Friday, January 11, 2008

Dispatches, Volume 3

Just 24 hours ago, you could hear the grinding and gnashing of teeth among the slightly awkward Deaniacs-meet-Harlem coalition at the West Village Obama Party. We slammed down one $3 Sam Adams after another to settle the nerves. Bearded hippies chanted, “I say O, you say 8! O-8! O-8! I say O, you say Bama! O-Bama! O-Bama!” Young black professionals gave ‘what are we, 12?’ looks, rolling their eyes, and an old preacher-type rambled about how we were going to win New York for Obama, ‘Just like Jesse Jackson did in 1984!’ (Huh?) Then the results came in. Jaws dropped. The unthinkable had happened. The Ice Queen had taken New Hampshire.

Now that a day has passed, the dust has settled, and everyone’s calmed down a little, Hillary Clinton’s 39% to 37% victory over Barack Obama doesn’t seem so shocking, does it? Like a team winning when they’re down 2-0 in a best of 7, it was must-win for Clinton, and she got it. Everyone was shocked at 10pm Tuesday night, of course, everyone. Clinton had been drafting a concession speech that day at her hotel, and Obama was working the phones trying to resolve the crisis in Kenya.
There have been a lot of theories bandied about to explain the results, like the Wilder Effect (also called the Bradley Effect), which counts Chris Matthews as a believer. Doug Wilder, an African-American candidate for Governor of Virginia in 1989, barely won despite Election Day polls showing him up 10%. Turns out people would voice support for him in polls, then ultimately vote for his white opponent. Tempting as this theory might be, and it has played itself out repeatedly over the years, times have changed. There was no Wilder Effect detected in Harold Ford’s Tennessee Senate race in 2006, for example. Doug Wilder, incidentally, is notable for serving as the first black governor since Reconstruction. Deval Patrick, elected governor of Massachusetts in 2006 to succeed Mitt Romney, is the second. Wilder is also notable because he ran for U.S president in the 1992 Democratic primaries, and was by most accounts, both articulate and clean.
Another theory abuzz is the legend of Michael Whouley, a reclusive GOTV operative who emerged from the shadows to save Gore and Kerry’s campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire, and apparently did the same here. I asked my friend Adam Hinds, a Kerry staffer in New Hampshire, to comment on Whouley:
“All I know is we were down about 18 points. This bald dude arrives in Manch (Manchester) and walks into one of our weekly field staff meetings. He says, "I know John. And John often waits till he has his back against the wall. He’s like a fucking badger. He did it with Weld too. We're down 18 and there’s 5 weeks to go. So I just talked to John and I said, 'John, okay, you can start getting your fucking ass in gear now.’"
A simpler explanation is that Clinton always had a better ground game in New Hampshire. Obama had been focused on Iowa for months, and while he went into the Iowa Caucuses in a dead heat with Clinton, Clinton had never been dislodged from first place in New Hampshire until these polls a few days ago. The media often characterizes Get-Out-the-Vote efforts as if they are simply products of a well-run Election Day, but getting out the vote is really a process that takes months of preparation- training your staffers, identifying your core supporters, figuring out your leaners, building local momentum, and having loyal volunteers to actually run the Election Day logistics. There are phone calls and more phone calls and post cards and people waving signs and more phone calls and people in beat up cars asking if you need a ride to the polls and freezing kids knocking on your door asking if you’ve voted yet and then some more phone calls. It’s not magic, folks, it’s tedious work that takes hours a day for at least a year to put together. It’s the reason Al Gore could never have jumped into this race and won it. It’s the reason John Edwards did great in Iowa for the second cycle in a row and then nose dived in New Hampshire for the second cycle in a row. And it’s the reason Clinton was able to desperately hold off Obama by a mere two percentage points.
As election night wound down, there were still no results from Durham (UNH campus) or dear Hanover, which led to a series of angry drunken phone calls from the small Dartmouth contingent at the viewing party. The best I could do was get a hold of one stoner at a house I used to live in who said she wasn’t really sure what was happening, though she was pretty sure most of her housemates had voted. When she found out who I was, she reminded me that we played Bombs over Baghdad Beer Pong together in 2006. Those were the days… I also got through to a kid at EBAs Pizza who agreed the situation was bull-shit, but said that he was only 17, and he’d appreciate if I’d get off the line, because there were a bunch of people waiting to order pizzas. In the end Hanover went 58% for Obama, so kudos to them, but I honestly think if the college campuses, which went strong for Obama, had gotten off their keg stands and gotten their damn results in earlier, the news coverage would have showed a neck and neck race breaking in the end for Clinton, not a convincing 5 point victory narrowed to 2 points only after everyone stopped watching.
