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Time To Start Worrying

“A few months ago,” Mr. Brooks concluded, “Mr. Obama was riding his talents. … Now, Democrats are deeply worried their nominee will lose in November.”

Eh, not really. That logic fixates on all of the ammunition that Republicans have at their disposal against Mr. Obama. But it ignores the more basic question of whether voters, upon being exposed to the caricature, will actually buy into it. ~Steve Kornacki [1]

Hope really does spring eternal, doesn’t it?  Consider John Judis’ latest article [2], in which he seems to confirm Brooks’ description of growing Democratic anxiety:

Meanwhile, Obama’s weaknesses as a general election candidate grow more apparent with each successive primary.  

The main difference is that Judis wrote this after the Pennsylvania results, and Brooks wrote his column before them.  They are otherwise making closely related arguments.  Judis went on to say:

Indeed, if you look at Obama’s vote in Pennsylvania, you begin to see the outlines of the old George McGovern coalition that haunted the Democrats during the ’70s and ’80s, led by college students and minorities. In Pennsylvania, Obama did best in college towns (60 to 40 percent in Penn State’s Centre County) and in heavily black areas like Philadelphia.


Its ideology is very liberal. Whereas in the first primaries and caucuses, Obama benefited from being seen as middle-of-the-road or even conservative, he is now receiving his strongest support from voters who see themselves as “very liberal.” In Pennsylvania, he defeated Clinton among “very liberal” voters by 55 to 45 percent, but lost “somewhat conservative” voters by 53 to 47 percent and moderates by 60 to 40 percent. In Wisconsin and Virginia, by contrast, he had done best against Clinton among voters who saw themselves as moderate or somewhat conservative.


Obama even seems to be acquiring the religious profile of the old McGovern coalition. In the early primaries and caucuses, Obama did very well among the observant. In Maryland, he defeated Clinton among those who attended religious services weekly by 61 to 31 percent. By contrast, in Pennsylvania, he lost to Clinton among these voters by 58 to 42 percent and did best among voters who never attend religious services, winning them by 56 to 44 percent. There is nothing wrong with winning over voters who are very liberal and who never attend religious services; but if they begin to become Obama’s most fervent base of support, he will have trouble (to say the least) in November.

Those who are sympathetic to the idea that Obama represents a break with the past may be both heartened and terrified by this.  On the one hand, this evidence could be used to rebut my claim that Obama seems to be an old-fashioned liberal with respect to much of domestic policy.  One could argue that he has to appear to be more to the left than he “really” is, because that is where his primary coalition is, and he will eventually, to use Kaus’ word, pivot to the center as all nominees supposedly have to do in the summer, and more importantly would not govern in the manner of a progressive.  Besides, you might add, his health care plan puts him to the right of Clinton on that issue.  You could push this more and say that he is doing exactly what I said he would have to do, shoring up his support on the left, because this had been weak earlier in the primaries when he was talking up unity, bipartisanship and reconciliation, and that he will later turn out to be the coalition-expanding, independent-attracting dynamo that many hoped/feared he would be.  Then again, the demographic profile of his coalition for most of the primaries has actually remained pretty constant, and to the extent that it has changed it has only grown more predictably liberal over time, which suggests that even if I am wrong about the content of Obama’s liberalism his coalition of supporters may end up identifying him in the public mind with their politics and thus make him less electable. 

Whether you buy the “Greater New England” thesis that explains Obama’s success in such places as Wisconsin and Iowa, he seems to prevail in primaries in those almost entirely white states where there has been a particularly strong progresstive tradition in the politics of those states, so the electoral limitations of a candidate identified with this coalition seem clear.  Technically, the composition of his coalition and the content of Obama’s liberalism are distinct matters, but if his primary coalition is liberal or very liberal this will tend to draw attention to those areas where Obama is more liberal than Clinton and will cause people to neglect those instances when he is moving to her right (for instance, on Social Security to the endless aggravation of Paul Krugman).  Of course, perception counts for a great deal, and if Obama becomes identified with the profile of his voters, as McGovern (who was personally more conservative than Obama) was, as a practical matter it won’t make any difference whether he is actually neoliberal or “centrist” on a number of things, because he will be perceived according to the views of those who support him rather than his own stated positions one way or another. 

