Archives for: Politics 2008

New Voters, Obamaha, and Obama, Japan

To followup on my election day post, I’ve been looking for numbers on turnout, but right now they’re all still estimates. At this point it looks like overall turnout, compared to 2004, moved from 55% of the eligible population to 62-66%, roughly matching the post WWII record set in 1960. What about the new voters in key demographic groups that Obama was counting on? They showed up: “About two-thirds of the new voters were under 30, twenty percent were black and another twenty percent were Hispanic. They went overwhelmingly for Obama.”

Another interesting tidbit is the Nebraska 2nd congressional district, where Omaha is located. Everyone has their eyes on Missouri and North Carolina, which are still too close to call. But for the first time ever, split electoral votes may come out of Nebraska:

Nebraska and Maine are the only states that can split their electoral votes, although it’s never happened. Two of Nebraska’s five votes are awarded to the winner of the statewide election and each of the other votes are awarded to the winner in each of the state’s three congressional districts.

Obama targeted the 2nd District’s electoral vote, opening three campaign offices in Omaha and registered thousands of voters.

McCain has already won Nebraska’s four other electoral votes by winning 57 percent of the state’s vote, but in the 2nd District McCain’s led Obama by only 569 votes Wednesday. And a recount is possible in the District once 10,000 provisional and absentee provisional ballots are counted.

The Obama campaign was looking at multiple possible scenarios where they might end up with a 269-269 tie in the electoral college – like winning Kerry’s states plus only Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico. So they were looking to Omaha (Obamaha) to put him over the top. Obviously that’s not a concern at this point, but if Obama wins Omaha, it’ll be interesting to see how all the TV networks try to figure out how to adjust the display of their electoral maps to show a mixed result from a single state 😉

A while back I mentioned the town of Obama, Japan. Here they are celebrating Obama’s victory, in a way that only the Japanese can. Presumably the Hawaiian theme is because he was born in Hawaii.

Likely Voters and Early Voters

I often get questions from friends about the polls for the Presidential election. Back in January I discussed the routine abuse of the margin of error. Another big issue in polling is how you determine who a likely voter is.

To determine if you’re a likely voter, pollsters will typically ask if you’re registered to vote, if you intend to vote, and if you voted in the last election (in this case, the last Presidential election). They typically give the most weight to your answer about voting in the last election, so they consider past behavior a better indicator than stated intentions. Some will also ask if you know where your polling place is located, as an additional screen. In this election, with enthusiasm sky-high among the African-American community and young voters – both in favor of Obama – pollsters aren’t as sure about how to screen for likely voters. Gallup dealt with this dilemma by simply publishing an additional set of results – one using their traditional likely voter model, and one that counts you as a likely voter strictly by whether you say you plan to vote. What’s interesting in the final Gallup poll yesterday was that the results of the two models converged – both give a roughly 11 point advantage to Obama. (If you’re curious, back in August Nate Silver wrote an astute critique of how Gallup screens likely voters, arguing that it could be substantially underestimating the ultimate impact of unlikely voters).

Silver also wrote back in May that “youth turnout in the primaries increased by 52 percent as a share of the Democratic electorate.” This was part of an analysis of what the electoral map would look like if Obama could substantially increase turnout among young voters and the African American community. Silver went on to say:

The ability to bring new voters to the polls remains Barack Obama’s most significant electoral advantage, both relative to Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Indeed, current polling may already be underestimating Obama’s strength against McCain if it does not account for improved turnout among Democratic-leaning groups like young voters and African-Americans, who have participated in record numbers in this year’s primaries. If Obama can parlay that advantage with a strong ground game, he very much could redraw the electoral map.

Running counter to this argument is Gallup’s results published yesterday, showing no indication of an overall surge in youth interest in the election over 2004 levels. But in terms of the final outcome, they give themselves some wiggle room by saying “[voter mobilization efforts by the campaigns] can convince people with little motivation or interest in the campaign to actually vote on Election Day.” Gallup’s assessment of youth interest contradicts other evidence, but if Gallup is right, this is where Obama’s massive get out of the vote effort may prove decisive. In 2004 the Democrats registered new voters in much greater numbers than the Republicans, just as they have for this election, but in 2004 they didn’t turn out their voters nearly as well as the Republicans.

The actual turnout numbers for young voters and African American voters are what will make the difference between a narrow Obama win and big one.

