Wednesday, February 20, 2008

It's hard to spin when you don't win

Did I mention one week ago, in the wake of landslide losses in Virginia and Maryland, that the Hillary Clinton campaign resembled the Titanic just as the second-class cabins were starting to flood? I did indeed. But here's an update:

The water is ascending the grand staircase, and threatening the first-class dinnerware.

It's hard to imagine how the Clinton people can possibly spin away what happened last night in Wisconsin, when in reality the next round of voters, in Ohio and Texas, will awaken this morning to news stories declaring that Barack Obama has buried Hillary in yet another landslide; that, on a percentage basis, Hillary lost almost as badly as Mike Huckabee lost to John McCain on the Republican side; that Obama has now won 10 contests in succession (the 10th was Hawaii, last night), all of them blowouts; and that, most importantly, he has effectively whittled away at her electoral base, to the point where large chunks of that base seem poised to defect. It's hard to imagine that Texas and Ohio, voting 13 days from now, will not be influenced by the magnitude of Obama's achievements.

But hang on: The Clinton people did try to spin away Wisconsin last night. Lisa Caputo, a longtime Hillary ally and intimate, went on cable TV and insisted (just as I predicted yesterday) that the loss was partly attributable to the fact that Obama spent more money. But that wasn't the real spin. She proceeded to argue that Hillary bombed out because Wisconsin has "a different demographic situation. Wisconsin is very prone to the independents."

There were three fundamental flaws in that remark. First, a Democratic candidate's ability to attract independents is actually an asset (Obama topped Hillary among independents by 27 percentage points), because, after all, independents generally swing presidential elections. Which means that the candidate who is weaker among independents is arguably less electable. Caputo, by saying in essence, "We lost because Obama is strong with independents," implicitly admitted that her candidate is weak with swing voters.

Second, even if she wants to minimize Obama's Wisconsin victory by shrugging off the independents, here's something she failed to mention: The Ohio and Texas primaries on March 4 are also open to independents. Given that reality, how does Hillary expect to post the lopsided victories she so badly needs?

And third, by focusing only on the independents in Wisconsin, Caputo somehow omitted her candidate's more fundamental problem: the fact that her base is leaching away, courtesy of Obama's steady incursions.

Just as he did a week ago in Virginia and Maryland, Obama went deep into Hillary's strongholds. As evidenced in the exit polls, he won blue-collar voters, the people who make $50,000 or less, by 10 percentage points. He won the voters who didn't finish college, by 13 points. He won self-identified Democrats, by seven points. He split white Catholics, winning them by one point, and he won white voters overall, by nine points. He even captured 47 percent of white women (Hillary's Ground Zero constituency), whereas, just six weeks ago in New Hampshire, he only drew 33 percent.

He won every income bracket, and every region of the state. He won the cities, suburbia, and the rural regions. On the question of who is more qualified to be commander in chief, he won by four points. On the question of who is more electable in November, he won by 26 points. On the question of who would better unite the country, he won by 27 points.

Conversely, on the question of who was the most unfair attacker, Hillary outdistanced Obama by 20 points - which suggests that her last-ditch bid to paint Obama as a plagiarizer was akin to a grenade blowing up in her hand. Clearly, most voters were not impressed by her (accurate) complaint that Obama had borrowed some rhetorical flourishes employed by his buddy, the governor of Massachusetts. She and her aides had hammered Obama on that point during the final three days - yet it's instructive to note that Obama won 53 percent of the voters who made up their minds in the final three days.

So what can Hillary do next, now that she has fallen farther behind in the aggregate popular vote, and in the all-important pledged delegate count?

She'll obviously try to tweak or even overhaul her message, but mostly she may be forced to sit tight and hope for the best - hope that Obama makes a mistake in the next debate on Thursday night, or perhaps in the debate next Tuesday night; hope that some of the smarter criticisms of Obama (offered by respected commentators) somehow register with the besotted electorate; hope that she isn't hit with a speight of defections among the superdelegates who committed to her early (indeed, after last night, it's doubtful that any of the current fence-sitters are going to sign on with her during this hiatus before Texas and Ohio); and hope that she can raise new money from donors who might now be tempted to view her as damaged goods.

By contrast, Obama can now plausibly argue that he has national appeal; that he can win in northern swing states (Wisconsin), bellwether midwestern states (Missouri), and diehard Democratic states (Maryland), and even red states that are trending Democratic (Virginia). He can argue that his strength among independents and white males, combined with his apparently growing appeal to core Democratic voters, would make him the more effective November candidate. He can even point out, in the days ahead, that Ohio's demographics are roughly the same as Wisconsin's.

Which brings us back to the perils of lousy spin. Early yesterday, Politico reported that Hillary and her people, if facing defeat, might ultimately try to raid Obama's pledged delegates in a last-ditch bid to win the nomination. The story - which was actually a trial balloon floated by a Hillary operative - kicked up such a fervor that within hours the Hillary campaign felt compelled to deny it. Apparently the Democratic party rules do not explicitly require pledged delegates to honor the primary results in their states, but here's the thing:

It's hard to imagine, barring a miracle reversal of Obama's fortunes, that any pledged Obama delegate would volunteer to defy the popular will and sign up with a candidate who seems to be going down. More importantly, the Politico story itself demonstrates just how desperate the Hillary people have become. Ditto Hillary's new delegate website, which insists that "the race is currently a virtual tie." It's hard to serve up credible spin when you don't win.

And speaking of spin, a politically-wired Philadelphia lawyer has just emailed his own thoughts on what Hillary's people would be saying today if the candidates' situations were reversed:

"Imagine this. If Clinton had just won her 10th straight primary/caucus, and 24th and 25th out of 36 states, how much talk would there be from (her spokespeople) that Obama needs to 'step down' for 'the good of the party,' to allow the party to coalesce around its 'obvious frontrunner'?"