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Precedent-breaking president

An Obama win in November would be historic for reasons beyond race
By STEVEN STARK  |  March 26, 2008


With the news that Florida and Michigan are unlikely to redo their primaries, it’s become even more probable that Barack Obama will be the Democratic presidential nominee. And, as we’ve been reminded endlessly (and often needlessly), if elected, he’ll make history as our first African-American president.

But putting race aside, if Obama makes it to the White House, he’ll also have to surpass a number of other historical milestones.

No candidate in the modern primary era has ever been elected in November after failing to win more than one of the nation’s seven largest states in either its pre-convention primary or, if the state didn’t hold a primary, its caucuses. That will be the case if Obama loses Pennsylvania in April. (Admittedly, no one who lost six out of seven has ever been nominated either, so perhaps Obama can make history twice.)

No Democrat who hails from north of the Mason-Dixon Line has been elected president since John Kennedy in 1960.

No candidate in the modern era has ever been elected president with a voting record that could be identified as his party’s most liberal or conservative, yet the NationalJournal found Obama to be the most liberal senator this past year after computing his Senate voting record. (The previous closest attempts by candidates on the comparable extreme were made by the Right’s Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the Left’s George McGovern in 1972, and we know what happened to them.)

Except for arguably Abraham Lincoln (admittedly an auspicious exception), no candidate has ever been elected to the presidency with as little significant state or national political experience as Obama’s. (Jimmy Carter, in 1976, came the closest.)

There’s one other worrisome, though not ironclad, precedent possibly standing in Obama’s way. Though the polls are all over the lot at this point, according to the Real Clear Politics average, Obama currently trails John McCain by only a point or two. That’s a margin that easily could be eliminated, and, unto itself, would seem to be no great cause for concern. But history suggests otherwise.

At this point in the election cycle — before any fear of the unknown has set in — challengers are often running much better against their incumbent-party opponents. In 1988, Michael Dukakis had about a 10-point lead over George Bush (the senior and then-vice-president), only to lose by around eight — an 18-point swing.

Ditto in 2000. George Bush (the younger) had about a similar 10-point lead over Al Gore at this stage, only to see the lead shrink to nothing by Election Day.

In fact, that’s been the usual pattern. In 1976, Carter led Gerald Ford by 10 points in the spring, and even McGovern in the spring of 1972 found himself running roughly even with Richard Nixon (albeit with a potential George Wallace third-party candidacy in the mix). By November, the incumbent had surged considerably in both cases.

Even in 2004, John Kerry ended up doing worse in November than he had in the spring, at least according to the CNN/Gallup poll that gave him a five-point lead in April.

The only modern exceptions to this involved Bill Clinton, in 1992, and Ronald Reagan, in 1980. In both elections, the insurgents came from behind. But both faced notably different circumstances than Obama does.

First, Clinton and Reagan got to run against unpopular incumbents. McCain is not George Bush — no matter how much Obama may try to tie the two together.

Second, in both 1992 and 1980, there were significant third-party candidacies (H. Ross Perot and John Anderson, respectively). Like most Independent candidacies, their ire was aimed primarily at the status quo (and thus the incumbent), changing the dynamic of the race. These third-party candidacies also made it easier for the insurgent to win without having to concentrate on getting 50 percent of the vote in every state. That pattern seems unlikely to be replicated this year.

Democrats have been reassuring themselves that, so far, their poor showing in the national match-ups against McCain is because their party is currently divided in a bitter primary struggle that will be resolved by the time the fall campaign begins. And, by then, the electorate will know Obama better.

But all these precedents add up to suggest that if Obama becomes our 44th president, the 2008 campaign will define a new American electoral era, with a new set of patterns. Obama’s supporters have been promising that their movement will revolutionize our politics. If they’re going to win, they’d better be right.