This is perhaps the same reason why so many on the left became convinced that George W. Bush was some great right-winger, since his primary coalition in the fight with McCain was made up of the most conservative members of the GOP and may also help explain why conservatives embraced him as “one of their own,” despite plentiful evidence to the contrary, out of resistance to McCain’s campaign.  The images forged during primary battles do not disappear quickly (hence McCain remains in the fantasies of the media the reasonable, moderate Republican!), and the opposing party has every incentive to exaggerate the “extremism” of the nominee.  I still think my earlier assessment makes sense based on what Obama has said about policy, but perhaps we on the right are mistaking episodes of necessary primary pandering to a voting coalition for Obama’s convictions and that Obama would govern as a liberal every bit as much as Bush has governed as a conservative, which is to say not much. 

Whether or not Obama really is as far to the left as I think him to be, the profile of Obama primary voters will reinforce that image throughout the year.  That is really why Pennsylvania will be so damaging to him.  It isn’t just that certain demographic groups in Pennsylvania voted against him by large margins, though that isn’t a good sign for general election performance, but it is the impression the rest of the country gets from the results is that he appeals to a fairly small part of the country and to people whose ideological persuasion is not shared by all that many Americans.  He runs the risk of being pigeonholed as Huckabee was, except that this is happening much later in the process.  What happened in Pennsylvania will end up, in a somewhat circular fashion, ensuring that the pattern of voting in Pennsylvania will occur again in November, because the Pennsylvania results seem to confirm the limits of Obama’s appeal and can then be used and re-used frequently to characterise Obama as past Democratic nominees have been characterised.  In Iowa Obama once boasted that every place he visits becomes Obama country, but after spending the better part of the last six weeks in Pennsylvania this obviously didn’t happen.  The results came back almost as if they had been generated by a computer program that plugged in the demographics of the state and ran an equation based on Ohio’s voting.  Everyone knew that Obama wasn’t going to win in Pennsylvania, but the sheer intractability of the demographic groups who didn’t vote for him is what has to worry those who want to see the Democrats win the White House in the general election.

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Time To Start Worrying"

#1 Comment By vanya On April 23, 2008 @ 10:37 am

I think the Democrats could run George McGovern himself this fall and still win this election. Everything is running against McCain – the war, the economy, gas prices. Ross Douthat made a good point over at the Atlantic – McCain can’t crack 45% even with the Democratic nominees both stumbling around tearing each other down. And I don’t see him motivating the evangelical base the way Bush did. I can’t think of any time in recent history more likely to produce a left-wing President. If we get someone as moderate as Obama I think we’re getting off easy. Really this should have been John Edwards’ year and he is a lot more liberal than Barack.

#2 Comment By Daniel Larison On April 23, 2008 @ 11:18 am

With all respect to Ross and his analysis, McCain has broken 50% in Rasmussen’s tracking poll and once led Obama by ten points in that poll. Ross cites the RCP average for all national polling, which is fair enough, but he isn’t taking into account the factor that the candidate of the non-incumbent party typically polls better in the spring than he does in the fall. McCain has come back a bit to 48% or 47% in recent days, but I believe he has been above 45% for weeks. According to Rasmussen, the last time he was below 45% was in February when he was still consolidating his position after effectively winning the nomination. If you take the RCP average as definitive, Ross’ point stands, but daily tracking seems to me to be inherently more reliable as a way to get a sense of overall trends.

Also, Ross’ argument applies to Obama with even more force: because it *is* a major Democratic year, and he hasn’t gotten above 46% for months (acc. to Rasmussen), Obama is in some kind of trouble.

I like George McGovern. If they wanted to give him a second chance, I could probably vote for him if he reprised the “Come Home, America” argument. Maybe he can be the great party unifier! (That’s a joke, btw.)

#3 Comment By conradg On April 23, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

If we’re going to assess Obama’s negatives, let’s not forget race. A better explanation for why Obama does poorly among whites in Ohio, rural PA, Kentucky, etc., and better in New England, WIsconsin, and Iowa, is the difference in racial attitudes in those states. If you hadn’t noticed, Obama is black, and though the media narrative refuses to go there, it’s having a major effect. This has always been the major problem with his campaign, swamping the niceties of liberal/conservative or elite/working class dichotomies. And that’s why the generational differences in voting seem so huge – racial attitudes are far different among the young than the old. Somebody out there ought to do a serious analysis of the racial factor in all this. It’s kind of strange that no one seems to be doing that.

