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obama is no longer toast, thanks to michigan and florida

Loyal orgheads know my Obama spin: I’m a long time admirer, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the power of incumbency was just too much. And there was a lot of evidence for this view. In early polls, knowledge about Obama as a candidate didn’t really seem to change people’s minds. If you look at the chart below, national poll averages show that Democrats as a whole only warmed up to Obama after he won Iowa and South Carolina. Until very recently, Hillary’s national polls hovered between 40-50%. Even after the nomination was settled by Obama’s February sweep, Clinton still wins states and can reliably collect a few hundred thousand dollars a day. She’ll likely end the season with 20 won contests, out of 57. Despite what people think, Hillary has not tanked at all with voters. She’s claimed an unshakable 40%, despite running an unfocused, disorganized and financially bankrupt campaign. It only goes to show that if she had been better prepared, she might well have overcome Obama’s effort.

So how did someone who could bank on 40% of the democratic party blow the nomination? If you read the news, you’ve probably heard about the blundering and mismanagement on the Clinton campaign. I won’t bother to repeat it here.

Instead, I’ll focus on an element of luck. Yes, while Obama excelled and Clinton tanked, there has been a major bit of luck that enormously helped. I’m kind of surprised that people have not addressed it more. I am talking about the elimination of Florida and Michigan from the Democratic Calendar. By waiving these two primaries, Clinton removed a major structural obstacle to Obama’s nomination.

The Obama strategy was to battle in all 50 states and organize months ahead in most of them. But a key part of the strategy is to pull off some stunning victories to help you collect more money and make it to the next primary. Without victories, as Howard Dean found out, most politicians simply don’t have the deep pockets to keep battling when the money dries up. An early loss can put to waste all your precious organization and fund raising.

So how do Florida and Michigan figure into this? Obama allowed the removal of two states that were early in the process, large, and anti-Obama. In Florida, it’s not clear that Obama could have done much better than 27% in a three way race. At best, Michigan would be even. If Hillary had gone into Super Tuesday winning NH, NV, FL & MI, while Obama had only IA and SC, then it would probably have been harder to convince the wishy washy swing voters to go Obama, or even to motivate newly registered voters to show up. In this scenario, Obama would have been trailing significantly in popular vote and in delegates right before Super Tuesday. Ahead in the race, Hillary would have won a few more swing voters in places like Missouri to keep or slightly expand her lead. If Hillary had a plan for post-Super Tuesday, she might have spent that time keeping a slim lead by winning places like Washington, Maine and Virginia, losing a few Southern states, and then extending or regaining the lead in PA, TX and OH.

Of course, none of this happened and the internal chaos of the Clinton campaign prevented them from formulating a decent response to Obama. But it goes to show how one weird legalistic twist helped an underdog topple one of the most established and entrenched political figures of the last thirty years.

Written by fabiorojas

May 21, 2008 at 2:14 am

4 Responses

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  1. A smart set of points, and this clearly is an important piece of the story. In addition, though, there are two more elements:
    1.) Clinton banked on the war being popular and decided to go with the safe option early on, which came back to bite her; and
    2.) Clinton is a woman, which means she (believes she) has to be more hawkish than the average man.

    I am delighted to see Obama win the nomination, for many reasons, but that doesn’t change the fact that Clinton got a raw deal at the hands of the pundits. http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080519/betsyreed

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    andrewperrin

    May 21, 2008 at 3:27 am

  2. Fabio – you weren’t the only person who thought Obama was toast (predictions are hard). This was a pretty surprising political victory by anyone’s account. What is equally surprising is that Clinton won’t throw in the towel and accede the nomination to Obama. It’s unclear to me what she’s trying to accomplish at this point. The longer she stays in it, the more resentment builds against her within the party.

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    brayden

    May 21, 2008 at 3:27 pm

  3. 1. Andrew, I’d modify your point #1. I am not sure if Clinton 2002 necessarily assumed that the war would be popular in 2008. Given the Clinton style, she probably didn’t care and assumed that she could switch positions with impunity or talk her way out of it. The hallmark of Clinton campaigning is immediate short term gain, while you worry about the cost later.

    2. Brayden, predictions are hard, but as I’ve done in the past, I will claim a lot of partial credit for what I got right. Also, I think the Hillary end game deserves some orgtheorization as well, but that’s for next week!

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    fabiorojas

    May 21, 2008 at 5:27 pm

  4. […] is no longer toast, Obama is giving a talk at the Siegessäule in Berlin tomorrow. Cheering is guaranteed, his […]

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