Note: I have vowed not to look at the horse race too closely till after Labor Day, but with the VP choice on the near horizon, here's a thoughtful essay by longtime commenter Bruce B - please read and react.
Many experienced, progressive Democrats were concerned about our party’s choice of Senator Barack Obama as its Presidential standard bearer. I was one of them. He has little experience; while his actual platform is substantive, its popular expression and interpretation comes in vague and easily satirized bromides of “hope” and “change”; some of the most effective tactics in his campaign, such as the giant rallies and the Oprah endorsement, had little shelf life. Despite the incessant bleatings of a section of the media (take a bow, Rachel Maddow and Gene Robinson), he did not accumulate votes so strongly in the primaries, especially in the second half of the schedule. He had trouble “closing the sale”; and he continues to have trouble with key constituencies he needs to win, especially the white working class. Finally, there is the 600 lb gorilla in the room: is America ready for an African-American President?
Make no mistake: I am proud to support Obama, proud to have him as the nominee of my party, and whomever he chooses for VP, I will work my tail off for his election. Obama is incredibly intelligent and authentic, substantive and thoughtful. He is an orator of the highest quality, a superb organizer, and has a knack for building coalitions. While I have lately had disagreements with some of his moves towards the center, he has progressive instincts and core beliefs that have been equaled by few major American politicians in recent years. He is clearly still a work in progress – how could he not be? – but he has the potential to be a great President.
My concern right now – and this should be the concern of all Democrats and progressives – is that he get the chance to be a President at all, whether a great, good, or indifferent one. I am concerned that Barack Obama will not win the election.
Any experienced poll watcher shares my concern, and genuine reflection shows the seriousness of the situation. The discussion has been, “why isn’t Obama ahead by ten points?” The discussion should be, “what will it take to elect Obama?”
The answer to the question of why he is not 10 pts ahead is of course complex, but also very easy. While not reducible to race, it revolves around race. In the Democratic primaries – and let’s recall that his nomination victory was, to be euphemistic, less than overwhelming, especially when the caucus states are removed – the section of the electorate that sees Obama’s race as a plus or neutral was much, much larger than it will be in the general election. Start with the fact that the Black electorate is almost all Democratic. Add in the self-defined “progressive whites” – the college towns, the knowledge workers, and so on – and you had the bulk of Obama’s coalition. It was enough to win the nomination, barely. It is not enough to win the general election. To do that, he needs to attract the white working class. (I am assuming he will hold onto his current strong position, a little over 70%, with Latino voters.) And this he did not do in most primaries, at least in the required numbers, and he so far has not done so in the general election.
Let’s avoid the discussion of “is this racism”? As the pundits like to say, that’s not a helpful way to frame it. The fact is, for many of the white working class “swing” voters – and there are more of them this election than in the past few – McCain is the default, easy choice. It is less of a jump to vote for a white war hero who has been in the Senate since you were a teenager than some guy you never heard of until a few months ago who looks a heck of a lot different than any President in history, has a foreign sounding name, a minister who scares you – well, you know the arguments.
So, Democrats, forget what Rachel Maddow, Gene Robinson, and – sadly – Keith Olbermann are telling you. This is a damn tough election to win. Obama is the underdog. People have started to make up their minds, and we don’t like the way they are making them up, as the chart below, from fivethirtyeight.com, shows.
The overall math of this election is surprisingly simple. We know how Obama will do amongst the Black and Latino votes. The Black vote will be in the range of 12% -13% of the electorate: Obama will get 11 out of 12 votes. The Latino vote will be in the range of 10% of the electorate: Obama will get 7 out of 10 votes. Asian and “other” votes will be about 4% -- assume a rough split.
That leaves approximately 74% of the vote as white voters, down from 77% in 2004. Obama needs about 40-41% of those votes. By my calculation, interpolating from his standing in the various polls, he is currently at 30-35%.
One final point on poll-watching. Everything we know about how voters react in a situation where there is a breakthrough first-time Black candidate tells us that it is likely that Obama will underperform by at least a few points against the final polls. This is the “Bradley effect.” Do we KNOW that this will happen? No, we don’t, as a Black President is unexplored territory. But because of the history, we have to look at the polls with caution, and with this in mind.
So let me cut to the chase. Obama needs all the help he can get. Specifically, he needs 7-10% worth of help amongst white voters. His Vice Presidential choice is the next key watershed, the next chance for a boost, and one of the most important. As events have unfolded, it has become clear that there really is one VP who can give Obama the maximum possible boost. All the other choices pale next to Hillary Rodham Clinton.
As events have unfolded, the decision tree of possible running mates has narrowed. Does anyone seriously think that either Evan Bayh, neutral on all things, or Tim Kaine, who as Tom Watson has pointed out is only the third most popular Democrat in Virginia, can give Obama the boost he needs? Kathleen Sibelius is an even worse choice. She would be perceived as a tokenist slight by the legions of Hillary’s women supporters. David Gergen points out that Obama needs a “game changer”, and he raises two VP possibilities: Clinton and Al Gore. While Biden is a stronger choice than Bayh, Sibelius, or Kaine, Gergen asks the rhetorical question, “Is Biden a game changer?” The answer is obvious.
It has been clear since the beginning of the primary process that if Clinton’s and Obama’s natural constituencies can be added together, the Democrats will have an unbeatable coalition. Just to reiterate what Clinton brings to the table:
• Her selection would, as Gergen states, be a “game changer” in terms of excitement and party unity. Voters would take a second look at Obama and the ticket.
• She would vastly expand the Democratic vote among white women.
• More than any other Democratic leader, with the possible exception of her husband, she is beloved and trusted by the white working class voters of the Midwest – the core of this election's swing vote.
• Her somewhat pugnacious style of campaigning is a good complement for Obama’s more cerebral style. He needs an attack dog in the second slot.
Perhaps Obama will ask Al Gore, and Gore will say “yes,” but I can’t see that. The remaining logic for Hillary Clinton is inescapable. The sense of this is starting to be in the air; for example, John Nichols of the Nation had a column today with a similar point. Even Ralph Nader said that there is no other logical option. Maybe we will wake up in the morning to a Joe Biden, or an Evan Bayh, or someone else who we did not even consider. If this happens, I will bite my lip and do what I can to help Obama win. But a bold choice is needed, and I hope for the good of the Republic that Senator Obama seizes the opportunity.
UPDATE: Obama says he's picked his VP.