The other thing to keep an eye on is the significance of the huge number of early voters. The national numbers for early voters are about 10% higher than 2004, with Democrats submitting 1 million more early ballots than Republicans. And the LA Times reports: “In three swing states — North Carolina, New Mexico and Colorado — the number of voters who have already cast their ballots has reached more than 70% of the number who voted there in 2004.” The question is whether the campaigns are simply banking votes early, or if the early votes are presaging even bigger – and equally lopsided – turnout numbers today, Election Day.

Most of the major polls have Obama up between 6-8%, which I think is about right. In 2004 I made predictions for the 13 swing states, and got 10 of them right (and since two of my wrong predictions were Ohio and Florida, I got the outcome wrong too). I’m not going to do a state by state breakdown again, as there are now lots of people already doing it, with skills and resources beyond mine. Instead, I’ll point you to political scientist Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball map, which I think looks just about right. He has the electoral college going to Obama 364-174 (I credit Sabato for coloring every state blue or red, and not wimping out like many of the others making predictions, by leaving the close states as uncounted tossups).

Even if there is a big Obama win, be wary of pundits using the word “landslide.” While there is no hard and fast definition, if you look at the 3 elections since WWII that are generally considered landslides (Johnson v Goldwater, Nixon v McGovern, Reagan v Mondale), the popular vote gap between the winner and the loser was around 20%.

If Obama overperforms his poll numbers in states where he is very closely behind McCain, he could turn some red parts of Sabato’s map blue: North Dakota, Nebraska’s 2nd district (Nebraska divides it’s electoral votes by Congressional districts), Georgia, Indiana, and Montana. If he significantly underperforms, then this is what possible winning electoral maps look like for McCain.

Some Thoughts on The Final Debate

Most of the things I wanted to say about the debate have already been said by James Fallows. Some points I’ll add:

  • Except for the stock market, on every issue that came up relating to economics – taxes, health care, education, international trade – McCain again and again sang the praises of unobstructed free markets. In good times, the underlying message people would hear in this is “opportunity.” But with the markets in chaos and a severe recession looming, this kind of laissez faire message instead communicates “risk.” Leaving aside for the moment the pros and cons of his particular proposals, it’s the wrong message in a time of economic anxiety.
  • McCain didn’t do himself any favors by letting his inner Grandpa Simpson shine again this debate. The split screen used on the major networks didn’t work in McCain’s favor:
    In politics it is generally not considered a good sign when voters are laughing at you, not with you. And by the end of the third and last presidential debate, the undecided voters who had gathered in Denver for Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg’s focus group were “audibly snickering” at John McCain’s grimaces, eye-bulging, and repeated references to “Joe the Plumber.”

    I watched the debate on PBS, which did not have a split screen, so I missed most of McCain’s scowls and tongue juts. This morning I saw clips online with the split screen, and it leaves a very different impression of several key exchanges.

  • I’m generally not a fan of David Brooks, but he had the best observation I’ve heard so far summing up the overall tone of the debate: McCain had some good attacks, but it was like watching someone lob cannonballs into a redwood forest. Obama is amazingly unflappable. Aside from McCain’s “get government off our backs” message, there was no coherent theme tying together any of the points he tried to make. His overall approach was scattershot (Fallows has another good piece from a few weeks ago that relates to this, as it typifies McCain’s campaign in general: On strategy and tactics).
  • This YouTube video – a debate between Batman and the Penguin from the old Batman TV show – pretty much sums up last night’s debate: who is Batman, really? And why do we always see him around criminals? The Penguin even says “my friends.”

The Trillion Dollar Meltdown

A couple of weeks ago, Maria got a copy of the book The Trillion Dollar Meltdown. It’s been on her reading list since it came out about 6 months ago, but she had a backlog of books to read, so she’s just getting to it now. The author, Charles Morris, actually wrote the book about a year ago. I’ve only read the Foreward so far – it’s amazingly prescient, and concisely describes the sources of the current market turmoil in a way that is much more lucid than most of what I’m currently seeing in the media:

The sad truth, however, is that subprime is just the first big boulder in an avalanche of asset writedowns that will rattle on through much of 2008. An overhang of subprime-like assets, at least as large, is sitting in corporate debt, commercial mortgages, credit cards, and other portfolios. Even municipal bonds may be at risk. Loss estimates of $400 billion to $500 billion barely get you halfway where.