Some say that angry Bill and crying Hillary seized headlines and carried the day over a complacent Obama campaign. I won’t dignify the media obsession over the crying incident by discussing it further, but there is probably some truth to the difficulty Obama will have in taking on Bill and Hillary if both are on their game. He doesn’t have a lot of big guns in his camp now that Oprah’s back in the studio, but he’s got at least one. 90% of life is timing, and this may be the time to use him.
Jesse Jackson, missteps in more recent years aside (teaming up with Michael Jackson to call Sony Music racist for not promoting “Invincible” comes to mind) still commands an awful lot of respect in the black community. Jesse sharing a podium with Obama on Martin Luther King weekend, a week before the South Carolina primary, in his birth state, where he won the Democratic Primary over Al Gore and Michael Dukakis 20 years ago, is about as potent a non-Bill as you’re going to get. Jackson has been reticent thus far, but his son, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., is a major Obama supporter, and will very likely be a prominent face in the coming weeks. Jackson Jr. seems like a good guy to have around when your opponents are up to shenanigans- a political rival once tried to knock him out of office by financing a retired trucker named Jesse L. Jackson to run against him in the Congressional Democratic primary.
In case anyone is keeping track at home, Bill Richardson bit the dust late Wednesday night. Richardson underperformed again Tuesday, and if his original supporters went to Clinton, that too could account for her margin. Deep down Big Bill knew that things were never going to break his way, not coming off a 2% showing in Iowa. His original game plan was to live to see Nevada, a western state where the Democratic base speaks better Spanish than it does English. But he showed some dignity by bowing out before the embarrassing last stand that so many of his peers succumb to.
As for Brother Edwards, his chips are all in for South Carolina. Even in the lead-up to New Hampshire and Iowa, he had been putting most of his limited media buy in the Palmetto state, the location of his only 2004 primary victory. Back to back losses in the union-heavy Nevada caucuses and his birth state would make justifying his campaign extremely difficult. If he really wanted to be a hero he could drop out, endorse Obama, and campaign with him all the way to the White House.
What surprised me most about the Clinton victory in New Hampshire is that it really seemed like she had a shitty week.
Check out this scene, for example, captured by the New York Times:
“Today, in Dover, Francine Torge, a former John Edwards supporter, said this while introducing Mrs. Clinton: ‘Some people compare one of the other candidates to John F. Kennedy. But he was assassinated. And Lyndon Baines Johnson was the one who actually passed the civil rights legislation.’
The comment, an apparent reference to Senator Barack Obama, is particularly striking given documented fears among blacks that Mr. Obama will be assassinated if elected…Mrs. Clinton’s expression did not change noticeably when Ms. Torge made the comment.”
While the remarks are both creepy and curious given how carefully scripted even candidate introductions are at this stage, Clinton’s lack of reaction is really what gets me. She later rationalized the comparison between her and Lyndon Johnson, explaining that it took LBJ’s experience in Washington to fulfill Dr. King’s vision of civil rights. Experience is the new change, don’t you see?
Now, Mrs. Clinton, I’ve read the Robert Caro trilogy on Lyndon Johnson. I’ve watched his ‘We Shall Overcome’ speech that he gave right before he signed the Civil Rights Act. I’ve gone to the Lyndon Johnson President Library, and I’ve listened to the audiotapes of Hurricane Betsy. Betsy put a third of New Orleans under 10 feet of water in 1965. LBJ flew out there the day after the storm, and when he heard that there were a bunch of kids taking refuge in a school with no power or water, he called the head of a soda manufacturer in northern Louisiana, told him to get some fucking bottled water down to New Orleans already, grabbed a flashlight, sloshed through the water to the school, kicked open the door, and yelled, “Listen up kids, your president is here!”
You, Mrs. Clinton, are no LBJ.
Next, we’ll move to Vegas. It’s telling that even in these revivalist times, Sin City is still the fastest growing city in America. Vegas accounts for over half of the registered Democrats in Nevada, and between the dangerous ghettos and the private gated communities erected in fear of them, and the drunken tourists swerving towards you in rental cars 24 hours a day, it’s a real bitch to get out the vote in that city. Fortunately for Obama, he will have the Culinary Union doing that for him. Clinton and Edwards can show up if they want, but Obama’s got the unions that run the show, and in Vegas, the house always wins…

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