his children’s inheritance.

At this point in the calendar, Republicans are generally united behind a front-runner, but the results last night and this morning argue against closure. They’re stuck at the moment with sectional and ideological strife. Broadly speaking, it appears right now that Huckabee is the candidate of the south, and the candidate of religious conservatives. McCain is the candidate of the northeast and big blue states, while Romney…what is he, anyway?

He’s the guy who demonstrated, on the biggest night of the primary season, that he can win the state where he once governed (Massachusetts) and the state that serves as headquarters to his Mormon faith (Utah), while cobbling together a few caucus victories here and there (Alaska, Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, and North Dakota). And as for California, the main event, Romney missed his biggest opportunity. As I mentioned yesterday, the California GOP electorate is quite conservative; indeed, the exit polls last night reported that 6 in 10 Republican voters identified themselves as conservative. Yet Romney drew only 39 percent of those people, with Huckabee, again, draining away 14 percent. Clearly, Romney’s reputation as a weathervane – and perhaps his Mormon faith – continue to undermine his candidacy, and his condition is critical.

Bottom line? McCain isn’t strong enough to unite the party, because the base has yet to accept him. For the final word, let us turn to the sage who gave us George W. Bush. I am referring, of course, to Karl Rove. He said on Fox News last night: "The unity issue and the enthusiasm issue both have to be addressed by whoever the nominee becomes in the coming months. And I don't mean in August, September and October. I mean in March, April and May." Translation: We’re a mess.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, the picture is far murkier. This is great news for political junkies, who relish the idea of a protracted competition between Hillary and Obama. It’s not so great for the party insiders, who fear that a long guerrilla war for delegates will risk creating fissures among Democrats, pitting race against gender, and potentially embittering millions of young people who have taken the leap for the first time.

Hillary and Obama both racked up a lot of wins last night – eight for her and 13 for him - and no doubt each will try to spin the victories as proof of momentum. She can cite her victories in a slew of the most delegate-rich states (most notably California), and boast with justification about her institutional strength within the party, particularly among female voters who continue to power the high party turnout. He, meanwhile, can trumpet his national reach in places as far flung as Connecticut, Georgia, and bellwether Missouri; he can argue for his electability, since he won contests in nine red states, versus four for Hillary; and he can even point out that he beat Hillary among white voters in California. (My favorite bit of spin from last night: At 11 p.m., Hillary sent out an email congratulating herself on winning Missouri, "this important tossup state," yet within an hour, Obama surged ahead and stayed there.)

But it’s misleading, of course, to focus on the popular vote victories. Unlike the Republicans, who generally favor the "winner take all" delegate formula, the Democrats award their delegates in rough proportion to a candidate’s share of the popular vote. So, for instance, even though Obama lost California, New Jersey, Massachusetts and New York, he’ll gain delegates in all four; and even though Hillary lost Illinois, Connecticut, Georgia, and Missouri, she’ll get delegates in all four. California in particular will take some time to sort out, because the Democrats award most of the delegates according to performance in each congressional district, and that state has more districts than any other.

And since Obama has finished within striking distance of Hillary in the delegate count – her own people peg Hillary's lead at only around 80 delegates, and outside surveys confirm this – he’s in good shape going forward. The next round of contests features Louisiana this weekend, and Virginia and Maryland on Feb. 12 - all of which have large black electorates. (As opposed to large Latino electorates. It should be noted that Obama failed last night to undercut Hillary’s strength among Latinos in key states such as California and Arizona. It appears that the Ted Kennedy endorsement was of limited utility. Kennedy, a hero to Latinos because of his immigration reform work, was supposed to help deliver Latinos. Heck, he couldn't even deliver his own state of Massachussetts. Goodbye, Camelot.)

Obama clearly has the money to lavish attention on the next round of states, having raised a stunning $32 million during January, the largest monthly haul on record; Hillary’s tally, for the same month, was $13 million. But if they cancel each other out next Tuesday, by essentially splitting the next batch of delegates (and that's very likely), and if Wisconsin doesn't bring clarity on Feb. 19, they’ll just move on to Ohio and Texas on March 4. And if Ohio and Texas don’t bring clarity...dare we suggest that Pennsylvania, six weeks later on April 22, could actually become the pivotal state? It would, in fact, become the new Iowa, a state that gets national attention for more than a month, because there are no other Democratic primaries in April.

And it is no longer fanciful to talk about Pennsylvania. Indeed, based on my conversations today, it is clear that there are serious plans afoot to contest Pennsylvania and to raise new money for the effort. There is already talk in the Hillary camp, for example, that the state's demographics (lots of suburban women, working-class whites, senior voters) are ideal for her.

Other maneuverings are likely to take place before Pennsylvania, of course. There will be much attention paid to the "superdelegates" — the hundreds of Democratic officials and activists who have delegate status, and who can support any candidate regardless of how the states have voted - and right now Hillary has the edge there. Will Obama give them incentives to switch over? That might depend on how well he performs over the next month. Meanwhile, Hillary's campaign wants to seat the delegates from Florida, which had its delegates taken away because the state scheduled its primary too early. This is backstage stuff seemingly from another era.

But still...Pennsylvania would be ripe for a little attention. It has been 16 years since Democrats cast a meaningful primary vote, and even 1992 was a dull, low-turnout affair dominated by the new kid on the block, Bill Clinton. His sole competition Jerry Brown, a former California governor with a flaky reputation, yet he wasn't getting much respect. At one point, he was stumping with Mayor Ed Rendell in Philadelphia’s Italian Market when a heckler across the street yelled out, "If you cheated on your wife, what would you do to the country?" Clinton smiled weakly, then turned his rapt attention to the broccoli on display.

Surely Pennsylvania is ready for some new primary season experiences, perhaps some that might prove to be historic. Although the way this Democratic race seems to be going, perhaps the final verdict will be rendered by the voters who bring up the rear of the calendar. Many of them live in Guam.


I had further thoughts this morning, during an hour-long discussion on Philadelphia's NPR station. It's archived here.