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Saturday, January 12, 2008

 On Considering The Past Week, Or, It’s Time For A Difficult Conversation

There are many unknowns after the public spoke in Iowa and New Hampshire this past week; but one thing we do know is that you and I are just as good at predicting the outcome of these things as most of the experts.

To be honest, all the confusion is exactly why I’ve kept my mouth shut until now.

I still don’t think I can offer effective predictions...but that’s not my goal for today.

Instead, we need to have a talk about what may have made so many New Hampshire polls so wrong, and how that might affect the top three Democratic contenders...and maybe Richardson as well.

It’s not happy talk, and some of it takes us to very unpleasant places—but it’s a talk we need to have.

First of all: what exactly happened?

As far as we can tell, following the Iowa caucus results virtually all the official predictors were way off on the Obama/Clinton results in New Hampshire.

It is reported that even the campaigns misjudged the outcome; and as of Monday night the media had pretty much put Hillary on “circling the drain” watch, with the basic idea being that Obama would win in New Hampshire by double digits, then Nevada and South Carolina...potentially wrapping up the nomination before the February 5th primaries.

Even Bill Clinton told New Hampshire voters they had made a mistake placing their primary so close to the Iowa caucus—that they would be swayed by the emotion of it all and make a bad choice.

Voters behaved differently in New Hampshire than in the Iowa caucus process, however, and as a result Hillary garnered a higher percentage of female voters of all ages. Additionally, Obama failed to achieve the turnout of under-30 voters that he had in Iowa. Beyond that, the anticipated impact of independent voters choosing to vote in the Democratic primary did not materialize.

Edwards did not win in either state, and in fact his percentage of support declined from one locale to the other.

As of this writing it seems unlikely that Obama will have the contest wrapped up by February 4th.

Next: what caused so many in New Hampshire to misread the vote?

Many observers point to Hillary’s “softer side” coming out; but I have to ask two additional questions at this point:

--Did New Hampshire’s female voters come to perceive this as an “us against them” election—and can this perception be exploited to similar effect in other states?

--Has the increased potential of an Obama Administration created a racial backlash that was reflected in Tuesday’s vote...and can it be mitigated...and is this possibility going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to measure by polling?

As for the first question: it has been the pattern in this campaign for Hillary to develop the mythology of herself fighting against the “boy’s club” who’ve been ganging up on her for 35 years or so while also stressing the historic nature of this election—that she is the first “electable” woman on the Presidential campaign trail.

The problem with this tactic is that it can reinforce the “Hillary as victim” perception—which can create as many negative feelings about her as positive ones, divides rather than unites voters (not a good thing in a general election), and may also send purple voters toward the other candidate...particularly if Romney, McCain, or Giuliani (or Obama, in “open” primaries) can succeed in positioning themselves as “competent” and “strong” choices.

She has made an effort in recent days to present herself as the “change and experience” candidate...and this tactic may help to draw in the “historical” female voter with fewer potential negative side effects than the “victim” portrayal.

Which brings us to racism.

Not only was Obama projected to win in New Hampshire based on pre-election polling, exit polls were projecting Obama to win by 5 points or better. (For the foreign reader, exit polls essentially consist of hanging around polling stations and asking: “How did you vote?”)

Another significant fact: polling on Republican voters was reasonably accurate...suggesting that the same pollsters, in the same state, polling a similar universe of voters were perfectly capable of delivering accurate polling—if the Party in question is fielding all white male candidates.

As of this moment, there is no hard evidence to suggest that racism has played a role...and there are plenty of other potential explanations for the polling errors. Examples include a deliberate effort to deceive pollsters on the part of voters that is not racially motivated, poor methodology, misreporting by the pollsters, or a failure of analysis on the part of the experts.

However, there is no doubt that some number of voters might also have chosen to announce they voted for Obama even though they never intended to—and that for some of those voters Obama’s race did factor into that decision to some degree or another.

Can a “racism effect” be detected in polling?

To make an extremely long and scientifically arcane story short: kind of, sort of. There are techniques that can be used to create prediction models, but those models are not certain predictors—and it will be extremely difficult to differentiate between the possibility that voters chose to deceive for racial reasons and non-racial reasons; and to what extent racism plays a role in predicting any individual demographic’s future decisions. (Similar problems are faced by those seeking to predict the extent of marital infidelity, or college binge drinking, or any number of other social metrics in a population.)