We are accustomed to thinking of bubbles and crashes in terms of specific markets — like junk bonds, commercial real estate, and tech stocks. Overpriced assets are like poison mushrooms. You eat them, you get sick, you learn to avoid them.

A credit bubble is different. Credit is the air that financial markets breathe, and when the air is poisoned, there’s no place to hide.

Here is a crude gauge of the credit bubble. Not long ago, the sum of all financial assets–stocks, bonds, loans, mortgages, and the like, which are claims on real things–were about equal to global GDP. Now they are approaching four times global GDP. Financial derivatives, a form of claim upon financial assets, now have notional values of more than ten times global GDP.

The soaring ratio of credit to real output is a measure of leverage, or financial risk. Think of an inverted pyramid. The more claims are piled on top of real output, the more wobbly the pyramid becomes.

…By March [2007] I was convinced that the bubble was vastly greater than I had imagined… I expected the mother of all crashes by mid-2008 or so.

My only complaint to Maria was that I wish she had gotten the book about 2 weeks earlier! It would have motivated me to finally take my retirement savings out of the stock market – something I’d been considering for a while now. I was waiting only because I hadn’t made the time to research where else to put it. Now I’m seriously regretting not having acted sooner. At this point I think I’ll cross my fingers for at least a modest recovery before pulling out.

The reason I was thinking about pulling out – well before the recent turmoil – was because of an article I read four years ago, which I was able to dig up just now, thanks to the wonders of The Google:

Mr. Logue [who retired in 1994], a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, decided to go back and check his own records. Would he have done better investing his money than the bureaucrats at the Social Security Administration?

He recorded all the payroll taxes he paid into the system (including the matching amount from his employer), tracked down the return the Social Security Trust Fund earned for each of the 45 years, and then compared the result with what he would have gotten had he been able to invest the same amount of payroll tax money over the same period in the Dow Jones Industrial Average (including dividends).

To his surprise, the Social Security investment won out: $261,372 versus $255,499, a difference of $5,873.

It’s an astonishing finding. The DJIA represents blue-chip stocks. Social Security invests in US Treasury bonds. Over long periods of time, stocks have consistently outperformed bonds. So, you would think that Logue’s theoretical stock investments from 1950 to 1994 would have surely outpaced the return on government bonds.

The fact that they didn’t illustrates one of the hard truths about stock investing: Timing matters.

Although Logue started pouring money into Social Security in the 1950s and early 1960s, some of the best years for stocks, he hadn’t accumulated a lot of money.

So the gains of his theoretical stock portfolio would have been limited.

By the time he had substantial sums, the market swooned for long periods. From 1965 to 1982, for instance, the DJIA made no progress. Logue retired before the real run-up in stocks in the latter half of the late 1990s.

My sense is that my market timing will likely match Mr. Logue’s. The 1920s saw a market boom, followed by the Great Depression, and the stock market didn’t regain its values from the 20s until the mid 1950s. Then the markets stagnated from the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s, before taking off again in the mid 1990s. My hunch is that we’re following this pattern again now, so we’re in for another 20 to 30 years of poorly performing markets (as noted in the Morris quote above, there are likely still other shoes to drop, from derivatives based on credit card debt, commercial real estate, etc). There probably won’t be another boom until around the time I retire. I’ll likely be better off (both psychologically and financially) with my retirement money somewhere other than the stock market.

The Question I Want to Hear in the VP Debate Tonight

The question I want to hear tonight is one that Gwen Ifill asked in the 2004 VP debate. It was unusual for a debate question, in that it was directed solely at one of the candidates:

IFILL: This goes to you, Senator Edwards, and you have two minutes.

Ten men and women have been nominees of their parties since 1976 to be vice president. Out of those ten, you have the least governmental experience of any of them.

What qualifies you to be a heartbeat away?

Depending on how you want to judge being mayor of a town with a population that would all fit in the bleachers at Fenway Park, Palin has even less experience than Edwards did. I doubt she’ll ask this question again tonight though. The McCain campaign is already working the refs, and they would spin it as an openly partisan attack.

Palin is likely having a difficult time preparing for Ifill, because Ifill has a habit of asking questions that force the candidates off their talking points, and make them think on their feet. Like this one from the 2004 VP debate:

IFILL: I will talk to you about health care, Mr. Vice President. You have two minutes. But in particular, I want to talk to you about AIDS, and not about AIDS in China or Africa, but AIDS right here in this country, where black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts.

What should the government’s role be in helping to end the growth of this epidemic?

