Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pennsylvania postmortem

No matter what happened for Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on Tuesday night, it was a great night for John Mellencamp.

After the results of the Pennsylvania Primary finally came in, with Sen. Hillary Clinton, the winner by an admittedly handsome 10 percentage points over Sen. Barack Obama, ending her victory rally with Mellencamp’s “This Is Our Country,” the wheatfields-and-flags anthem used until recently to sell Chevrolets. Not to be outdone, Obama’s rally ended with Mellencamp’s “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” an upbeat number that left Obama supporters on a high note — as high a note as possible after a bruising primary battle he was not expected to win.

For Clinton the win means a chance to fight another day, to battle on to the Guam caucuses, on May 3, and the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, coming on May 6, and to revive for superdelegates the idea that she may yet pull a rabbit out of her hat in order to win the Democratic nomination.

For Obama, Tuesday’s clock-cleaning means a need to retool his populist message; to refine strategies for fighting a two-front war, against both Clinton and Republican rival Sen. John McCain; and to gird for the battles in Indiana and North Carolina.

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But in practical terms, Clinton still faces the battle that’s more uphill. Her win in Pennsylvania, despite all the attention paid to its importance by the media and Team Clinton itself, gained her little ground on Obama’s delegate count advantage (one reason why the Clinton campaign has so eagerly embraced a rather perverse new math, attempting to make popular vote the new defining metric of the primary season, rather than delegate count).

And just as important, Clinton’s fundraising efforts are hurting badly. Despite raising an estimated $3 million online in the hours after winning in Pennsylvania, Team Clinton has been basically operating on a hand-to-mouth basis for weeks now. Obama’s highly-liquid cash operation — an ATM powered by 1.5 million loyal supporters, some of whom make Obama donations part of their monthly household budgets — is flush by comparison.

At least some of Wednesday’s vote in Pennsylvania hinged on perceptions about who could best fix the economy. “The Pennsylvania Democrats who cast their ballots in Tuesday’s primary did so with the economy weighing heavily on their minds, according to surveys of voters leaving polling places,” The New York Times reported Wednesday. “Those surveys showed that more than half the voters questioned believe that the worsening state of the American economy is the most important issue confronting the country, with about 90 percent saying the United States has already slipped into a recession.”

If voting Tuesday was tied to Pennsylvanians’ idea of who could repair the national economy, those voters might have taken a look at the Clinton campaign’s finances. The Obama campaign raised $43 million in March to Clinton’s $21 million. Team Clinton has $10.3 million in campaign debts, with only $9.5 million available to pay them. The Times reported that Obama’s campaign is spending 75 cents of every dollar it raises. Clinton’s campaign is burning a dollar and 10 cents of every dollar available.

A fair question, Pennsylvania: If Clinton’s likely to be so good for the economy, why can’t she keep her own campaign books in order?

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Obama was roundly criticized by the political analysts in the postmortem shows, usually by those lamenting why Obama couldn’t “close the deal,” couldn’t defeat Clinton in a state he wasn’t expected to win in the first place. Some offered dire Chicken Little predictions about an Obama-McCain matchup in the fall, saying essentially that if Obama couldn’t win “the big states” in the primaries, he’d never capture them in the fall.

But the idea of trying to extrapolate the results of an intra-party contest as the likely results of a watershed general election is meaningless. In the general election, independents locked out of primary voting, as well as Republicans crossing over to vote as Democrats, will weigh in. Many of those voters, added to Obama’s still-swelling popular vote totals, would make Obama just as formidable against McCain as Clinton would be.

Then consider the results of Wednesday’s Gallup daily tracking poll, finding that Obama is still favored nationally over Clinton by eight percentage points. It all suggests that Americans think the only real “deal” to close is the one in November.

All of which may explain Team Clinton’s growing attempts to revise the rule book of the Democratic primary season, calling on superdelegates to consider both raw popular-vote totals and even hypothetical electoral college votes before making their decisions about who to back now in the primaries. Never mind the delegate count. The Clinton campaign is trying to have it both ways: to undercut the importance of superdelegates even as it woos those same delegates to Clinton’s side.

And that same Gallup tracking poll that Wednesday showed Obama favored over Clinton paints a different story for the fall: McCain leads over Obama by one percentage point in a theoretical matchup. Last week the opposite was true. It’s a back & forth that illustrates the sturm und drang of this election, the war between old world and new that may come to a head less than seven months from now.

There’s a clear sign of that conflict. Maybe Obama and Clinton’s tweaks to their campaign jukebox playlists last night were no accident. John Mellencamp, who played at an Obama rally last night, apparently plans to perform again — at a Clinton rally — sometime between now and the Indiana primary.

Without realizing it, he may be the walking embodiment of the country’s ongoing political ambivalence. Indecision 2008. Ain't that America?
Image credit: Mellencamp: Chitrapa, via Wikipedia (public domain)

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