Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Poaching on Hillary's turf

Picture the Titanic in mid-crisis, just as the second-class cabins are starting to flood. That's how the Hillary Clinton campaign looks this morning.

Three more Barack Obama landslides have left her in a perilous position. She has coughed up her lead among pledged delegates nationwide (having lost 21 of 31 states), and she will have a difficult time getting it back - if only because, thanks to the party's proportional allocation rules, Obama will still garner new delegates even if he loses the primaries in Texas and Ohio on March 4.

Hillary could conceivably turn the tide in those big states if she blows him out in twin landslides, thereby winning a huge proportion of the delegates. But I doubt this will happen. In fact, it's hard to imagine at this point that Hillary can win the Democratic nomination without some last-ditch backstage maneuvers after the primary season is over.

What happened last night was basically Obama's dream scenario. What mattered most was not that he won big, but the manner in which he did it. He poached on Hillary's strongest demographics in two very different states - Virginia, a longtime Republican enclave that has been trending Democratic, and reliably blue Maryland, with its solid Democratic base. (His Washington, D.C. win was more predictable.)

In Virginia, for example, Obama won the white vote (52 to 47 percent). He won the suburban vote (61 to 38). He won the Latino vote (54 to 46). He won white Catholics (49 to 48), a traditional swing group that Hillary previously had been winning by 2-1 margins. And he won every income bracket, including the working-class/blue-collar categories where Hillary has typically held sway.

Obama swept all income brackets in Maryland as well, winning the working-class categories in a landslide. In Maryland, he won the white Catholics by two percentage points. And, for the first time, he won the senior vote (by four points).

White women have been very loyal to Hillary during this primary season, rescuing her in New Hampshire and in the big states on Tsunami Tuesday. More than any other demographic group, they have anchored her candidacy. But Obama has now invaded that turf as well. Last night, he won 47 percent of white women in Virginia, a southern state (by contrast, his share back in New Hampshire was 33 percent).

All told, the exit polls in Virginia and Maryland suggest that Obama is moving beyond his base (upscale liberals, blacks, independents) and beginning to put together a broad Democratic coalition. And it was also clear last night that Obama is viewed more enthusiastically. When the Maryland voters were asked whether they'd be satisfied if Hillary won the nomination, 69 percent said yes. When asked the same question about Obama, 79 percent said yes.

And there's more. Of those who said yes to the Hillary question, 45 percent still voted for Obama. Of those who said yes to the Obama question, only 26 percent voted for Hillary. In translation: the depth of emotional support for Obama is greater, and the depth of disappointment, if he lost, would be greater as well. (By the way, the same questions were asked in potentially swing-state Virginia, and Obama's numbers were even better there.)

And this too is noteworthy: In Virginia, when voters were asked which candidate is better qualified to be commander-in-chief, 56 percent chose Obama. In Virginia, no less. Hillary has long been seeking to convince voters that this was her strong suit.

So I'll again raise the issue that I mentioned the other day. Is it feasible that the next Hillary firewalls in Texas and Ohio will remain firm, given Obama's momentum in February? Is it realistic to believe that the unpledged superdelegates can be cajoled to bail her out if these firewalls ultimately fall? (One unpledged superdelegate, David Wilhelm, announced today that he intends to back Obama. Normally I wouldn't bother to single out one individual, but this happens to be the guy who served as national manager of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign.)

Indeed, for Hillary, perhaps the worst indignity last night was John McCain's decision to ignore her and focus on Obama.

McCain gave a victory speech last night in Virginia, where he won his primary, despite (yet again) being waxed by Mike Huckabee among the religious conservative voters who comprise so much of the party base (nearly half the Virginia electorate was born-again or evangelical, and 60 percent of them voted for Huckabee). He also won in a primary where the turnout was less than half the size of the Democratic turnout. And his victory speech was unfortunately timed for television. Minutes earlier, Obama had delivered one of his trademark stemwinders to an SRO arena audience; then the camera switched to McCain on a small platform in a small room, looking very much Obama's senior by three decades, and he was surrounded by aging Virginia politicians, two of whom are leaving office this year. Not the best contrast for the presumptive GOP nominee.

Anyway, he poked at Obama, implying that the young man is all about himself ("I used to think that all glory was self glory"), and that the young man is full of hot air ("To encourage a country with only not the promise of hope. It's a platitude").

Hillary had better recoup quickly if she wants to enjoy the honor of coming under attack. That's an honor generally reserved for frontrunners.


Meanwhile, in the "Where Are They Now?" department, Rudy Giuliani is back on the speaking circuit. The '07 GOP frontrunner, whose disastrous candidacy deserves to be studied in political science classes, has been welcomed back to the Washington Speakers Bureau, and here's my favorite line in the official announcement:

"Giuliani galvanized the electorate by focusing much-needed attention on such issues as security, domestic and international terrorism and securing a future that's prosperous and beneficial for all Americans."

I never realized that losing repeatedly to Ron Paul was synonymous with galvanizing the electorate.