A generic talking points driven answer about affordable health care would have been glaringly inadequate for this question, and a political pro like Cheney had no problem weaving together an answer on the spot. But given Palin’s recent interview debacles, I can see a question like this producing a real moose-in-the-headlights moment for her.

However, it’s more likely that there will be little drama tonight, and VP debates typically have little to no impact on the overall race. The McCain campaign successfully negotiated for rigid rules in this debate and very limited time for answers (90 seconds) – perfect when you want to just stick to memorized talking points. Still, unlike any Presidential or VP debates in my memory, there’s a chance for a cringe inducing, painful to watch flame-out. One that could bring the whole McCain campaign down with it.

Post Debate Update: I was right about Ifill having a few questions that didn’t square neatly with pre-packaged talking points. But I incorrectly assumed she would make at least some effort to press for something resembling an answer. Palin’s moments of babbling incoherence in the Couric interview came when Couric would ask follow-up questions, to see if Palin had anything to offer beyond her memorized 30-90 second talking points. Here’s Ifill with a good question on when to use nuclear weapons, Palin’s meaningless response, and Ifill then making no effort at all to get an actual answer:

IFILL: Governor, on another issue, interventionism, nuclear weapons. What should be the trigger, or should there be a trigger, when nuclear weapons use is ever put into play?

PALIN: Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be all, end all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet, so those dangerous regimes, again, cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, period.

Our nuclear weaponry here in the U.S. is used as a deterrent. And that’s a safe, stable way to use nuclear weaponry.

But for those countries — North Korea, also, under Kim Jong Il — we have got to make sure that we’re putting the economic sanctions on these countries and that we have friends and allies supporting us in this to make sure that leaders like Kim Jong Il and Ahmadinejad are not allowed to acquire, to proliferate, or to use those nuclear weapons. It is that important.

Can we talk about Afghanistan real quick, also, though?

IFILL: Certainly.

Imagine Palin as President in a situation like the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A.L., in his post The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations makes this cogent point:

What’s saddest I think is that Palin is getting much better reviews than she would have if she were a man. Let’s face it. The press is holding her to a much lower standard for fear of being called sexist by Republicans. Dan Quayle did much better than Palin did in his 1988 debate and he didn’t get nearly the praise she has. I think Joe Biden did an excellent job last night, but at times I almost wished that Hillary had been up on that stage, if for no other reason than to remind people what an intelligent, knowledgeable, competent woman looks like in a debate. If Hillary had demolished Palin in the way Biden did (and she would have), the press would have been much less reluctant to call a spade a spade.

In that sense, I really think Palin is setting the women’s movement back. There’s no reason that her threshold for competence should be so much lower than everyone else’s.

Palin – Another Qualye?

The story just broke that McCain has chosen Sarah Palin – the governor of Alaska – as his running mate. Check out her Wikipedia page to get a reasonably unbiased sense of her background (I’m impressed with her Wikipedia editors – they added information about her as the VP pick within minutes of it hitting the news). It’s hard to overstate what a huge gamble McCain is taking here. I believe he choose her because:

  1. Unlike the others he was considering for VP, she has an unusual combination of characteristics that give her the potential to appeal to both the GOP base and independents: social conservative, female, young, pretty, and – like McCain – she has a mavericky, anti-corruption reputation.
  2. He hopes it’ll give him a chance to improve on the GOP numbers among women, who consistently go for Democrats more than men (and he hopes to pick up on any resentment that might still remain among Clinton supporters).
  3. She has a scorecard that parallels Obama’s in certain respects. In the microcosm of Alaska politics, this young, relatively unknown, ambitious outsider took on and beat the GOP party establishment.

She got some good press from PBS’ Now a few weeks ago, when they aired a story on corruption in Alaska:

The former beauty queen, small town mayor and mother of five is a conservative Republican who ran for office in 2006 and won, promising to clean up corruption—in her own party.

Before the elections, Palin was considered a long shot. But her plain spoken style and willingness to be tough on the oil industry has made her wildly popular here. With the VECO case constantly in the headlines Palin has already forced sweeping ethics reforms on the legislature in Juneau.

