Monday, June 09, 2008

Primary Post-Mortem

With Hillary's wonderfully gracious concession on Saturday, we can finally write the obits to this primary election. I have a tag called 2008 Dem Primaries, and this will be the last post I use it on. Whew. But there are some final words left to be said.

(I come to bury Hillary, not to praise her...)

Truth and Myth
It is an odd thing that the supporters of the woman who threw mud are the disgruntled ones, but so it is. What began as a political two-step (stomp John, stomp Barack, move to your left) turned into a great tragedy of mysogyny. Even in that gracious adieu, Hillary tried to move the hands of history writers by invoking the glass ceiling that, once again, kept another woman in her place.

No thanks. Throughout this election, Hillary did rhetorical flip-flops; she started out as the inevitable candidate and ended up as the underdog; she ran against Obama's change and then said she was its agent; she said whomever had the most pledged delegates deserved the win--right up until that person wasn't her; and most egregiously, she went from acknowledging the illegitimacy of Florida and Michigan to championing their cause as nothing less than a civil rights issue.

So it's no surprise that she wishes to retrospectively cast herself as Joan of Arc, now burning on the pyre of ignorance and sexism. It is true that she was the first serious female candidate for president, and it's true that this was ground-breaking. But it's also true that the reason she was the first was because her husband had already been the president. Would Hillary Rodham Clinton be running if she'd instead been, say Hillary Rodham Reich, wife of a former Secretary of Labor? Nobody believes this. That the first woman who made it this far was the wife of a former, recent president puts things in a different context, yes? The feminist note is muffled.

In any campaign, there's a lot of ugliness, and toward the end of this one, Hillary encouraged her supporters to feel slighted. She picked a fight with the media, with "Obama supporters," and others to galvanize support among her base. But no candidate for president escapes this, and for every sexist slight directed at Hillary, there were racist slights directed at Obama. (And Nancy Pelosi gets the sexism in orders of magnitude compared to Hillary, so even there she's not the first female politician to have the right-wing smear machine target her.) But in his case, he diverted attention in every case. Both faced the hurdles any first-timer does, but as with other things in the campaign, Obama was more gracious about it.

Something else is instructive about this whole primary season. Going back to December, look at how the campaigns were positioned and where they were ranked in the national polls. Hillary was running on a platform of experience, of a return to what was good about the 1990s, and trying to bolster a sense of inevitability. She was polling nationally in the mid-forties. John Edwards was running on an economic populist platform and was in the high teens. Obama ran on a platform of changing the way politics are run and looking hopefully toward the future about what kind of changes we could make. He was in the mid-20s, trailing Hillary by 20 points in most polls.

At the end of the campaign, Hillary's message had completely changed. She was now the candidate of the workin' man, a cultural conservative who played well in Appalachia. She was the fightin' underdog who never gave up, the pug-nosed scrapper you couldn't keep down. And she was polling in the low 40s. It's remarkable to look through the list of polls and see how consistent Clinton's numbers were. They almost never veered from the mid-40s, having settled there in about August of 2007. They only really dropped perceptibly in the week before North Carolina. Through the end of the campaign, she slid about three or four points. What's equally as remarkable is that she almost never topped 50% in any poll--and certainly never got near 50% in the aggregate. Forget the primary-by-primary variability; it didn't matter how Clinton ran, her ceiling was 45%.

Obama's message never changed, of course. He started out as the change candidate and hung on, through Ohio and Texas, through Jeremiah Wright, through Goolsbeegate, through West Virginia and everything else. And his numbers continued to rise, sharply after Iowa, but consistently, even when he lost nine of the last 16 contests. By the time he suffered a split decision on June 3 and the indignity of Hillary's non-concession, his Pollster aggregate was over 50%.

Hillary's last final gambit was to make the argument that she was the most electable (the final in a series of latest arguments), but her failure to take Obama out was just further evidence of a fairly obvious fact: even among Dems, she never had a majority of the vote. She couldn't get elected by Dems because she was a minority candidate; the argument that she could have won in November is especially convoluted. Dems did the right thing--the voted for the popular guy.

(Something else for the Obama campaign to consider when selecting the veep.)

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