Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Plan B (1)(a)

Momentum is a powerful thing. In politics as in physics, momentum can be the irresistible force that makes supposedly immovable objects change their minds. On the basis of early exit polling from voters in New Hampshire, what may be developing is a momentum behind the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. The polls don't close for hours yet, but the media is reporting a raft of new strategies for the Hillary Clinton campaign -- strategic equations that use defeat as a baseline value.

You could call the new Clinton approach "Plan B," except they've already done that. After Iowa.

"With Barack Obama strongly favored -- even within Hillary Clinton's camp -- to win a second straight victory in today's New Hampshire Democratic primary, both rivals are looking to the next battle grounds," Jackie Calmes reports in today's Wall Street Journal. "But his momentum threatens to swamp her in the next two states as well and shows signs of fracturing her support in the party establishment."

"Already," Calmes writes, "some Clinton associates have begun lobbying for her early exit if she loses the primary by a big margin, as polls suggest she could. ...

"The road may get harder immediately after New Hampshire," Calmes continues. "The all-important Culinary Workers union in Nevada, the next state to vote on Jan. 19, is considering backing Sen. Obama a day after a New Hampshire win, say some high-ranking Democrats. The support of the state's largest union by far would virtually hand him a victory in the labor-dominated caucuses there, Democrats say. And the Clinton campaign is considering effectively ceding South Carolina, which votes a week later. Her once-strong support in the state's large black population eroded and Sen. Obama opened a big lead in polls after Iowa's caucus results energized many blacks with the prospect that a man of their race stands a realistic chance of being nominated."

The uphill Clinton climb has some other problems, issues that point to why they're in the difficulty they're in. Even while dealing with fallout from the Portsmouth incident [see "Misty"], even while they are presumably in the process of tweaking/rethinking/recalibrating the Clinton message, a senior Clinton adviser -- by accident -- revealed at least one of the faults built-in to the Clinton bid for the White House.

MSNBC's Dan Abrams, back on the air again, interviewed Clinton senior adviser Ann Lewis on Tuesday, asking her, generally, "How'd this happen?"

At first Lewis assumed the obvious reflexive crouch. "Oh, I'm not looking backward today, I'm looking forward." [Cue the Fleetwood Mac song. You know which one.]

Then Lewis said, "Looking back at Iowa ... it is clear we didn't do all we could in terms of reaching out to younger voters. We have definitely corrected for that ... "

Thus, with lightning speed four days after Iowa, the Clinton campaign has "corrected" a situation that took months to occur, has suddenly discovered that there are millions of new voters out there that they haven't been reaching -- and now they're reaching them! Problem solved, let's move on.

And that's the problem. The Clinton camp suggests they think recognition of a still largely undiscovered bloc of voters -- younger, more entreprenurial, more politically maverick, more likely to communicate by cell phones instead of land lines -- is something that's achievable overnight, that it's an event or a milestone rather than what it actually is: a process, something that has to be organic and fundamental to the campaign to really work.

One reason for the success of the Obama campaign is his embrace early on of the demographic known as the millennials -- voters between 18 and 24 years old -- and the potential those voters represent. Obama got the need for young voters right outta the gate. The newness, the freshness of his insurgent campaign was a natural for a generation in the process of discovering itself and establishing its own priorities. In a very real way, the Obama campaign evolved with the millennials. Obama's reaping the benefits of that now.

The frantic weaves and feints of the Clinton campaign may come to nothing in New Hampshire; returns are due shortly. But Obama strategist David Axelrod, speaking to the Journal, has what might be solid advice for a Clinton post-Plan B: "I would spend more time trying to tell people why Hillary Clinton should be president and spend less of it about why Barack Obama should not."

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