Saturday, March 1, 2008

Barack Obama and the Expectations Problem

In many ways Barack Obama has run an incredible campaign. He faced off against the Clinton machine, a veteran of three national races (one Democratic primary in 1992 and Presidential races in 1992 and 1996), with a team that could raise more money than anyone, and with connections in more places than anyone running for President. And he's a one-term Senator, who nobody knew before 2004. Yet, despite the advantages of the Clintons, and Obama's lack of experience with national races, he has, in almost every way, run a far superior campaign than Hillary Clinton. He's raised more money from more people (over 1,000,000 donors, an amazing figure). He's won twice as many states, won more votes, many more delegates. And he had the foresight to organize in the caucus states and to prepare for a long race which would last far past February 5th.

But Barack Obama has not run a perfect campaign. Almost every time he has Clinton on the ropes, he can't put her away, in large part because his campaign fails to properly keep expectations low. After his stunning 9-point victory in Iowa, everyone had him dominating in New Hampshire, where he perpetually trailed. And when he lost by 2-points it may have well been 20. On Super Tuesday, Obama may have won more states and more delegates, but the states where he was on the rise, where the expectations got out of control, California, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, he lost, and in the case of Massachusetts, lost badly despite the support of both Democratic Senators (Ted Kennedy and John Kerry) and the Democratic Governor (Deval Patrick). So Super Tuesday was almost a net loss for Obama, despite being a great night overall because even though he badly trailed in New Jersey, California, and Massachusetts, he was rising so fast, the expectations got out of control.

The same thing is happening for "Junior Super Tuesday." Barack Obama, two weeks ago, was down almost 20-points in both Ohio and Texas. In that time, he has made an incredible run (as he does in every state he campaigns in -- Another reason why it is unfair to count Michigan and Florida) to cut the lead in Ohio to under 5, and to take the lead in Texas this week. And the stakes couldn't be higher. If Obama can win one, he all but eliminates Clinton. He wins both, and there's almost no question Clinton drops out of the race Wednesday morning.

The problem now is though, again, because Obama has risen so fast, and closed so quickly, and because his campaign has done a horrendous job of maintaining low expectations for the night, Hillary Clinton wins by practically showing up. Her campaign maintains that Obama must win all four states Tuesday, especially Texas and Ohio, or it shows that voters have lost faith in him. While that's not true, obviously, because both states were strongly in Clinton's column as recently as 10 days ago, it does not seem like such a sure thing anymore that Clinton will drop out if she loses Texas. Since Obama is now seen as the favorite in that state, if she wins, despite her huge lead two weeks ago, she's made a great comeback, and it will keep her in the race.

And there's evidence that the race in Texas is tightening. Zogby has the race down to 2 points from six yesterday. Other polls also show a Clinton rebound, which should continue after her tough national security ads in the state and her appearances on Saturday Night Live tonight and the Daily Show tomorrow, which should guarantee Hillary positive press coverage (and lots of free media) in the 48-hour run up to the primaries.

Maybe I'm just needlessly worried, especially so close to securing the nomination for Obama. But I really fear these expectations are almost unrealistic for Obama, and now, should he lose Texas, even by 2 or 3 points (and pick up more delegates in the process) it will be looked at as a loss, just like Super Tuesday was. And even though Obama has made up incredible ground among the Super Delegates, I can still see Clinton trying to wrestle this nomination away somehow, tearing the Democratic Party apart in the process, and making it impossible for us to win the fall.

So while Barack Obama may have run a great campaign, and a much superior campaign than Senator Clinton, it is not perfect, and his inability to keep expectations low have been a constant issue. I just hope it doesn't come back to haunt the campaign on March 4th.

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