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Why Obama's Smiling

He had a good night, never mind Clinton's spin.

Michael Fellman 6 Feb

Michael Fellman is an historian of U.S. politics and war and a cultural critic who lives in Vancouver. He will be writing for The Tyee from time to time about the 2008 U.S. elections. Previous articles by Michael Fellman.

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He's coming on fast, lining up well for July convention.

For those masochists among us who enjoy protracted electoral suspense and endless bloviating stump speeches, last night's indecisive primaries promise weeks of manna from heaven. (To defend that sentence I would argue that in politics only mixed metaphors approach the confusion of voter behaviour.)

Most generally put, the results in half the nation's states have led to a genuine horserace between Obama and Clinton among the Democrats, in my opinion with a lean to Obama, and a strong but not decisive victory for McCain among the Republicans. (See the brilliant interactive voting maps in the New York Times for further information.)

Clinton's backers are claiming to be ecstatic about her win -- and she did carry the big states of California and New York (where she is a popular senator), as well as Massachusetts, New Jersey, her home state of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Arizona. However, Obama actually carried more states, including his home of Illinois, Delaware, Connecticut, Georgia, Alabama, Colorado, Minnesota, North Dakota, Kansas, Idaho, Utah, Alaska, and probably Missouri and New Mexico, states in which he has small leads.

Who ever carried each state, the Democratic results are not based on winner take all but on a form of proportional representation, and here Clinton has won 166 delegates to Obama's 146 for the evening, with Clinton in an overall lead of 845 to 765 of the slightly more than 2000 total delegates.

Obama closing fast

No one has yet calculated the margin of the Clinton victory in actual votes cast but it was close, and here is where proclaimed Clintonian ecstasy should be seen as spin. Last night was supposed to be the moment of triumph for Clinton. As recently as 10 days ago she led Obama by 16 per cent, and last night he closed to around what I would estimate as 3 per cent. This is an enormous swing, and it will put great pressure on the Clinton camp.

Most pundits interpreting last night's Democratic returns focus on what political scientists call ethnoculural patterns among the voters. This is in large measure because on the issues the candidates resemble one another quite closely. Roughly speaking, Clinton drew well among white women, older voters, poorer voters, Hispanics and Asians. Obama's strengths came, of course, from African-Americans, but also among the young, more prosperous voters and, increasingly and perhaps surprisingly, white males. This last fact suggests Obama has done better among former Edwards voters than has Clinton. If there is an ideological tinge to this pattern, Clinton seems to be attracting a more conservative base and Obama the more liberal.

Some of the results are quite astonishing. For example, in addition to taking heavily African-American states like Georgia, which was to be expected, Obama swept states like Kansas, Minnesota and North Dakota, where scarcely any African-Americans live. After showing up in Idaho for a huge rally, a state Clinton ignored, Obama carried that state 80 per cent to 17 per cent.

I don't have a clue why Obama should have swept the white bread states. However, the size of the win in Idaho gives credence to the theory that when Obama has the time to show up and rally voters personally, he does extremely well. Clearly he has chemistry.

Pointing towards the convention

So now the great national dental office routine will continue, perhaps until the last primary in Kentucky on May 20, or even into the July convention.

For the near future, Obama has the advantage. He will have the time to campaign in each state over a longer period of time, and familiarity breeds votes for him. And the next few states should be his sort of turf. Louisiana is next this Saturday, followed next Tuesday by Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, and the following week by Wisconsin and Washington. The upcoming four primaries are in states with very large African-American populations, while Wisconsin and Washington Democrats fit the profile of places like Minnesota, where Obama did so well. (I always pay lots of attention to my home state of Wisconsin, and there the most recent polls show Obama ahead by over 20 per cent).

By that point Obama might well have gathered an unstoppable head of steam. Clinton is counting on winning her sort of states, Texas and Ohio, on March 4, and these are delegate rich states. But can she regain strength if she loses every or almost every contest in the next four weeks? She is a formidable and resourceful politician, and voters are mysterious, but she is in trouble. If we don't have an answer on March 4, Pennsylvania may prove decisive on April 22. But maybe not even then will we know for certain.

McCain's friend, the evangelical candidate

Among Republicans, McCain won a qualified but not conclusive victory last night. In winner take all primaries, he carried the big states of New York, Illinois and New Jersey as well as the smaller states of Arizona, Connecticut, Connecticut, Delaware, Oklahoma and Missouri (still very close). He also won in California, which has a proportional representation system for delegates, like the Democrats. However, Mike Huckabee carried five states in the Deep South, while Mitt Romney carried seven states, including his home state of Massachusetts and the prairie states.

In the Republican race, the pundits stress not ethnocultural but ideological factors. Generally speaking, McCain carried the moderates, for example in the Northeast, while Romney and Huckabee split the conservatives. Because he opposes torture, once voted for a tax raise and used to be sympathetic to immigrants, the conservative punditry detest the freewheeling McCain, and so do the born-agains because McCain is not one of their number.

Therefore, McCain just loves Huckabee, who has prevented the conservative base of the Republican voters from gathering around one figure. McCain is winning a plurality of primary votes, not a majority, and much of his base dislikes him. So even if he wins the nomination as the three-way split continues, which seems likely, he will have trouble with his own party, not to mention the opposition.

In the future I will consider the way a general election might play out among these possible candidates. But for now, I am looking forward to the next four weeks of primaries. This great interest indicates, of course, that I like to suffer, but with the Canucks folding, you have to look for another game to rehash over beers.

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