The nominee

Odds: 1-4 | past week: 2-3
Odds: 4-1 | 3-2


Pledged: 1414
Superdelegates: 214
Total: 1628
Short by: 397

Pledged: 1247
Superdelegates: 250
Total: 1497
Short by: 528

Delegates needed to win: 2025

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Precedent-breaking president
Even with the Pennsylvania win, Clinton will only pick up 20 points against her deficit to Obama. Aside from the likelihood of riots and so forth viewing the scenario that the supers and convention chose her, there is the underlying reality that such an outcome would be as much of a miscarriage of justice as the Republican's theft of the Florida election in 2000. Clinton is a subtle thinker. She is possessed, rightly perhaps, that her symbolic and real role as a woman gives her a valid claim to the presidency. But this is clouding her judgement. Her husband may be the only one who can help her recognize that she could do a heroic favor for the party by biting the bullet and renouncing the ambition-driven divisiveness that inculpates him as much as it does her. Bill Clinton may see his support of his wife's campaign as a way of covering his multitude of sins against her. He has the power of coming clean with her and confessing that he has no real way of atoning for all he has done. The question is, who can come clean with him, and trim the fat off the porcine gray matter of his own essentially agile and inventive brain, all for revolutionary sake of this potentially revolutionary presidency of Obama.
By gordon on 03/27/2008 at 5:38:38
Precedent-breaking president
GORDON, I hate to be crass, but the miscarriage of Justice in 2000 finds the "miscarrier" now completing his second term. Hillary absolutely will not give up. Her best time is now. She is a candidate more of entitlement than of inevitability. Hillary, by the bye, controls and guides Bill far far more than he controls and guides her. Now, may we get back to Barack? Said Barack after the N.H. primary - he was taking the gloves off. Tweaking that metaphor, he's using one hand to reach out and curry favor with the old guard. Endorsements such as those from Sen. Kennedy help make him more acceptable as the candidate of the Superdelegates. On the other hand, he's continuing to inspire enthusiasm in the new order. If he can hold the old guard with one hand, and the new order with the other, the nomination may well be his. To try and join the 2 elements - old guard and new order - into one group is a colossal mistake. Let him be the go-between and filter 'tween the two. The two handed effort - the wizened old veteran and the eager caucus-goer - connects to him.
By L-J on 03/28/2008 at 4:52:49
Precedent-breaking president
You know much more about the interlocking watch-wheels of politics than I do, L-J. I am just a rhetorical analyst of sound bites. "Go-between and filter" sounds like sound advice. I like both Kennedy and Kerry--and I like kids. The former may not understand the latter, but I think the two are sympathetic in their idealism--a double helix.
By gordon on 03/31/2008 at 1:18:55
Precedent-breaking president
Well, duh! Gulp! A sense of optimism, hope and promise is the binding curve of Obama's persona that transcends race and class and gender. A double-helix that replicates itself throughout the body politic. (Are we saying the same thing here?) While he's hardly happy-go-lucky, he projects confidence in the present and future, unlike all too many doomsday politicians. I hate to be the skunk at the garden party - sorry, gahden pahtee - but, in reference to the original Toteboard posting, Dwight D. Eisenhower would likely qualify as the president who had the least state or national political experience prior to running for president. Ike, hero of Normandy and Supreme Allied Commander in World War II (how's that for a job title!) was president of Columbia University prior to running for prez in 1952.
By L-J on 04/02/2008 at 7:23:01
Precedent-breaking president
Moebius strip was the other figure I had in mind--two sides that are actually one.
By gordon on 04/02/2008 at 4:27:34
Precedent-breaking president
Mobius (spelling) Dance Company sprang into my skull. Looked up moebius strip. I try to learn something new every day and moebius strip certainly qualifies. Tried it with paper - - - even I can do it! Not too sure what this all has to do with the Pennsylvania primary but we each have our own frames of references, I guess.
By L-J on 04/03/2008 at 7:02:49
Precedent-breaking president
"He was born in the summer of his 27th year (or so)..." describes the social and political odyssey of Barack Obama. Young Barack's being raised in his white Kansan mother's family, his schooling abroad, and his father's Kenyan lifestyle were light years and continents removed from the Black American experience with slavery, its causes, conditions and aftermath. Obama, born in 1961, is of a generation far too young to have marched with Martin or strutted with Stokely. His first continuing contact with impoverished Black Americans likely came when -- at around age 27 -- he was a community organizer on Chicago's South Side. And it was there and then that he met Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. Barack seems to prefer structured situations to casual ones. Rev. Wright -- his credibility aided by preaching in the pulpit of a church with a huge congregation -- tutored Barack in the social history and emotional feelings found in folks who were descended from generations of slavery in the U.S. What Barack heard was a far cry from what may have been said in Kansas, Kenya, Columbia University and Harvard Law School. Those who fault Sen. Obama for his affiliation with Rev. Wright may misunderstand his reasons for having done so. Barack has, over the past 20 years, become better educated and more aware of the "African" side of his "African-American" heritage.
By L-J on 04/15/2008 at 3:57:03

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 See all articles by: STEVEN STARK

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