There have been a few really interesting columns about Barack Obama and his presidential campaign in the past few days, mainly from Newsweek and MSNBC.com, and if you have been following the 2008 primary race, they paint a really interesting picture about Obama's campaign and the uphill battle he is facing trying to take down Hillary Clinton, who, it seems, in every place except for Iowa, holds a double-digit lead on the Democratic field.
First is a Newsweek article by Andrew Romano discussing how Obama is counting on the youth vote in Iowa to lead him to victory. Iowa, of course, is home of the nation's first primary caucus, and is where Obama is spending a lot of time and money, and where he hopes that he can win there, show he's for real, and ride that momentum into the other states where he currently is far behind Hillary Clinton.
In the latest NEWSWEEK Poll, Obama trails Clinton 25-31 percent among all Iowa Democrats, but leads 28-24 percent among likely caucus-goers. The difference, according to previously unpublished results from the poll: 20 percent of those likely voters were under 30, compared to 13 percent of the wider Democratic pool—meaning that when caucus-goers skew young, Obama is leading. “If Obama really has the ability to go out and identify young voters and motivate them wherever they live, he would, in theory, be able to make a big difference,” says pollster Mark Blumenthal. "It's unlikely, but it's not impossible."
While I have no doubt Obama is more attractive to younger voters than Clinton, or any other Democratic candidate, I get very uneasy when discussing the impact of 18-24-year-olds on any election. In 2004, there was all sorts of talk and debate about the "hidden vote" that was going to push the Democrats and John Kerry over President George W. Bush. While Bush may have had a small lead in national polls, these polls, so the argument went, did not represent the electorate because it all but ignored college students, who, because of their use of cell phones instead of land-lines (pollsters can only poll people who have land lines) are often under-counted in national opinion polls. Once these kids showed up and voted, the election would be over. Well, more young voters did show up to the polls, but not nearly enough did to make any noticeable impact. And it's going to be very difficult to mobilize this often uninterested voting group to participate in the primary caucus, which as the Newsweek article points out, is historically void of young voters.
In fact, only 12,000 18-to-34-year-olds (10 percent of the total turnout) even bothered to show up [for the Iowa caucus] in 2004. “These things are held at 6:30, 7, on a Monday night in the dead of winter, and you’ve got to sit there for a few hours,” says Goldford. “It’s a really tough sell to get young folks in.”
If Obama is going to defeat Clinton, it's going to be because he can do something that no other candidate has done in recent history, and that's bring new people into the political process. It's just so incredible hard, which is why it really hasn't worked before.
And it hasn't worked so far for Obama because everytime he even tries to attack Hillary Clinton, he gets nailed for not following his own rhetoric about being a "new kind of politician." As Romano pointed out today, the Clinton campaign machine has been great at knocking Obama for not following his own words.
To date, the Clinton campaign has largely let communications staffers like Howard Wolfson and Phil Singer do the dirty work. "Senator Obama referred to Senator Clinton as Bush-lite," said Wolfson in a typical post-debate volley back in July. "Six months ago, he entered the race promising to elevate our politics... What happened to the politics of hope?" Earlier this week, Singer twisted the knife after Obama criticized Clinton for an Iran vote: "It's unfortunate that Senator Obama is resorting to the same old attack politics as his poll numbers start falling."
But now Clinton herself is getting in on the fun. First, make sure everyone knows that Obama's "new politics" means he won't attack; next, when Obama says anything vaguely critical, characterize him as betraying the promise of that "new politics." And, finally, argue that because Obama can't attack, he's not fit to face a Republican in the general election.
It's a great campaign strategy by Clinton, and as the title of Romano's piece says, it really puts "Barack in a box." Part of Obama's problem, especially during the debates, is he is so tentative to attack anything about Clinton or her policies. As I wrote after the last Democratic Debate in late September, there's a difference between attacking Clinton personally, which is the old-school politics Obama is trying to change, and attacking Clinton's positions, which should be completely fair game. John Edwards, who I supported in 2004, did a great job of that in the September debate. Obama, meanwhile, outside of a throwaway jab on Hillary's first health care debacle in the early 1990's, continued to be too passive. And his poll numbers continue to slide.
As Richard Wolfe wrote earlier this week Obama is starting to fight a bit more now.
Obama is trying to carve out space that is more than just the archetypal Washington outsider. He suggests that he is a truth-teller who bucks “conventional thinking” and isn’t in the pockets of the special interests. “If you want conventional Washington thinking, I’m not your man,” he said in his Iraq speech. “If you want rigid ideology, I’m not your man. If you think that fundamental change can wait, I’m definitely not your man.”
Maybe so. But many Democrats also want a candidate who can stand up for themselves in a TV debate in the general election. And Obama’s inability to land his punches on Clinton during the Democratic debates has given many Democrats cause for concern.
Will Obama continue to sharpen his attacks? Or will he continue to try to play it safe, and continue to slide in the polls? We are going to see how badly Obama really wants to be the next President, because he is going to have to do something to shake up this race if he is going to win it. Counting on high school seniors and college freshman in Iowa is not going to be enough. Hillary Clinton has an aura of inevitability surrounding her, not just for the Democratic nomination, but for the Presidency. Obama needs to shake that somehow. Whether he does will determine how far his campaign will really go, no matter how much money he raises.