#4 Comment By Daniel Larison On April 23, 2008 @ 8:35 pm

I haven’t forgotten it. I wrote a [3] partly about it yesterday. It seems to me that quite a few people have been doing analysis along these lines. Perhaps it has not been as rigorous as it could be, but the basic pattern that Obama tends to do well in the overwhelmingly white states and those with large black populations, but has worse showings in more mixed states and states with large Hispanic populations has not been lost on anyone. I think a lot of people have taken these things more or less for granted for the last two months. But if you’re right that it isn’t being discussed that much, it isn’t all that strange. I would guess that major media outlets don’t want to draw more attention to this than they already have, and I also think a lot of them don’t want to believe it and are trying to explain it in other ways. Also, the generational difference is not universal. Obama meets considerable resistance with young people in many of these swing states and some of the places, such as Kentucky, where very few people seem to like him. If it is racial attitudes that are hurting Obama in many of these states, and I don’t doubt that this is part of it, these attitudes are also being reproduced among the “Millennials” (the most ridiculous name for a generation yet).

#5 Comment By conradg On April 24, 2008 @ 2:36 pm


As the visiting Obama flack emeritus here, I must say that I for one am more than a little worried about his chances in November after the PA showing. I’m not much worried about his getting the nomination, but I am worried about the combat fatigue that already seems to be getting Obama down. I notice that he seems not to enjoy campaigning so much anymore, now that it’s basically a slog through the mud. This isn’t what he expected the Democratic primary season to be. He was ready for this from Republicans, but it’s more than a little disheartening to see Democrats behaving this way. The question is whether he has time to turn it around – both in himself and in the electorate. I still have hope, but I admit it’s not as hopeful as it was in February.

As for his poor showing in PA, part of the age problems are that he’s running against Mrs. Familiarity. Thing is, McCain has come to seem very familiar on the national scene as well, and in times of anxiety, people tend to go for the familiar – maybe even cling to it. It’s worth noting that Bush won in 2000 during times of great prosperity, when it seemed like we had the luxury of going with a new, unfamiliar face (though tied to an old name). There may be something “safe” about both Hillary and McCain that reassures that vast swath of voters who either don’t pay attention or don’t like the idea of something too new – such as a black man who talks about change.

#6 Comment By Daniel Larison On April 24, 2008 @ 9:55 pm

I don’t know that he ever enjoyed campaigning that much, not that I can blame him. Who would enjoy it? I think you have to be some kind of maniac to enjoy doing this stuff, and I tend to agree with the sympathetic view that Obama is, more or less, a fairly normal person, at least for a politician. His original chant, “fired up! ready to go!” came from a campaign appearance where Obama was definitely *not* fired up at first and seemed to find the whole process rather miserable. This is part of the reason, I suspect, why he keeps away from the press as much as he does–he finds their yammering exhausting and ridiculous, as any halfway sane person would after the first couple of months. Of course McCain loves it–he is vainglorious and unbalanced, and the media feed off of these things.

It is in this light that I understand Obama’s recent complaint that he was not allowed to eat his waffle in peace, which has inexplicably become one of the hot topics of our day. Frankly, it’s moments such as these that remind me that Obama really is more normal than the sociopaths he’s competing against–normal people don’t want to talk to reporters about Jimmy Carter as they eat breakfast. They want to eat their breakfast. Maybe normal people don’t run for President, and perhaps you have to be crazy to do that, but of all the stupid things to criticise him about this “waffle” business is by far the most absurd I have ever seen.

I think he has always hated campaigning, but until now it has yielded enough success to make it seem worthwhile. Perhaps now the value of it doesn’t seem to be as great as it did in the past. In a way, that is is an argument in support of him, because it means that he isn’t like these other pols. Then again, it could be used against him as evidence that he doesn’t have quite the same insane obsession with politics that his competitor has, which means that he is ultimately a less powerful general election candidate.

#7 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On April 25, 2008 @ 6:36 am

The campaign has come to resemble the battle scene in Orson Welles’s Falstaff, which we first see as a sweeping romantic scene in panorama, but then the camera pans in to show in close-up a few exhausted men pounding one another in the mud.

A helluva way to run a railroad.