The goddess Fortuna does not ordinarily arrange for her favorites to spend five-and-a-half years being tortured in a prisoner-of-war camp. Nevertheless, the Economist may be on to something when it calls John McCain the “luckiest man in American politics.” Not only did he secure the Republican nomination seven months after his campaign nearly collapsed. Now, with a little more than seven months to go before November, it is becoming increasingly clear that Barack Obama cannot lose the Democratic nomination, and cannot win the general election.
In today’s Politico, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen argue that Hillary Clinton “has virtually no chance of winning” the Democratic nomination. One Clinton advisor, off the record, estimates her chances against Obama as no better than ten percent.
The reason? Race. Clinton’s only path to the nomination requires Democratic superdelegates “to risk a backlash of historic proportions from the party’s most reliable constituency. . . . An African-American opponent and his backers would be told that, even though he won the contest with voters, the prize is going to someone else. People who think that scenario is even remotely likely are living on another planet.”
There might be a semi-plausible pretext for the superdelegates to take the trophy out of Obama’s hands and give it Clinton if she wins the larger number of all the popular votes cast in all the primaries and caucuses from Iowa on January 3rd to Puerto Rico on June 7th. The Politico’s Ben Smith got out his calculator, however, and showed that Clinton will need “well over 60 percent of the vote” in the remaining states where she is likely to win. So far in 2008 her best states have been Arkansas, where she was first lady for 12 years and won 70 percent of the vote; Rhode Island, which gave her 58 percent; and New York, which she has represented in the Senate since 2000 and where she received 57 percent.
Why is Obama unlikely to win the general election? Again, race. Even before the Jeremiah Wright controversy became front-page news last week, there was growing evidence that despite all the talk about his post-racial candidacy, Barack Obama is not the Tiger Woods of politics. As VandeHei and John Harris pointed out earlier this week, Obama has won a majority of white votes in several states, including Wisconsin and Virginia – a historic achievement.
In the Ohio primary, however, held before Jeremiah Wright became a household name, Hillary Clinton took 64 percent of the white vote. Similarly, Obama has finished first among Latino voters in only handful of states, none of which have particularly large Hispanic populations.
John McCain is well-situated to appeal to “Reagan Democrats” – working-class whites who didn’t go to college, and Latinos. His heroic patriotism will appeal strongly to the former, especially against an opponent whose pastor invites his parishioners to scorn America. And McCain’s support of immigration reform will allow him to contest the Latino vote.
Obama’s Wright problem, for the general election, is that it gives voters in both these blocs, who might otherwise have felt guilty about voting against a black candidate, a way to do so with a clear conscience. There is nothing racist about voting against Obama anymore. Now, it’s just a matter of voting against a politician who feels comfortable around spiritual leaders whose views are as poisonous as Ward Churchill’s.
Michael Barone recently argued that the polling data are inconclusive as to whether Clinton or Obama would run the stronger race against McCain. His examination of the state-by-state data, however, shows Obama’s general election vulnerability. “Obama may be a stronger candidate than Clinton in Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Iowa,” he writes, “but he looks far weaker in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, and Missouri.” The trouble is that the five states where Obama looks particularly strong have a total of 41 electoral votes, while the four where he looks “far weaker” have a total of 67. Thus, McCain would get a net advantage of 26 electoral votes from those nine states voting in November the way their poll numbers look now. By contrast, John Kerry had an advantage of four electoral votes from these nine states, 56 to 52, in 2004. We’ve heard for weeks about the steeper slope facing Hillary for the nomination. It’s getting steeper for Obama in November, too.