So at first glance she seems like a good choice. But I think McCain has skated into Dan Quayle territory by choosing her. After Quayle was chosen as GHW Bush’s VP and made repeated gaffes, he quickly became the butt of endless jokes. What isn’t as well known, however, is that – prior to being chosen as VP – Quayle was well regarded within the party as a junior Senator with a bright future ahead of him. But as Bush quickly learned, he was too green for a rapid transition to the big leagues. Palin has 1 year and 7 months experience as governor, and prior to that she was mayor of a very small town. She makes Obama’s resume look long (and Obama had the benefit of ramping up his campaign skills in his long primary battle with Clinton). Also, the cloistered, oil-soaked world of Alaskan politics is probably not the best place for a brief training before hitting the national scene. It seems to me McCain made the same calculation Bush did when choosing Quayle (and Mondale did when picking Ferraro) – he considered only her polling-related characteristics (her cross over demographic appeal, her personal story, etc.). Neither he nor anyone else has any idea how she will hold up under the withering fire and intense scrutiny of a Presidential campaign. In particular, it’s quite a gamble pitting her toe-to-toe against Biden in the VP debate.

GHW Bush was fortunate that the political fallout of his VP choice wasn’t severe. Bush wasn’t as old as McCain, and didn’t go through four bouts of skin cancer. McCain’s VP choice will (or at least – should) be held to a higher standard given that McCain just turned 72. If he wins, he’ll be the oldest newly inaugurated President in our history. The odds of him having health problems that will require the VP to step in are much higher than previous newly elected Presidents. Choosing Palin fundamentally undermines McCain’s central argument against Obama – that’s he too inexperienced to be President. Palin has even less experience, and would be more likely than previous VPs to suddenly inherit the Presidency. Also, if McCain wins, there’s a good chance he won’t (or at least – shouldn’t) run for a 2nd term, due to his age, which means the mantle of party leader may be passed to his VP in the not too distant future. He’s forcing the entire GOP – and possibly the entire country – to make a very big investment in someone who was completely unknown to 99% of Americans until 30 minutes ago.

Update: a comment from top McCain adviser Charlie Black: “She’s going to learn national security at the foot of the master for the next four years, and most doctors think that he’ll be around at least that long.” Apparently he meant the last part of that sentence as a joke, but it’s not exactly a reassuring one.

Sean’s summary of the situation at nails it:

And that gets back to the heart of the gamble this pick represents. If McCain and Obama each consolidate their bases at the same percentages, Obama wins. There are now numerically more Democrats, and independents favor Obama. Before the conventions, McCain had moved past Obama, mostly because many women in Hillary Clinton’s coalition had failed to warm to the Democratic nominee. Obama was stuck at 83% of his base and McCain had moved from a tie into 87% consolidation. Had this week’s Denver convention not been as successful from a unity standpoint, McCain might not have needed as much to go for broke. If Obama secures his base, wins indies (as he’s easily doing) and dominates in the ground game, game over for McCain. Demographically, the mountain is too steep to climb.

So what does McCain do? He picks a woman specifically to aim a wedge at the Obama base. It’s a demographic pick – all about gaming the vote and little about governing. This is not the resume of a male candidate that would be acceptable…

It’s probably not going to work, but we’ll see some number soon. I think it’s a gamble that McCain will lose. But I do respect the gamble. He looked into the numbers, saw the need to freeze Obama’s base or be swamped on the numbers alone, and he took a big risk. Will a pro-life candidate sell those reluctant Democratic women? Again, unlikely. But kick in a few sexist dismissals – particularly any by Joe Sinatra Biden – and the outrage machine might get itself going.

The Obama Rally on Independence Mall

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The Aftermath of Yesterday’s Primaries

Slate has a fun Delegate Calculator, where you can experiment with different vote totals for the remaining primary states and see how they affect Obama’s and Clinton’s pledged delegate totals. If you play with the red slider across the top, you can see that Clinton would need to win all of the states listed by an average of 58% to Obama’s 42%, in order to exceed his pledged delegate count (averaging all the states like this is an oversimplification of the situation, but it gets the point across). To get within 100 delegates of him (a number I’m arbitrarily picking, where she might credibly argue the difference is too small to be a deciding factor), she’d need to average 53%. (Note the calculator still lists yesterday’s states, where her average percentage wasn’t anywhere close to 58%, and wasn’t even 53%, so the percentages she’ll need going forward are likely even higher than what I just outlined.)

