Negative Campaigns, Wounded Candidates

Despite Senator Hillary Clinton’s 9-point victory in Pennsylvania, she still cannot win the Democratic presidential nomination. All she can do now is wound Senator Barack Obama through negative campaigning, making it more difficult for him to win in November.

Obama’s lead in elected delegates is simply too large for Clinton to catch up in the nine contests that remain. This election is not unlike a 52-lap motor race. In the first 43 laps, it is as if Obama has passed Clinton twice, building up a lead that is insurmountable. Now in the middle of the 44th lap, because they are on the track together, it may appear that they are close, or that Clinton has a lead after Pennsylvania. But the reality is that Obama’s delegate totals, after having won 28 of the first 42 contests, have put him far ahead.

What is interesting is how much hype surrounded the Pennsylvania contest. This was due, in part, to two factors. One was the seven week gap between the first 42 contests and this week’s match-up. Since the media (like nature) abhors a vacuum, endless news about the election and the ups and downs of each candidate filled the airwaves, creating the impression that the election was still competitive and that the outcome of Pennsylvania would be more significant than it was. Another reason for the hype surrounding the Pennsylvania contest, of course, was the tenacity and temerity of the Clintons who, despite all objective indicators pointing to the fact that she simply cannot win, continued to present this election as close and her as a fighter still determined to win.

But here are the facts:

In order for Clinton to even catch up to Obama, she had to win Pennsylvania by a margin of almost two to one, and then win all of the nine remaining states by that same margin. Doing this would only put her slightly ahead of Obama. To win, she would still need to then capture almost two-thirds of the remaining uncommitted superdelegates. Since she has not won any state by the margin she must win in the remaining nine, one can see that while her 9 point victory in Pennsylvania was impressive, it was nowhere near the 30 point win she needed.

The only way that Clinton can now possibly win, is to change the rules of the game. That is why she has sought to have the disqualified elections in Michigan and Florida count. She won both states, but in neither state was there an actual election, since all the candidates had agreed ahead of time to boycott those two contests, because both states’ parties were in violation of the national rules. Because Obama campaigned in neither state and wasn’t even on the ballot in Michigan, his supporters and the party’s leaders will not accept either state’s tallies to count. But even if one counts the results of both Michigan and Florida, Clinton’s margins of victory in both will still not be enough to put her ahead of Obama in the number of elected delegates won.

And so, Clinton seems to have adopted another strategy, and that is to so tarnish and weaken Obama by negative campaigning that she convinces a substantial number of superdelegates to cast their ballots for her, and even convinces some of Obama’s elected delegates to abandon his campaign with the argument that he cannot win in November. This would, in effect, overturn the results of the elections to date, resulting in a devastating division within the Democratic Party, and a wound that would not heal by November.

There is no doubt that Democrats have been energized by this election. In every state there have been record numbers of voters, volunteers and contributors. From the beginning, Democrats seemed to feel that, after eight years of the Bush presidency, not only was America ready for a change, but that Democrats would be united to win.

What was not expected was a divisive campaign such as we are in the midst of, which would run the real danger of weakening the party’s chances for victory. Polls show that there is a growing fracture within the Democratic Party coalition. Six weeks ago, when Obama and Clinton voters were each asked if they would support the other candidate should he/she win the nomination – and at that point about 15% said they would not. Two weeks ago, that number had risen to around 25%; and today, after Pennsylvania, it is in the mid-30% to low 40% range.

There are those who suggest that the various components of the Obama and Clinton coalitions will come together after the a nominee is chosen, but should this campaign go on longer and become more divisive, it appears near certain that they will not.

What is interesting here is that, while the continued negativity of this campaign will weaken the eventual Democratic nominee, the Republicans’ presumptive nominee, John McCain, has had the field to himself. McCain had emerged from the Republican contest wounded by the internal divisions in that party. He has made a determined effort to win the support of party leaders, and in this he has been successful. His problems remain, however, on the fringes of the party, where libertarian and religious conservative elements are threatening either to boycott or to run independent candidates for the presidency in November.

The bottom line is that Obama will win, but emerge wounded, creating an interesting match-up with his wounded Republican counterpart. The resulting dynamics of that contest will be unpredictable, and the subject of future articles.