Wednesday, January 9, 2008

All of the above

Now it gets interesting.

Did you see it last night? Sen. Hillary Clinton, digging in at the plate, last of the ninth, two away, two strikes down in the count, swings for the fences — and parks it in the centerfield stands.

Long thought dead in the New Hampshire primary, a walkover for Sen. Barack Obama in the drive to the nomination, Clinton got the political resurrection of her political life, winning the first Democratic primary in the nation — barely.

Once again the press is sitting around scratching its collective blowdried head as to how they got it so wrong. How did this happen? At least four possibilities come to mind:

(a) There was a sympathy vote for Clinton based on voter reactions to the Saturday debate and the Portsmouth incident [see “Misty”], and the sense that the media was piling on.

With so much talk about an Obama juggernaut in the media in the days before New Hampshire voted, with talking heads all but rolling the tumbrels up to the Clinton campaign’s door, the media may itself be partly to blame for skewing the results in their thirst for history-making blood.

(b) Clinton may have won the New Hampshire primary in no small part because of nothing more than a resistance on the part of one state to look as though it was following in lockstep with an earlier state’s beauty contest. New Hampshire is well known for going its own way on matters of politics. As a state with a large number of independent voters and a reputation for a strong attention to the political scene, New Hampshire’s contrarian vote may have not much more than saying to Iowa, “Oh yeah? Well, we’ll show you — take that!”

How better to reinforce the state’s fierce, almost crotchedy electoral independence than to come back with a primary vote that’s completely different from Iowa’s? They don’t like being suggested or told what to do — that’s why they live in New Hampshire!

(c) Some of the people who responded to polls before the voting and exit polls after weren’t telling the truth. This in some ways is the most disturbing. In past American elections the possibility of poll-respondent deception has come up, often connected with races involving nonwhite candidates.

But it remains an inescapable possibility. The fact that no fewer than nine polls all got the outcome wrong suggests either a problem with long-validated polling methodology or, shall we say, untruths by the people who answered the polls.

Or (d) all of the above.

The answer, (d), of course, reflects all the ways Hillary Clinton has become, for now, the frontrunner, the beneficiary of a confluence of events her strategists couldn’t see coming, the bottler of that day’s lightning who at a rousing victory speech thanked all of the angels above her head, and her staff, and the blind collisions of history, chance and desire that makes American politics what it is.

Now it gets interesting.

Because reactions by some women voters suggest that her lock of women voters isn’t absolute. ABC News reported that the woman whose question at the cafĂ© in Portsmouth was the stimulus for Hillary’s emotional response voted for Obama.

"I went to see Hillary. I was undecided and I was moved by her response to me," Pernold Young said in a phone interview with ABC. "We saw ten seconds of Hillary, the caring woman."

"But then when she turned away from me, I noticed that she stiffened up and took on that political posture again," she said. "And the woman that I noticed for ten seconds was gone."

Pernold Young was wasting her time if she expected scenery-chewing from Hillary Clinton. She’s got too much … experience for that. And generally, public figures have more at stake keeping their composures when we’d lose ours. It goes with the territory. But others in the blogosphere have vented their doubts about Clinton’s sincerity — a relatively minor matter that could come up again during the campaign.

And note, too, the margins of victory for each candidate in each state. Obama won the admittedly more informal Iowa caucuses handily, besting Hillary by almost double digits. The New Hampshire contest was much closer; Obama lost by somewhere between 2 and 3 percent in a race that was, for most of the evening, too close to call. That’s hardly a resounding endorsement for Clinton.

“This is very personal to me,” Clinton said in Portsmouth, N.H. — uttering a sentiment that, guaranteed, is felt by every other aspirant for the most powerful job in the world. Hillary’s near-tears moment may have the unwitting effect of validating what everyone knows, and ratcheting up the emotional degree of the campaign for everyone. Now, with Super Tuesday dead ahead, there’s more to fight for.

Now it gets interesting.

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