Monday, January 21, 2008

Post Nevada Thoughts: What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas?

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 364

Nevada had its turn in the nominating contest spotlight this past weekend. The results indicate that the Democratic race remains wide open going in to South Carolina this weekend, race and gender remain live and dangerous wires, and there is no one on the other end of the line when it comes to labor endorsements and electoral victory. Here are some thoughts on these things and more.

Hillary Clinton

Okay, Hillary, you can exhale now. Sort of. Clinton turned out more supporters on Saturday than Barack Obama...and still won fewer delegates. But in terms of electoral narrative, if not electoral math, Hillary won the Nevada caucuses, which allows her to claim momentum with back-to-back wins over Obama. And momentum, of course, ties in to inevitability, the story line that the Clinton campaign has longed to emphasize from the beginning.

But Clinton's campaign, as enormous and well-funded as it is, has always been oriented more toward withstanding siege than launching assault. This week's campaign in South Carolina will tell much of the tale as to whether the Clinton operation can be as nimble going into the heart of the primary calendar as it has been pertinacious in the early contests. If not, then February 5 likely becomes for them an exercise in containing a once-again surging Barack Obama, rather than a march to victory.

Oddly enough, I think Hillary Clinton understands this dynamic and has internalized it. The question is whether the candidate herself can convey that message across all the layers of her vast campaign in the few days left before the South Carolina vote.

That will turn out to be a big part of the story going in to Saturday. Stay tuned.

Barack Obama

In the wake of losses in New Hampshire and Nevada, the Obama campaign finds itself in urgent need of a message makeover. It isn't that "hope" and "change" have stopped resonating with the electorate since the Iowa caucuses on January 3. Rather, Obama's signature themes have been overtaken by bedrock pocketbook concerns that, to many voters, makes the "old politics versus new" argument seem like an abstraction in comparison.

The trick for Obama now is to marry specific, credible proposals, especially on the economy and housing, to his mainstay themes in a way that effectively counterpunches the Clinton campaign's policy initiatives and drives home the message that new leadership and new political thinking are the best means of delivering concrete results to the country.

Race & Gender

The question for both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama now is whether the tactical ugliness indulged in by both during the run-up to Nevada's caucuses can be left behind in the West as the campaign swings to the Deep South state of South Carolina and its primary this coming Saturday, and then moves to the national canvas on February 5.

The answer is problematic. Ours is a culture with a collective memory capable of retaining only two things: one, the latest escapades of Britney and Paris; and two, every last detail of every statement ever made by anyone, anywhere and at any time on the subjects of race and gender. These are among the hottest of hot button issues, and if American socio-political history teaches anything, it is that hot buttons tend to get pushed, hard and often, sometimes merely because they're there.

It was probably inevitable that race and gender controversy would arise in the course of an historic campaign between the first credible woman and African-American presidential candidates. That being the case, one would have hoped that the Clinton and Obama campaigns would have given a bit more thought on how to more effectively navigate those hazards. In any case, the Nevada campaign has put those hot buttons on the table, and it will be difficult now for the candidates to keep them out of play going forward.

Labor Endorsements

One thing that is clear coming out of Nevada is that, in terms of securing victory in any of this cycle's nominating contests, endorsements from organized labor mean nothing. This is not to say that labor unions are suddenly irrelevant in Democratic politics. Far from it. Unions can channel money and boots on the ground in support of their chosen candidates quickly, effectively, and with unquestionable impact on behalf whomever they endorse. But the ability of unions to monolithically deliver the votes of its members to its endorsees - a far different matter - is all but nonexistent. Culinary Workers and Obama? SEIU and John Edwards? And, for that matter, harking back to Iowa, IAFF and Chris Dodd? The same story, all the way around. The message to candidates this cycle is don't count on a labor endorsement automatically turning into labor votes at the polls.

John Edwards

Based on the fact that the candidate left Nevada the day before the caucuses, I think it is fair to say that the Edwards campaign didn't think they had a legitimate shot at winning in the Silver State. But I don't think they expected a defeat of the magnitude John Edwards experienced on Saturday.

As I wrote following the New Hampshire primary, John Edwards would, by virtue of being the third wheel in the race, find himself in the middle of the two-person campaign he's been aiming at for months should defeat or other misfortune befall either Clinton or Obama. The key, of course, is to remain a credible candidate in the meantime, and that means staying genuinely competitive (i.e., tallying 15% or better) in every contest along the way.

Coming in with just 4% support in Nevada undermines the entire rationale for Edwards continuing his White House bid. A respectable showing in South Carolina this week, where Edwards was born and where he has been counting on doing well since the start of his campaign, now appears increasingly unlikely. This raises two questions for John Edwards: how can he keep his campaign alive after this Saturday, and, overwhelmingly more to the point, why should he?

I think John Edwards is staying in the race, for however long he continues to be able to do that, no longer in hope of securing the Democratic nomination. Rather, I believe that the rationale for a continued Edwards candidacy is based on Clinton and Obama coming out of the primaries in a near deadlock in terms of delegates won. In that event, a handful of delegates controlled by John Edwards puts him in the position of virtually nominating the candidate he prefers, on whatever terms he dictates.

Any such hope is pure fantasy, of course, both in expectation of a deadlocked convention and the ability of Edwards' delegates to swing it one way or the other. There is, at least at this point, no indication that Edwards' delegates will be decisive in determining the Democratic nomination any more than delegates pledged to Kucinich or Gravel (should there be any) would be. And that fact in itself reveals the crossroads at which the Edwards campaign now stands: absent a big win on Saturday, John Edwards will find himself playing in the same political league as the other also rans in this campaign. Ugly choices await.

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