I don’t know the dynamics of the upcoming states in any detail, and I don’t think they’ve been broadly polled yet. But just doing a quick mental comparison of them to demographically similar states, my gut feeling is that the only states where Clinton has a good chance of winning are Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, and Kentucky, with Obama likely to win the other 8 contests. I don’t see her getting within even 100 delegates of him. Even with her boost from yesterday, she is actually likely to fall further behind, even if she wins a few more big states (with the proportional allocation of delegates, such wins will only net her a handful of delegates; Obama’s strengths in the more numerous smaller states has a powerful cumulative effect).

That means her path to the nomination is not through the popular vote, but through the superdelegates. The only way she can persuade the superdelegates to overturn the overall popular vote is to get traction with attacks that thoroughly undermine belief in Obama’s capabilities. She needs to decimate the superdelegates’ confidence in his ability to lead the party effectively in the general campaign. This means she will have to really bloody Obama without getting equally bloodied in return. We got a taste of these kinds of attacks in Ohio and Texas, and it’s safe to say it will only get nastier.

This strategy is of course predicated on Obama not swatting back the attacks effectively. Obama’s advisor David Axelrod said today, “If Sen. Clinton wants to take the debate to various places, we’ll join that debate. We’ll do it on our terms and in our own way, but if she wants to make issues like ethics and disclosure and law firms and real estate deals and all that stuff issues, as I’ve said before, I don’t know why they’d want to go there, but I guess that’s where they’ll take the race.”

Regardless of who emerges the winner, the big concern for Democrats is that this will get really, really ugly, and do serious damage to both candidates as the general election quickly approaches. An exciting intra-party contest is good for the party to a point, as it keeps a media focus on the contest, and sharpens the candidates skills before the real battle with the other party begins (for example, Obama has become a much better debater, and the Clinton campaign has learned when – and when not – to put Bill on the campaign trail). But when the issue debates are largely exhausted and the contest begins to turn largely on personal attacks, that is when we are beyond that point. The last thing the Democrats need is lingering, bitter factionalism in the party, and a candidate that is badly tarnished even before the hardcore mudslinging of the general election begins.

The Case for Obama, Part II

In my previous post on Obama I focused on how he compares to Clinton, and the question of his experience (on that point, I recently found another post from Hilzoy that delves further into his record, and will leave you scratching your head at the “Obama has no substance” meme). What I didn’t get into was the question of his ability to withstand the vicious character assaults that we know will come in the general election campaign. Clinton has hammered away at this point – that she has been on the receiving end of all kinds of character assassination attempts, and has survived, and that Obama just isn’t ready for it.

Glenn Greenwald has been following this for the past couple of weeks, and has made some key observations:

Over the last week, we learned that: (a) Obama is a closet socialist as evidenced by the Che Guevara picture a volunteer posted on a campaign office wall; (b) Obama’s wife, Michelle, is both self-absorbed and subversive, as she secretly hates the U.S. and will only believe it’s a good country if her husband becomes President; (c) Obama is a thief and a plagiarist; and,

(d) in one of the most repulsive screeds in memory, courtesy of National Review‘s Lisa Schiffren, former Dan Quayle aide, the fact that Obama’s parents are a mixed-race couple strongly suggests they were probably Communists, because who else, besides Communists, would marry outside of their own race? …

So the question isn’t whether Obama will be relentlessly pelted by the sprawling appendages of the Right-wing edifice and its media allies with the most grotesque, bottom-feeding, substance-free, personality-based attacks. Of course he will be — ones as ugly as, if not uglier than, anything we’ve seen yet…

The real question is whether Obama, as he did this week, will be able to render these attacks impotent, even cause them to backfire, because they and their propagators will appear to be so ugly and small and irrelevant in light of the type of candidate he is, the rhetoric he produces, the vision to which he aspires. I have no idea whether Obama’s transcendent charisma or the historically demonstrated efficacy of low-life right-wing attacks will be more potent — I think it’s a much more difficult challenge than many Obama supporters (by virtue of understandable desire, rather than objective assessment) have convinced themselves it will be — but there probably aren’t very many priorities more important than cleansing our political process of this type of dirt and petty distraction.

What our political establishment relies on more than anything else is keeping Americans distracted away from what they are really doing and focused instead on how Mike Dukakis looks in a helmet and whether he’d want to murder his wife’s rapist; on blue dresses and penile spots; on the inspiration for Love Story and who invented the Internet; on how John Kerry looks in windsurfing tights, on how manly George Bush’s brush-clearing is, and whether Nancy Pelosi’s scarf-wearing means she loves the Terrorists. That’s how our Beltway culture remains indescribably broken and corrupt without much protest or backlash.

