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The Democrats' Race to the White House: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Coronation

Part Two of a Two-Part Series
WDPAC Insider's Bulletin

As the campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination began to unfold last year, the race had a lot to recommend it for the public’s close attention. First, there were plenty of candidates from whom to choose: at one point, there were eight. And this was both a substantial and historically interesting crop: among others, the roll call featured no less than a former first lady, a sitting governor who was once a member of the President’s cabinet and a former Congressman, and a pair of U.S. Senators with a combined total of 66 years of Congressional service between them. It boasted three “firsts”: the fist female candidate with a real chance of winning both a major party nomination and the presidency itself, the first African-American candidate truly in competition, and the first Latino candidate seriously in the mix. Finally, the Democratic campaign seemed likely to feature the re-emergence of former President Bill Clinton, the only Democrat in the second half of the 20th century to win consecutive presidential elections and the most popular contemporary Democratic political figure on the scene today.

Equally important to the Democratic race at the outset was who it would not include: to the relief of many Democrats their 2004 nominee, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry said “no”, and to the disappointment of some, former Vice President Al Gore has stayed out. Even limited dismay at Mr. Gore’s refusal to throw his hat into the ring represented something of a reversal of fortune for the former Vice President – at one time his critics feared the 2000 Democratic standard bearer would run in 2004 (he didn’t) after “blowing” his White House bid to George W. Bush. This just goes to show what four years, an Oscar and a Nobel Prize can do to change the way folks look at a person.

Above all else, what the 2008 Democratic race had at the outset was a clear frontrunner. New York Senator Hillary Clinton had all the competitive advantages to which a candidate could aspire: name recognition, money, organization, the Democratic establishment, and Bill. On the substantive front, she could boast eight years of experience in the U.S. Senate, perhaps most important as a member of the powerful Armed Service Committee, and eight years of diplomatic experience traveling the globe while representing the country on the international stage as President Clinton’s personal emissary. Conventional wisdom had the race for the nomination over but for the shouting, and expected a Clinton coronation at this summer’s Democratic National Convention in Denver. Well, in a presidential campaign that has been noteworthy for its unexpected twists and turns on both sides of the partisan divide, the biggest surprise of all is that today, Illinois Senator Barack Obama seems more likely to become the first minority nominee of a major party for President of the United States than does Senator Clinton to become the first female to lead a major party ticket into the fall campaign.

While it may yet be premature to anoint Senator Obama as the Democratic “frontrunner”, it’s not hard to understand why many folks have given him the moniker and it’s easier yet to see that Senator Clinton can no longer lay claim to that title. On February 12th Obama decisively won primaries in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia (the “Potomac Primary”). One week later, he prevailed in contests in Hawaii and Wisconsin further extending an already impressive winning streak that has seen him shut Mrs. Clinton out in all of February’s post-Super Tuesday contests.

Speaking of Super Tuesday, the Democratic race was supposed to be decided by then. According to conventional wisdom, the front-loaded candidate selection process decisively favored Senator Clinton because she alone among the Democratic contestants had the celebrity status to adequately organize and raise the enormous amount of money it would take to compete successfully in both the key early caucuses (Iowa and Nevada) and primaries (New Hampshire and South Carolina) and then across the country in the more than 20 Super Tuesday states at once. Of course, as it turned out, the Illinois Senator was surprisingly well-funded and organized and he was able to split the early contests with Senator Clinton: Mr. Obama won in Iowa and South Carolina and Mrs. Clinton prevailed in New Hampshire and Nevada (Mrs. Clinton also claimed victories in the uncontested primaries in Michigan and Florida, states which at this moment will send no delegates to the August convention because of rules violations in the conduct of their primaries). While Mrs. Clinton won most of Super Tuesday’s biggest prizes – California, New Jersey and New York – Senator Obama won the lion’s share of the states that were contested that day.

