h1

How audacious is Obama prepared to be?

July 19th, 2008

usa_monument_valley_arizona2.jpg

    Could a daring move could seal the Election early?

Very few people would fail to recognise the talents of Senator Obama as a campaigning politician. His oratory is uplifting, his intellect apparent, his energy and youth appealing, and his campaign not only made the most of new technology, but didn’t sacrifice the benefits of old-fashioned door knocking and lawn signs either. He beat one of the toughest opponents imagineable in the primary season, and now enjoys a massive fundraising advantage over John McCain in the race for the White House.

But are there faults, or at least curiosities, that might deserve some attention? My major criticism of Obama, and the reason I believed Hillary still had a reasonable (10% or better) chance up until the Rules & Bylaws Committee meeting, was that I didn’t see him (and still haven’t seen him) finish an opponent off in compelling style. There are, of course, dangers in delivering the final hammer blow of fate – reputational ugliness, or by inviting a volatile final act to the contest that offers the chance for an underdog to just cause damage and hope for the best in a last-gasp surge. To go for the kill can cause a candidate to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, so maybe Obama’s approach was deliberate, but not having seen him deliver a killer blow does allow doubts to fester as to whether he can beat McCain in a long, even-handed contest. Obama’s style of victory in both the primary campaign, and his US Senate campaign, was to take an early and unassailable lead and to never let his opponent back into the race, but never to finish them off definitively either. I wonder, if McCain is still within a few points going into the final couple of weeks, whether Obama would be able to make that decisive blow.

Obama was in control of the primary season at least from the moment that he won Texas and Vermont on March 4th. From that night onwards, he was unlikely ever to lose on delegate count, and the media narrative became ‘the likely nominee’ or ‘the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination’. However, the contest dragged on almost three months longer because the media narrative did not, until late-May, pass ‘the point of no return’, whereby he was transfigured to become ‘the presumptive nominee’. I wonder, if a post mortem was conducted, whether Obama would have preferred that ‘point of no return’ for Clinton to have come a little earlier than perhaps it did.

I dislike counter-factual history much of the time, but imagine Obama had won fewer delegates on Super Tuesday from the smaller states, but had managed to defeat Senator Clinton in New York. I suspect that at that point, the narrative would have passed the point of no return, because a candidate who cannot carry their own state (even if it is not usually a favourable political climate for their beliefs) are derided in US politics. It is the mark of weakness – to fail to capture that most simple and primal of votes – the vote for ‘the Favourite Son’.

This instinct, the tendency to vote for a State’s favourite son or daughter, is so strong that it can turn almost any State to the opposing flank. After Truman, California voted for every Republican except Goldwater until Bill Clinton in 1992 – helped by there having been a Californian politician on the ballot in all of those elections except 1976 and 1988 (Nixon or Reagan). It is the only measure which restricts Electors from voting for an otherwise viable candidate, with the XIIth amendment forbidding an Elector for voting for a President *and* Vice-President from the same state as themselves.

Presidential candidates who have lost their home states are not revered by history. Only two men have ever won the election without carrying their home state (James Polk lost his native Tennessee in 1844, Woodrow Wilson did not retain New Jersey when re-elected in 1916), and Al Gore failing to secure the state that had sent him to the Senate (Tennessee again) cost him the White House. In the last century, candidates who have lost their home states have included George McGovern, Adlai Stevenson, and Alf Landon – the collective definition of failure in Presidential elections.

Whilst Obama stands no chance of losing either Illinois or his birth-state Hawaii, John McCain is still registering leads in Arizona of only around 9%. His state only leans Republican, and the large Hispanic vote would probably have seen it trend Democratic almost as readily as Nevada, New Mexico or Colorado in any other year. McCain is also not a native-son in the classical sense – his rejoinder to a journalist who thought him opportunistic in choosing Arizona as the place from which to run for Congress was furious. He made the perfectly valid case that the US military do not have the luxury of a stable geographical base that they can call ‘home’, and that it is not the place of a civilian hack to repudiate his right to hold public office as a result. However, throughout his long Congressmen and Senators would secure ‘earmarks’ on bills, to ensure a flow of money and opportunities for their constituents, McCain has always resolutely refused to exploit his vote for these purposes. That does not always make him a favourite of Arizona voters.

