Commentary: Obama's riding that illusory horse named momentum
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Political campaigns are often likened to horse races. If you saw this year's Kentucky Derby, you'll understand why. That contest offered the perfect metaphor for the Democratic presidential primary in that the only female running wound up dead in second place, while Big Brown cruised to victory.
As the interminable Barack & Hillary slugfest staggers into its 16th month, the common wisdom has it that momentum has shifted from "Momma" back to Obama. Hillary supposedly stole Barack's earlier mo with a 10-point win in Pennsylvania last month. That, combined with her wins in other populous states, advanced her campaign's argument that she was the only electable Democrat left in the race -- an interesting claim from the candidate with the highest polling negatives in modern history.
At the outset, the freshman senator from Illinois was a decided dark horse to the better-known former First Lady. He first grabbed the momentum with a surprise win in Iowa, lost it in New Hampshire then took it back on Super Tuesday. Since then, it's been Hillary slogging her way down the campaign trail, doggedly fighting to re-establish her viability as a candidate. With a considerable assist from Obama's former spiritual adviser, she managed to do just that in Pennsylvania.
Now, legend has it, Obama has re-captured the lightening with a 14-point victory in North Carolina; a near landslide that Hillary's 2-point nail-biter in Indiana was insufficient to offset. Barack in the saddle again, he's now the consensus favorite thanks to the latest shift in momentum.
If we understand momentum to entail a shift of support from one candidate to another, a look inside the numbers serves to dispel the notion that any such thing is taking place. In North Carolina, where she lost badly, Clinton took 60 precent of the white vote and Obama claimed about 90 precent of the black vote. In Indiana, where she won narrowly, Clinton gained 61 precent of the white vote while Obama garnered just over 90 precent of the black. Pennsylvania? Clinton = 60 precent of the white; Obama = 92 precent of the black vote.
It seems that the party that complains about gridlock in Washington is itself gridlocked. The internal metrics of this so-called race are frozen. The outcomes of the various primaries are determined not by campaign dynamics but by the pre-existing demographics in a given state.
It appears that race trumps sex as a predictor of voter behavior. Hillary takes the white male vote; Barack carries black females. With Latinos tracking 2 to 1 in her favor, the formula for a Clinton triumph at the polls -- as opposed to caucuses -- basically looks like this:
60 percent of the white vote + 10 percent of the black vote + 67 percent of the Latino vote = 50+ precent of the total
Ironically, Obama was supposed to be the candidate who transcended the balkanized divisions of identity politics. In the early going, he seemed able to do so. However, as the field narrowed to the final two contenders, support for each has crystallized. The newly unveiled "shot-and-a-beer Hillary" carries the blue-collar vote. Besides African-Americans, Barack appeals to youthful voters and better-educated white liberals: the same winning combination that worked so well for McGovern, Mondale and Dukakis.
Exit polls in North Carolina and Indiana indicate that fewer than half of Clinton voters said they'd be willing to support Obama if he were the ultimate nominee. If that trend continues, it's exceedingly bad news for Democrats. Much of Barack's insurmountable lead comes from his electoral sweep of the Deep South and caucus wins in places like Wyoming and Iowa. He'll have difficulty carrying many of these states in the general election.
As of this writing, Clinton won West Virginia handily, primaries are pending in Kentucky and Oregon. West Virginia has voted for the winner in 5 of the last 7 presidential elections; Kentucky is 7-0 over the same period. Hillary won West Virginia and is favored in Kentucky. Oregon, which Obama is expected to win, has gone with the winner 3 times in that span.
Of course, in politics, perception tends to become reality. If enough people are convinced that you're the inevitable nominee, it becomes inevitable that you'll be nominated. Absent calamity, Barack Obama will ride the illusion of momentum to the finish line.
This race may be over, but it was just the preliminary heat. In the main event, the old war horse, McCain, looks like an early favorite...