Monday, January 7, 2008

A Repeat of 1992 in New Hampshire? An Obama Surge in South Carolina?

Some good news and some better news for Barack Obama today, with just over 12-hours to go before polls open in New Hampshire. Though, as a natural worrier, I think there may be a problem with expectations being raised as high as they are, but as MSNBC's Chuck Todd talked about on Hardball tonight, at the moment, high expectations are of no concern to the surging Obama campaign.

First in New Hampshire, Obama, in almost every poll, has opened up a double digit lead on Hillary Clinton after being behind before his victory in Iowa. CNN has him up 12, Marist 8, Rasmussen 10, CBS 7, and USA Today 13. And Obama got a bit of continuing good news in two late afternoon poll releases, which surveyed South Carolina for the first time since Obama's Iowa win. Rasmussen has Obama up 12 and SurveyUSA has a more dramatic 20 point Obama lead. With a large African American population in South Carolina, and Obama proving to black American that he can win in states like Iowa and New Hampshire which have populations which are over 95% white, such a surge was not unexpected, but such a dramatic move has to have Hillary Clinton thinking seriously about skipping the state entirely, conceding it to Obama, and instead focus on February 5, where over 20 states have their primaries, and where Clinton will either overtake Obama's momentum or be swallowed up in it. Not only that, but Obama is dead-even in a Gallup national poll where Obama has been perpetually behind by double-digits, even as he drew near in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina has a great story up this afternoon about Clinton trying to re-organize her campaign to focus on February 5th, and talks about plans of hers to go negative on Obama and focus on states which only allow Democrats to vote in the primaries, thus preventing Obama's momentum with independents from carrying him to victory. Clinton, especially if she loses in double-figures in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, not only has to take in to account her dreams of being the first woman President, but she should take into account what's best for the Democratic Party. Obama is bringing people together, is bringing voters into the Democratic Party who may never have voted for a Democrat before, or whom may vacillate between the parties, and to win the general election, especially against somebody like John McCain (who appeals to Democrats and Independents) that's going to be crucial. If Hillary goes guns-blazing against Obama in an effort to win the nomination, at best for her, she wins but scares off all those independent voters (and certainly any Republicans Obama would bring in) and is able to win the nomination, but only on the backs of registered Democrats, ensuring a loss in November (and there's the risk she alienates African American voters, without whom any Democratic Presidential bid is doomed. At worst for her, she still fails to derail Obama's momentum, but damages him to such an extent, he can't win in November.

There is a real chance, a real, legitimate chance, that Obama is a once in a generation candidate who can bring the country together and once that momentum gets going, and it brings in Republicans, and Independents, that the wave keeps going, and he cruises to a victory in the general election. And if that happens, that not just wins the Democrats the White House, but it likely helps Democrats pick up seats in the House and maybe even get to 60 votes in the Senate, and thus, beyond threat of a Republican filibuster. Does Hillary Clinton really want to risk that for the party she and her husband have worked their entire adult lives for? Especially when there's no guarantee she's going to be successful even if she does unload on Obama in the coming weeks.

The one positive for Clinton, and the one caveat for an Obama coronation, is the fear I mentioned at the top of this post, and that's expectations. As Chris Matthews constantly talks about on Hardball, in 1992, Bill Clinton, after blowing a double-digit lead before the New Hampshire Primary, clawed back, and still lost by 8-points. Yet, he went out, gave what amounted to a victory speech, and called himself the "Comeback Kid." The moniker stuck, and Clinton, despite the convincing loss, was able to turn around his campaign. Tonight, Obama has, by most accounts, a double digit lead on Hillary Clinton. Chuck Todd on tonight's Hardball said the feeling he gets, from talking to campaign aides and other media members, is that Obama's lead may be even greater than the polls indicate (remember, before Iowa, most showed Obama with a small lead, or tied with Clinton and John Edwards, and then he went on to win by 9-points). So, if the media, at worst, expects Obama to win by double-digits, he almost has to do so, or the story isn't Obama's two-state victory, in two states he was trailing in a week ago, it's going to be "Comeback Kid: Part II." If Clinton is able to narrow the gap to four, five, maybe even six points, that's a big victory for her, despite her previous lead. And, Hillary Clinton getting emotional this afternoon at a campaign event will help her, and make her more human and relatable (two qualities she has not shown a lot of recently) and may draw undicded voters (especially women) her way.

Expectations are a funny thing, and when the media gets in their head that a candidate better win by a certain margin, and you fall short, it's a loss, even if an Obama victory in New Hampshire would otherwise be considered a huge victory. Now, all the polls, and pundits, and prognastications see a big Obama victory, and don't see him having a problem meeting (or perhaps beating) those expectations. But, if he doesn't, even if he wins, I think Clinton's comeback will be the story. Now, if Obama does win by 10, 12 points, then Clinton, despite her current plan to go all out for Super Tuesday on February 5th, must think really hard about what's best for not just her and her husband, but what's best for the Democratic Party. And if the Obama wave continues to grow, she may not be able to stop it, and it may not be in the best interest of Democrats (much less the country) for her to try.

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