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Giant step

If Hillary Clinton can take Pennsylvania, the Democrats will be shooting themselves in the foot
By STEVEN STARK  |  March 5, 2008


Two weeks ago we noted that, in spite of all the press hype promoting Barack Obama, the Democrats were only two steps away from chaos in their nomination process.

Now make that one step.

An Obama sweep this past Tuesday was probably never in the cards, given Hillary Clinton’s strength among working-class voters and Hispanics, which she’s had virtually all along. But a Clinton sweep of Texas and Ohio is something the media did not prepare for, as they ignored the evidence staring them in the face and essentially drove Obama around the track for a victory lap before the race had ever taken place.

Now the party has a huge problem. Sure, Obama has a narrow lead among elected delegates — a margin he’s likely to hold after the run of primaries ends in June. And, on paper, he’s still the current favorite to win the nomination in August.

But if Obama emerges as the nominee, it’s now clear his campaign is headed into the autumn homestretch with some enormous holes.

Foremost among them is that Obama has yet to win a major state other than his own (Illinois) because he’s still having trouble appealing to both Hispanics and working-class Democrats —those so-called Reagan Democrats. As early as this past November, the Pew Forum was picking up signs in its polls that Obama was running significantly worse among Catholics than he was among virtually any other demographic group in the electorate.

That’s still true. Unfortunately for Obama, Hispanics and working-class voters are two groups with some affinity for John McCain. In recent head-to-head polls, for example, McCain handily beat Obama by double digits in Florida — a state once considered a key toss-up. In another poll, the presumed GOP nominee is slightly ahead of Obama in New Jersey, a blue state in which John Kerry defeated George Bush by seven percentage points in 2004.

Color by numbers
These are worrying signs for the Democrats, should Obama be the nominee, especially now that it appears the Obama-Clinton contest could drag on for months, further weakening whoever emerges as the Democratic candidate. Michael Barone, the ace principal author of The Almanac of American Politics, recently wrote that an Obama-McCain race would redraw the red-state–blue-state map of the past few elections. But a more accurate analysis is that while McCain would be competitive in many states — even California — once considered safely Democratic, it’s hard to see as many comparable states where Obama might do the same.

In addition to California, McCain has a reasonable shot at winning blue states Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and maybe even Wisconsin and Michigan, not to mention the key swing state of Ohio. Obama, on the other hand, has a shot at red states New Mexico, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, and Virginia. McCain has the better hand to play.

This general-election weakness for Obama is sure to be an argument pressed by the Clinton forces in the days ahead. True, she probably wouldn’t have a chance in any of the red states that Obama might contest, either. But in her favor is the fact that, while her appeal to Independents is limited, she’d be far likelier to run stronger against McCain in Ohio, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and California.

The obvious problem now is that the longer the two front-runners engage each other, the less time either has to shore up weaknesses before the fall campaign. With the news that Florida governor Charlie Crist will consider allowing Democrats to restage their primary, this is now a process that could go into July without a clear winner. The few upcoming large states — Pennsylvania and, now, maybe Florida — favor Clinton. The longer Obama remains subject to attack by his opponent and a press anxious to repent (once again) for having gotten it all wrong, the weaker he will become. And once the primaries end, no one will have a clear majority, meaning there could well be a fierce contest for the superdelegates, triggering a contentious party civil war. McCain is thanking his lucky stars.


GOP nominee


Odds: 2-3 | past week: 1-2
Odds: 3-2 | 2-1

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