Rendering irrelevant these sorts of stupid, malicious, small-minded distractions could produce real substantive value…

This, to me, is one of the most appealing aspects of Obama. While cheap character attacks have always had their place in politics, they have sunk to new lows over the past 15 years or so. I see the Clinton campaign accepting that landscape as a given, and that this Fall we would see a general election campaign that would plumb the depths of the sewers like never before if Clinton were the nominee. I’m not suggesting Obama will be treated more gently – I’m suggesting that he has the capacity to expose those tactics for what they are – to make them backfire on their perpetrators – in a way that Clinton does not.

Since Greenwald wrote the above piece, not even a week ago, we’ve already seen more absurd attacks thrown at Obama, and another example of his capacity to respond effectively:

…nothing was more predictable than watching the “Obamas-are-unpatriotic-subversives” slur travel in the blink of an eye from the Jack Kingstons, Fox News adolescent McCarthyites, and Bill Kristols of the world to AP, MSNBC, and CNN….

Far more notable is Barack Obama’s response to these depressingly familiar attacks. In response, he’s not scurrying around slapping flags all over himself or belting out the National Anthem, nor is he apologizing for not wearing lapels, nor is he defensively trying to prove that — just like his Republican accusers — he, too, is a patriot, honestly. He’s not on the defensive at all. Instead, he’s swatting away these slurs with the dismissive contempt they deserve, and then eagerly and aggressively engaging the debate on offense because he’s confident, rather than insecure, about his position:

About not wearing an American flag lapel pin, Obama said Republicans have no lock on patriotism.

“A party that presided over a war in which our troops did not get the body armor they needed, or were sending troops over who were untrained because of poor planning, or are not fulfilling the veterans’ benefits that these troops need when they come home, or are undermining our Constitution with warrantless wiretaps that are unnecessary?

“That is a debate I am very happy to have. We’ll see what the American people think is the true definition of patriotism.”

Ever since 2002 — at least — most national Democrats have quivered with fear the moment Republicans utter words like “patriotism” and “national security.” Traumatized by the 2002 mid-term elections, George Bush’s 70% approval ratings, and the media’s lock-step adoration of the Commander-in-Chief, to this day they become frozen the moment such attacks are even suggested and desperately and defensively try to comply with whatever demands are made of them. Like many trauma victims, they can never break free of the terror from their past, and still live perpetually in 2002, whereby George Bush’s invocation of the words “patriotism” and “terrorism” can send them into spasms of fear and submission.

Perhaps (in part) because he wasn’t in Washington in 2002, Obama’s response here is the opposite of all of that. He’s not the slightest bit defensive. To the contrary, he went out of his way to raise numerous examples of why it is the flag-waving Republicans whose “patriotism” ought to be in doubt, if anyone’s should be. Without having to do so, Obama even went and raised the issue which Republicans currently think is their big, bad weapon — warrantless spying on Americans — and used it against them, to argue that spying on Americans is a profound violation of core American political principles, a far more substantive test of “patriotism” than what pretty accessories one wears with one’s clothes.

I don’t see a compelling argument that Clinton would be more adroit at dealing with these kinds of attacks. If anything, I think she would be a weaker general election candidate. Anonymous Liberal has a good summary of the arguments in Obama’s favor:

1) In every contest that’s been held so far, Obama has done much better than Clinton among independent and Republican voters, a strong indication that he has more cross-over appeal.

2) Obama has MUCH better favorable/unfavorable ratings than Clinton.

3) Democratic members of Congress from red states and red districts are overwhelmingly choosing to endorse Obama over Clinton and are arguing that he will do better than Clinton in their states/districts.

4) Obama is a fresh-face who many Americans have not yet formed an opinion of and are willing to give a chance. By contrast, virtually every American has long ago formed an opinion of Hillary Clinton and–whether fair or not–for many that opinion is negative. Many otherwise persuadable folk will simply tune her out. If you doubt this, ask any disgruntled Republican you know whether he/she would ever consider voting for Hillary. Ask the same about Obama. Notice the different reaction.

5) Obama is–by leaps and bounds–a better orator and a more charismatic and likable figure than Clinton. Close you eyes and imagine them each delivering their keynote address at the Democratic Convention. Who do you imagine would be better able to inspire the electorate and win new converts to the progressive cause?

