With the polls continuing to show John McCain giving Barack Obama a run for his money, much of the press has seemed flummoxed by the turn of events. After all, the narrative of this campaign was supposed to be how a triumphant Obama rode discontent against the Bush administration to an overwhelming victory.
That still could happen. But if reporters seem surprised at the way things have gone so far, it may be because their account of what has already happened is flawed. As the poet once said, what’s past is prologue.
The dominant narratives of this race have been how Obama upset the odds (and the Clintons) through a brilliant campaign, and how McCain mostly stumbled his way to the nomination, staging a comeback in New Hampshire and riding the momentum to victory. But maybe that’s not what really happened. In truth, Obama always had a much better chance of emerging as the nominee than the press gave him credit for — which is why this column even made him the slight favorite over Hillary Clinton way back in March 2007.
Yes, Obama was new to the national political scene. But in the primaries, insurgency is often an advantage, especially if the novice is as brilliant an orator as Obama. More important, because of Obama’s race, he knew that if he could get a successful launch in Iowa or New Hampshire, he could count on solid support in the African-American community that would guarantee him more than a third of the delegates needed to nominate. That’s one heck of a benefit, and he took advantage of it.
Moreover, Clinton was never as strong as advertised — in part because she’s not an exceptional campaigner, but mostly because of Clinton fatigue. If she could be beaten early (and she was), it was axiomatic that much of the support she had garnered simply by being the front-runner would evaporate.
True, Obama ran a creditable campaign and proved himself a brilliant fundraiser. But he was no powerhouse. Outside of a few states, such as Wisconsin and Missouri, he was never really able to expand his base beyond his coalition of African-Americans, the young, and the well-educated.
Every time he had a chance to beat Clinton decisively enough to force her from the race — in New Hampshire or Texas or Pennsylvania or Indiana — he lost. In fact, had Clinton not committed a major strategic blunder by failing to get organized for the large caucus states, she could have beaten him.
And, given Obama’s major demographic advantages, that would have been the upset.
The Real Story
On the GOP side, McCain did catch some lucky breaks. The most notable was that the major figures in the party who could have beaten him — Jeb Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Newt Gingrich, even Colin Powell — chose not to run for a variety of reasons. (In Schwarzenegger’s case, the decision was made for him by the Constitution.) And true, the field that remained proved to be a weak one.
But McCain won mostly because Republicans almost always avoid upstarts and gravitate to the front-running figure in their party — an inclination that, for the most part, has served them well in the past. Moreover and predictably, the experience McCain had obtained running in 2000 served him well. He had the guts to skip Iowa (maybe Clinton should have done the same) and he didn’t panic when his campaign went through rough stretches. He also “gamed” the process better than anyone else, understanding that, if Rudy Giuliani’s candidacy didn’t take off, the former New York mayor’s support would go to McCain — as it did on Super Tuesday, giving McCain a lead in delegates that proved decisive.
Given all this, Democrats have reason to be concerned — even if, at the moment, their confidence has been bolstered by the mostly glowing press coverage their nominee has received. History shows that the Democrats are up against an experienced, steady Republican candidate who is unlikely to make major mistakes. And their nominee, after a brilliant start in January and February to launch his candidacy and cement his base, hasn’t had a terrific six months. Obama continues to show few signs of extending his support to the demographics that are likely to decide the election — principally the working-class voters concentrated in industrial states such as Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
The good news for Obama and the Democrats is that the race doesn’t really get serious (i.e., engage the public), until the conventions kick off the fall campaign at the end of August. A win is still well within their grasp. But it will happen only if they stop buying the press’s view of the race and begin to recognize what’s really transpired so far.
To read the “Presidential Tote Board” blog, go to thePhoenix.com/blog/toteboard. Steven Stark can be reached email@example.com.