What can be done to mitigate the potential effect of racism?

There are things that are within Obama’s control: he can continue to speak in the plural pronoun (“we can create change...we can move forward...”), he can continue to present a positive message, and he can continue to present the argument that “joining the movement” is as good for America as it is for Obama—that supporting his cause is in your own self-interest, and that of your family and community. (Some might also suggest efforts to drive turnout of younger voters is also a step in the right direction, but I have no evidence to suggest that those voters are more or less likely to factor race into their decision-making process.)

Of course, these arguments will also be helpful in a general election where the effort to retain purple voters and attract historically Republican-leaning voters is much more important.

He can also make efforts to increase his own perception of “inevitability”...and this is where the conversation turns tough.

John Edwards, it’s time for you to make a deal with Obama.

I say that because as things stand today you will either win the nomination...or you risk becoming the “Ralph Nader” figure that prevents Obama from doing so...and at this moment, the second seems more likely than the first.

My advice for you is to either make a deal with Obama that makes you some sort of “Two Americas” czar in an Obama Administration; or lock up the Vice Presidential job with the agreement that you are allowed to be an active member of an Executive partnership.

Time is short, and the current strategy is literally a roll of the dice that leaves you less and less power as time goes on. Consider that the Edwards strategy can now be summed up as: “win South Carolina, hope someone collapses...and it’s better for us if it’s Obama”.

On top of that, there was a dramatic decrease in support for the Edwards cause between Iowa and New Hampshire...and Obama may be very tough to beat in South Carolina. And now Nevada is slipping away...

Now, John, you have to understand that I’m coming to you here as a friend, but I think we missed the boat. The more primaries that go by that you haven’t won, the less ability you have to influence events. The effort since Iowa to moderate your attacks on Obama (‘Change won...”) is a step in the right direction; and if you throw your weight behind Obama now, you have the chance to be seen as the player who upended Hillary.

Plus your presence on the Obama platform is an implicit statement that this is an election that transcends race...and reinforces the issue of “Two Americas” by putting your voice in the harness with Obama’s.

Of course, the Obama campaign will seek to add other voices to the conversation—and Janet Napolitano’s endorsement suggests she might see herself as either an Obama cabinet member...or the “balancer” that would make a perfect VP nominee. Richardson has not, as of this moment, endorsed any candidate either—and he may be seeking his best deal between Clinton and Obama.

If your voice is joined to theirs too late, your influence will decrease proportionally—so the time is now...not after Nevada, and certainly not after a third place finish in South Carolina, should that occur (or both...).

There are those who will strongly disagree with this analysis, and I would expect them to say something along the lines of: “Edwards is the only candidate who is poised to offer real meaningful change...Obama will negotiate with players who will not allow reform, and only Edwards understands that there is no reason to even negotiate with those who will make every effort to block any real threats to the status quo.”

And I would not be inclined to argue with that analysis.

However, we now find ourselves in a situation where there is one Democratic candidate who is more inclined to represent the status quo than any other, and two who represent more progressive agendas. If the two progressive candidates are divided, the other will likely win. If the two progressive candidates join forces, they will likely win.

And in the end, it’s not the person leading the cause that’s the most important—it’s the cause.

Politics is the art of compromise, and this is the time for Edwards and Obama to make the big compromise. That may mean an Obama Administration does talk to players Edwards would rather not, but it could also mean a Vice President Edwards in charge of those talks.

To sum all this up, there is a need for the progressive voices in this race to join together, the results in New Hampshire offer some hints that racism may have been a factor, there are positive steps that could be taken by Obama-and others-to prevent that discussion from gathering steam; and it is possible for all the progressive players in the race to join together and effectively garner the nomination.

And for those of us seeking to advance a more progressive could be the best of both worlds: Obama and Edwards backed by Janet Napolitano (and potentially Richardson), presenting a progressive, experienced, nationally balanced, trans-racial image; with Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Edwards doing the same against any potential Republican “family values” opposition on a highly personal and emotional level.

What’s not to love?

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