So how are these observations linked? What conclusion should we draw from them? I contend that Obama is not a politician who grapples on an equal basis with an opponent then kills them off with a dramatic stroke. He has never had to fight that sort of contest, and when he could have done so against Clinton, he did not. Whether to preserve a positive image, or for fear of splitting the party, there was never a killer moment. Obama’s style, whether you consider it a strength, weakness or co-incidence, has always been to become unassailable, and then to sit above the contest wherever possible.

I believe that Obama would benefit from an early mortal wound to McCain’s chances, that would allow him to win at a canter from an early stage, whilst never having to deliver a hammer blow. I think that such a strategy would dictate that the media narrative of McCain’s chances should pass the ‘point of no return’ early, with the effect of undermining his fundraising and party support before Labor Day has even passed.

For the media narrative to pass the point of no return, I think the presumption would have to be that McCain would lose badly, and to engender that default assessment I think there needs to be widespread questioning of ‘how badly can he do?’. A quantitive answer is rarely the most useful for popular dissemination – a binary question is better for setting the parameters of the debate from an early stage. The question that Obama’s campaign should be getting every media outlet to ask is ‘Can McCain even win his home state of Arizona?’

The impact of this would be to shatter the fundraising operation that McCain is running – no-one wants to give money to a loser, and no-one wants to be associated with any loss that could be considered embarrassing. The cash-on-hand gap between the candidates is marked, with Obama having a huge advantage. This would normally be amerliorated by the massive RNC head-start over the DNC, but if the RNC believed that the McCain campaign was hopeless I believe they would very quickly abandon him to an ignominious defeat, and use their resources to defend some of the more winnable House and Senate races (and even a Gubernatorial race or two).

There is a danger in making an underdog of McCain – he has profited from that position before – but not as serious a danger as might be expected. Obama held off a much more dangerous underdog in Senator Clinton, and one who was prepared to work much harder, spend much more money, and had much more fanatical support than the veteran Senator from Arizona can or will muster. He is not campaigning on the weekends, is not making much use of the internet, has less financial backing than Clinton had, and is the GOP candidate least likely to enthuse the base. If Obama plays to the tactic of consolidating an early and unassailable lead, and then slowly squeezing his opponent by not introducing the volatility of a brutal final showdown, I think he can secure the election with a powerful mandate without the possibility of late shifts and an advertising war making the distinction between the candidates muddy.

So, how to introduce the media to the ‘Can McCain even win Arizona?’ question? I think that the best way to make this the mantric question of the commentariat would be to select (or at least feign serious consideration of) Janet Napolitano as Obama’s running mate.

Janet Napolitano is the second-term Governor of Arizona. She won re-election with 62.6% of the vote, and enjoys approval ratings of above 60% – significantly higher than McCain’s job approval (in-state) which fell to 49% in March of this year. She was voted one of America’s Five Best Governors by TIME magazine, and is well-regarded on both sides of the aisle. The benefits of choosing a female Governor are well-known to us all from debating the merits of Kathleen Sibelius (Clinton supporters wanting a woman on the ticket, executive experience of a Governor, cross-partisan admiration), but the added benefit of Napolitano is her demographic support from Hispanics (and by extention Catholics) and the fact that, even with McCain in the race, her state is far more winnable for the Democrats than Kansas will ever be.

There is no question that, were any other Republican on the top of the ticket, that Janet Napolitano would be on any short-list for Obama’s VP slot. I just wonder if, ironically, coming from Arizona with those approval ratings might mean that this is the one GOP opponent that Napolitano is best placed to beat. It would be audacious, but don’t we expect that of Barack Obama?

Morus






Comments are closed.