Thus far, Senator Obama has won more delegates to the national convention in the primaries and caucuses (these delegates are formally known as “pledged delegates”) than has Senator Clinton (more on this later), and the Obama campaign is in better share financially. It’s also important to note that Mr. Obama’s campaign appears more settled than is Mrs. Clinton’s … Mrs. Clinton has suffered from staff and surrogate-generated snafus since the beginning of the year that have made her campaign appear to be in disarray. That she recently replaced her campaign manager and accepted the resignation of the deputy has only reinforced that perception, and to make matters even worse the campaign appears baffled about how best to deploy the former President going forward given his rocky performance (to put it mildly) thus far.

With the crucial Ohio and Texas primaries on tap for March 4th, the New York Senator doesn’t have forever to get her campaign back on track. These contests are shaping up as “must wins” for Senator Clinton with the April 22nd Pennsylvania primary … perhaps the decisive contest … looming on the horizon.

The longer the Democratic primaries fail to identify the party’s prospective standard bearer the more critical the unelected convention “super delegates” become. Super delegates, unlike “pledged delegates” who are chosen in primaries, caucuses and conventions, are members of the Democratic Party hierarchy – elected officials and Democratic National Committee members for example. These super delegates are automatic voting delegates at the national convention. To date, Senator Clinton has the edge among super delegates who have publicly announced their support for a candidate. Conversely, Senator Obama currently leads among pledged delegates.

If Senator Obama arrives at the convention with the lead among pledged delegates but shy of the 2,025 total delegates needed for the nomination, and the super delegates nonetheless throw the nomination to Senator Clinton, the Democrats risk a backlash from grassroots Obama supporters who may reject the legitimacy of the convention’s choice.

As the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has grown increasingly competitive between two candidates whose differences on substantive policy issues appear to be minimal at most, it comes as no surprise that the contest has also grown more divisive and, at times, personal. Voting in the primaries and caucuses has tended to break along demographic lines, and pundits have begun speculating about the prospect of a splintering of the Democratic coalition that could make it extremely difficult … even with the prospect of victory in the air … for the Party to rally behind its eventual nominee. Imagine how much more difficult it may be for the Democrats to unite if the will of Democratic caucus goers and primary voters is perceived as being ignored or spurned by super delegate power brokers.

As ominous as that may seem for the Democrats, there is some good news for them to crow about. Their enthusiasm and that of Democrat-leaning voters is clearly far outpacing that displayed by their Republican and Republican-leaning counterparts. A prime example in found in Virginia, among the reddest of “red” states, which hasn’t given its electoral votes to the Democratic ticket since the 1964 Johnson landslide. It is significant that Virginia’s primaries are completely open; i.e., any registered voter can cast a ballot in either primary, but not both. On February 12th, both the Democratic and Republican parties conducted presidential primaries in Virginia. More than twice as many voters cast ballots in the Democratic contest (just under 1 million) as in the Republican (just under 500,000). In fact, Senator Obama received more votes in winning the Democratic contest than there were total votes cast in the Republican primary (won by Arizona Senator John McCain).

As the presidential nominating contests proceed, the biggest fundamental challenge for the Democrats will be to avoid seeming to disenfranchise their grassroots supporters. That happens at the risk of squandering the present level of excitement, expectation and enthusiasm that will make their standard bearer the favorite going into the general election campaign with the Republicans.

For the Republicans, whose presumptive nominee is Senator McCain, the prime challenge … and it is a difficult and tricky one … is to simultaneously reach out to, reunite and re-energize the conservative coalition that held together for a quarter century to elect both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush twice, and to maintain the support of independents who have been a major source of John McCain’s support. Many members of the former are, to put it gently, skeptical about McCain’s conservative credentials and intentions while the latter, for all their well-known and long-standing affection for McCain, have also shown an affinity for Barack Obama in this campaign. Now that the Arizona Senator sits securely atop the GOP field, we are about to find out how deftly the maverick “foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution” is able to maneuver in crossing what promises to be very rugged political terrain.

Click here to view Part One of this series, “The Race to the White House: The GOP Campaign Takes Shape”