6) Obama has done much better than Clinton at attracting new people into the political process. Which candidate do you think will do a better job increasing Democratic turnout in November?

7) Obama matches up much better against John McCain than Hillary does. McCain is beloved by the media. Clinton is despised. But the media likes Obama and would root for his historical candidacy to succeed. Furthermore, Obama provides a much better contrast with McCain on foreign policy. If Clinton is the nominee, it will be 2004 all over again with Clinton constantly being accused of flip-floppery on the war and being forced to explain her initial vote for it. If Obama is the nominee, he can present a much clearer and more consistent critique of the war and McCain’s foreign policy generally. Obama’s youth and vitality will also contrast well with McCain’s age.

A point I would add is the skill and competency of Obama’s campaign compared to Clinton’s. In Nevada and South Carolina he had to build his own organizations from scratch to compete with Clinton’s early dominance of the party machinery, and he did so quite successfully. In general he has run a tight ship – few gaffes, little turnover in staff, and good strategy. In contrast, Clinton led with a glass jaw “inevitability” strategy (an approach where it’s hard to make a convincing second pitch when you turn out not be inevitable), picked the wrong people to run her campaign (that’s according to none other than Leon Panetta – Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff), and according to The Economist, her campaign has been plagued by infighting:

Mrs Clinton’s campaign has been riven by faction-fights between the “white boys” who are close to her husband and “the Hillary girls” who are close to her. It has also been hobbled by the reluctance of her advisers to bring the boss bad news. Mrs Solis Doyle’s departure was reportedly precipitated by her failure to tell Mrs Clinton that her campaign was running out of money. Mrs Clinton, it seems, had to lend the campaign $5m of her own cash.

Surprisingly, her team has had trouble with the basic mechanics of the campaign, from not being aware of the delegate rules in Texas until it was too late to adjust their strategy accordingly to not even filing a full slate of delegates in Pennsylvania, which could cause complications for her if she wins in Pennsylvania. While running a campaign is not the same as running the executive branch, running a large, complex national campaign is a test of essential managerial skill.

So far I’ve seen Obama be successful beyond the party base in a way that Clinton hasn’t. I’ve seen him respond forcefully and persuasively to the attacks that have been launched against him. And I’ve seen him run a primary campaign that’s superior to Clinton’s in several key aspects. For Clinton to turn things around, she’ll have to accomplish at least two of the following three tasks: 1. have really big wins in Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, 2. get a majority of the superdelegates, and 3. manage to get the Florida and Michigan delegations seated at the convention, on terms favorable to her. The prospects for at least two of these to go her way are growing increasingly dim by the day, as Obama has closed the gap in the Ohio and Texas polls, he’s catching up in superdelegates, and it’s anybody’s guess at this stage what will happen with the Florida and Michigan delegations.

小浜市 (Obama) Loves Obama

I blog about several totally unrelated topics, so it’s fun when there is the occasional random connection between them. From behind the Nikkei subscription wall:

A small city on the Sea of Japan coast, seemingly far removed from the intense U.S. presidential race across the Pacific, is enthusiastically rooting for Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama.

Its motive is not political. Residents here simply want a U.S. president who happens to share a name with their hometown, and in turn to see their city become internationally known — and perhaps get a boost to its tourism.

The city of Obama suddenly came under the spotlight after a Japanese blog mentioned that there is a Fukui Prefecture city bearing the name of the candidate.

Hoping to boost their city’s profile, a group of residents from Obama, Fukui Prefecture, have launched an “I Love Obama” campaign in support of U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Obama means “little beach town” in Japanese. Reuters had this to say:

“So far we have been unilaterally giving him ‘love calls’ as we have a close affinity with him, although we have not met him,” said Hideki Ikegami, a city official in charge of promoting tourism. “Perhaps Mr Obama has yet to know and feel the real festive mood prevailing here.”

And this from The Guardian:

As the race for the nomination heated up, the town’s tourism office received a stream of calls from locals wishing Obama well. On Super Tuesday, supporters nervously clutched photos of Obama as they watched the results come in at their makeshift headquarters in a hotel, whose lobby is currently home to a large portrait of the candidate.

Obama’s most ardent fans, who include a hotel executive and a couple of farmers, believe their campaign, like that of their hero, is gathering momentum. With his name recognition at an all-time high, they plan to produce hachimaki “victory” headbands – a common campaign accoutrement in Japan – themed lacquerware chopsticks, and manju sweet buns bearing his name and face.

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