Thursday, March 13, 2008

The latest Clinton Keystone spin

On a conference call with journalists late this morning, the Clinton spinners basically spelled out their strategy for wresting the nomination away from Barack Obama. The overlapping items:

1. Market the April 22 Pennsylvania primary as the most important event on the political calendar between now and the August convention, on the assumption that Hillary will win it.

2. Market Pennsylvania as a microcosmic cross-section of America itself, on the assumption that Hillary will win it.

3. Market the Pennsylvania primary as a bellwether contest that will demonstrate which candidate is best positioned to win the general election. On the assumption that Hillary will win it.

4. Pile up the largest possible victory margin in Pennsylvania, in the hope that, by the end of the primary season, and with Florida and Michigan perhaps re-voting, Hillary can wipe out Obama's national lead in the popular vote.

Mark Penn, the chief strategist and pollster, pushed the first item vociferously ("this is an incredibly important state"). Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter cited a recent Obama campaign memo which seemed to indicate that Obama was just as focused on some of the states that vote in May; indeed, the Clinton team will float the notion that Obama is insufficiently committed to competing in Pennsylvania and is therefore insulting Pennsylvanians. Nutter suggested that Obama will be satisfied to merely play "political rope a dope" in the state.

But this spin was later undercut - inadvertently, of course - by the ever-locquacious governor, Ed Rendell. During the conference call, he mentioned in passing that Obama has hired one of Rendell's former political lieutenants to work the state, a smart ground-game guy who helped Rendell win both of his gubernatorial races. Rendell then told us that Obama, by making such a hire, would be "formidable" in Pennsylvania. Which prompts me to wonder: why would Obama bother to hire that strategist if he wasn't planning to take the primary seriously?

(Obama, on his plane this morning: "We will go there, we will campaign vigorously, we will spend money, we will have staff on the ground, I will spend a lot of days in Pennsylvania...we’re going to compete actively and we want to try to win the state like we tried to win every other state...We think they’re all important, and Pennsylvania is important. Now we do think the other nine states afterwards are also important, so we’re going to be spending time there as well, but there’s no notion whatsoever that we are ceding Pennsylvania. We’re going to try to compete there as hard as we can." He has also agreed to debate Clinton in Philadelphia on April 16.)

Anyway, regarding items two and three: The Clinton people - making their electability argument to fence-sitting superdelegates nationwide - want to frame the Pennsylvania primary as a mini-general election. Their pitch is that if Hillary wins the primary, it means that she'd win the state in November (yes, it's a critical state in any winning Democratic scenario); and if Obama loses the primary, it means that he'd lose the state in November.

They're conveniently forgetting something: The state's primary electorate differs greatly from the state's general electorate. The primary is closed to independents - one of Obama's strongest constituencies. Which means that Hillary has a structural advantage on April 22. It's a different deal in November, when all can participate; independent voters are likely to swing the state, and, although the Clinton spinners are loathe to say this, Hillary is far less popular among independents than Obama. That has proven to be true in virtually every open primary.

Rendell, at one point, had to partially concede that an Obama loss in the primary would not necessarily foreshadow an Obama defeat in November: "Nobody is saying that Barack Obama would definitely lose Pennsylvania in the fall. Absolutely not."

Rendell also tackled item four. Clearly, the Clinton team does not want to be in the position of asking the superdelegates to overturn the verdict of the primary electorate. (And a good thing, too, since that would tear the party apart.) They seem to grasp that it would be bad PR to wrest the nomination away from the guy who has more pledged delegates and more popular votes. So since it will be nearly impossible to pass Obama in the delegate count, the goal is to surpass him in popular votes. That way, at least the Clinton team would have something they could wave at the superdelegates. Rendell has already teed up the talking point: "Which is more democratic - to give the nomination to (the winner of) the popular vote...or to the leader in pledged delegates?"

There were other matter of interest (aside from spokesman Howard Wolfson's deadpan observation that Geraldine Ferraro "is no longer a member of the campaign's finance committee"). Wolfson was asked about a new poll that shows Clinton leading Obama by 18 points in the Pennsylvania primary - yet shows Obama performing better than Clinton in an autumn matchup in Pennsylvania. Doesn't that contradict item three? His response: "Different polls show different things."

Also, Wolfson was asked how, having built up the importance of Pennsylvania, the Clinton campaign would react if Obama winds up winning the primary. Would that mean the Democratic race is effectively over?

Uh, well, he said, the Obama campaign "would publicly promote that notion." Then more stalling: "Should Senator Obama be successful, that's obviously a decision voters should make." (Whatever that means.) Then, finally, "if our optimism is not borne out, we can revisit the question."

Translation: If they lose Pennsylvania, they'll just move the goalposts again.