Tuesday, January 08, 2008
No One Knows Anything
Watching the persistent lead Clinton maintained throughout the night as the results came in, from 5% of the districts reporting, all the way through to the end, I kept on waiting for the tide to turn. It never did.
How could so many of the polls, and the Obama and Clinton camps' own internal tracking numbers, all of which projected a double-digit victory for Obama, have been so wrong?
My first hunch was race. First, it is my hunch that New Hampshire voters are less open to the idea of voting for a black man than voters in Iowa. I'm from Connecticut, and am well aware of the genteel racism that pervades the Northeast. This racism has interesting roots: in the Northeast, we are often self-congratulatory about living in a progressive, educated, sophisticated part of the country. Some of this identity is built in opposition to the stereotype of Southern identity: ignorant, crude, racist. Our Northeastern self-congratulation makes our version of racism less out in the open and up front than Southern racism, but still powerful and pervasive. Iowa, being in the center of the country, likely does not have this self-congratulatory attitude we New Englanders tend to have and probably felt as if they were sending a message by voting for Obama -- and were probably less hesitant to vote for a black man.
New Englanders -- and especially New Hampshirites, who are the most conservative and crabby residents of the Northeast -- don't feel the need to go out on a limb for a candidate like Obama because we are so smug and full of our sense of ourselves as sophisticated and tolerant. Crudely put, it's my sense that many of my fellow New Englanders are, in their own way, probably less ready to vote for a black candidate than Americans in other parts of the country.
That is, admittedly, a somewhat loopy and half-baked theory, but there it is.
The private nature of the voting booth, with curtain drawn, also had something to do with this result, I think. In Iowa, the voting process was very public, as people had to publicly declare their affiliation and physically walk over and join their candidate's camp. That is a completely different process, and it's entirely possible that seeing a huge group in the Obama corner helped some voters to overcome any hesitations they might have held about voting for a black candidate (by showing them that there was support for Obama, by forcing the voter to confront her own prejudices in a public process, etc.). I've not fully figured this aspect out, but I think that may have something to do with it.
Also, the situations in the past where pre-election day polls have been so far out of whack with ultimate voting results have often involved races where one candidate is black. It seems, in those situations, people answering pollsters' questions may not be able to be honest with the pollers (or themselves) about their preferences, and their hang-ups about voting for black candidates. Hence, inflated poll numbers for black candidates that disappear when voters pull the curtains shut behind them in the voting booth.
Another lesson here is that the Obama camp must begin to modify or move beyond the "Change" slogan. It's become empty and debased -- especially as it's been parroted by the other campaigns; there has to be a new direction taken. Obama's concession speech tonight gave glimmers of a new message; most of the speech was a mostly listless rehash of his Iowa victory speech, but the section where he brought in the "Yes, we can" refrain was electric. Edwards is beginning to fade: now is the time for Obama to pick up Edwards' populist theme, and to add some edge to his own message. He began doing this tonight, mentioning the dishwasher in Las Vegas, and the textile worker in South Carolina.
I find Clinton's narrow victory deeply dispiriting, coming as it does, after Clinton's calculated decision to go negative, to blatantly misrepresent Obama's position on t he war, and to manipulate the public with an obviously staged and cheesy moment of "real emotion". Note that Clinton's advisors were tonight lauding the success of the "teary" moment and were promising more such personalizing and humanizing moments in the future. Clinton's victory speech was okay. Her advisors wisely removed from the stage around her the corpses that had surrounded her during her concession speech in Iowa. Instead we had a handpicked assortment of slightly of focus youthful happy people (plenty of women) cheering the "change" of Clinton and Clinton headed back to the White House providing the picturesque background to HRC's grimacing/smiling victory dance/waddle. I remain convinced that the Democratic party will lose the Presidency yet again if Clinton is our nominee. Ronald Reagan in 1980, Kennedy in 1960, and Al Gore in 2000 proved to us that competence or qualifications do not win American Presidential Elections; the winning candidate has to do something more. For better or worse, the candiate must be able to move us. Hillary Clinton is simply incapable of doing this and will fail in a general election.
Now, all of this fails to address that HRC's ascent is just as historic as Obama's; she is the first viable female candidate for president. But I just can't help feeling that it's a little less clean and simple than that: her political career as senator and now presidential candidate has been based almost entirely on the accomplishments of her husband. The underlying rationale for her candidacy ("I have 35 years of experience") is that her husband accomplished a lot as Governor and then President, and she, through osmosis, through being around, has some right to take credit for this. Is this a victory for women?
Obama will have to be careful about how he does it, but he will need to gut this rationale directly. HRC became senator based on the track record of WJC's administration, in which she held no official or appointed position, and she is now running based on "35 years of experience" which are apparently based on her service as First Lady in Arkansas, in the White House, and as junior senator from New York, whose most important and significant vote was to authorize the invasion of Iraq.
This race will go on for a while, and won't be decided anytime soon. Obama looks strong in South Carolina, and is rumored to be strong in Nevada as well. South Carolina is a primary and Nevada is a caucus state. We'll see how that will affect the results. No one really has any idea what's going to happen from here. I'm telling myself that it's a good thing, that it's better that Obama won't peak too early, and that a longer fight will only make Obama a stronger candidate in the end. We'll see.