The state that may seal Hillary's fate
No one tells Pat Beaman that Hillary Clinton cannot win the Democratic nomination to be the next president of America. As she volunteered her help at a Clinton campaign event last week, she responded furiously to the very idea.
“It is ridiculous to suggest she should quit!” Beaman said. “It was not that long ago that we always chose the candidates at the convention and not before,” she added, as she shepherded in supporters who had come to see former secretary of state Madeleine Albright hold a rally for Senator Clinton in the rusting Pennsylvania steel town of Bethlehem.
Beaman was right.
Throughout most of American political history, presidential candidates have been chosen at raucous party conventions of wheeler-dealing and backroom deals. But America’s political memory is short, and Clinton’s audacious bid to take her fight with Barack Obama all the way to Denver in August is now threatening to tear their party apart.
Pennsylvania is now the next do-or-die battle in that grim fight. The state goes to the polls on April 22 and for Clinton it is a must-win. If she loses in Pennsylvania, the pressure on her to quit the race will be virtually impossible to resist.
“This is a make-or-break state for her. She has to win,” said Seth Masket, a University of Denver political scientist and former official in Bill Clinton’s White House. Pennsylvania is certainly friendly territory, dotted with mostly white, former industrial towns such as Bethlehem, where the factories are shut and the jobs have long gone overseas.
For Senator Obama this is tougher turf. He is popular in the big cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with their large black populations, but in this battle he is very much the underdog.
Yet all Obama has to do is bide his time. The number of contests left in the race is dwindling and Obama’s lead is almost certainly unassailable via the ballot box alone. Obama just has to absorb Clinton’s body blows. Clinton can be knocked out with a single punch.
If that blow lands in Pennsylvania, the race will be settled: Obama will win the right to face Republican John McCain in November. If Clinton takes the state, then she lives to fight another day. She will have won the right to keep up the brutal battle. She can keep dreaming of a glorious return to the White House.
Albright was speaking to a group of students and locals in Bethlehem and touting Clinton’s credentials to be the next president. She spoke of Clinton’s long experience, her feminist credentials and her warm personality. Then she asked the Pennsylvania crowd to keep backing her in the fight on April 22. “You are the key to what is going to happen in our election,” she said.
A few hundred metres across campus, the Obama campaign was also holding an event. Two minor TV stars—including an actor once in the Nineties sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—were talking to students on the campus of Lehigh University, stumping for Obama and wooing the students’ votes. In yet another sign of how intense this fight has become all over America, the two events took place at virtually the same time.
For both sides, each event could be seen as typical of their opponent. Clinton fans would point to the Obama meeting as shallow and glitzy and devoid of substance, whereas Albright typified experience, savvy and competence. Obama supporters could say the Clinton rally was outdated and a sign of the past. Their own event was younger, engaged, enthusiastic and just plain cooler.
But Clinton is betting that Pennsylvanians, struggling with tough economic times, are not going to be interested in former TV stars. Certainly not in Bethlehem, where the hulking, empty shell of the old steel mill dominates the landscape. The fact is that Clinton is hugely popular with the working-class whites who make up a huge segment of the Democratic support here. They are the unionised workers who have given her solid support in states such as Ohio and Michigan.
She is also backed by a formidable political machine in the state. Pennsylvania’s wily Governor Ed Rendell is a vociferous Clinton supporter and has brought his vast network of contacts and favours into the fight on her side.
She even has the backing of Philadelphia’s black mayor, Michael Nutter, which should unnerve Obama staffers convinced they have a monopoly on Philadelphia’s black population. Indeed, Nutter has vociferously defended his backing of Clinton and called the idea of a monolithic black vote “a myth”.
But there is also undoubtedly an ugly side to the racial equation in Pennsylvania, especially after the controversy over comments made by Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Even Beaman confesses some of her fellow Pennsylvania Clintonistas would never vote for a black candidate as president.
“This is a prejudiced state. Someone came up to a friend of mine the other day and said they would vote for a gorilla ahead of Obama. It can be shocking,” Beaman said.
So far these factors have seen Clinton ahead in the state’s polls. But her 20%-plus lead of just a month ago has been whittled down. Now the voting population seems restless and volatile. Recent polls have swung wildly, with one study last week putting Clinton 18 points ahead, while another a day later had Obama just three points behind.
Then there is the wider picture, which looks bleaker by the day for Clinton. Her strategy now rests entirely on doing enough damage to Obama to make the so-called superdelegates—party officials and elected politicians—swing her way and give her the nomination at the Denver convention.
But Clinton, not Obama, has just suffered a disastrous week of headlines. Her top staffer Mark Penn was demoted after he was revealed to be lobbying on behalf of a Colombian free-trade deal that Clinton herself opposed (and is hugely unpopular with Pennsylvania’s unions). Then, even worse, Bill Clinton was also revealed to have had close ties to the Colombians on the same issue.
Instead of winning over more superdelegates, Hillary Clinton has been losing them to Obama. Since Super Tuesday, February 5, Obama has won 69 superdelegates and Clinton has actually lost five. At the same time, theoretically neutral bigwigs such as party chairperson Howard Dean, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former president Jimmy Carter have either hinted they want a swift end to the contest or that they might support Obama.
Cash, too, is becoming a problem, with debts mounting up and the looming prospect of Clinton being forced to lend her campaign more of her own money. The result has been the creation of a “bubble mentality” in the Clinton campaign seemingly oblivious to its sickly chances of winning. Indeed, numerous press reports are now speculating over which top Democrat will be the one to tell Clinton she has lost, with the focus falling on Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel or her long-time friend Vernon Jordan.
Many of her supporters will have none of it. Standing on a street corner in York in central Pennsylvania, Linda Hengst braved an early-morning chill to wave Hillary placards at commuters. “She’ll win in Pennsylvania,” she said. “People here are smarter than elsewhere,” she added with a laugh.
A Clinton staffer, Graeme Joeck, stood nearby as cars honked their support. “The beep count is high!” he said.
Not far from York lies the small town of Red Lion. Gathered in the reception room of a local hotel, a group of Obama supporters was planning and discussing the final weeks of the Pennsylvania campaign. The mood was upbeat as they detailed the results of door-to-door canvassing and voter-registration drives. “I’ve never seen the enthusiasm that we have here in other campaigns,” said George Sanders, a local IT specialist who organised the Red Lion group.
That is certainly true. Clinton’s problems have not been just do with her own campaign; her cause has not been helped by her opponent’s performance. Obama has risen from being a challenger to being a phenomenon. Record-breaking crowds have packed his rallies, huge sums of cash have flowed into his campaign coffers and he has had a love affair with a fawning media.
His core slogans of “change” and “hope” have tapped into a zeitgeist among Americans. “His slogans are larger on his banners than his own name ... his name is almost an afterthought,” said Frank Luntz, a top political pollster and chief executive of Luntz, Maslansky Strategic Research.
At the same time, Obama’s staffers have shown an ability to run a ruthless and efficient campaign, responding well to the twists and turns of the dramatic contest. The campaign has consistently got on the ground in key states before the Clinton camp and then performed better: motivating supporters, organising turnout and swamping the airwaves with adverts.
It has been the same in Pennsylvania. Obama has outspent the Clintons by three times and once again run the sort of intense campaign that was seen in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He has posed in bowling alleys, eaten hot dogs and shopped at Philadelphia’s Italian market to sample some cheese in a fresh bout of micro-campaigning.
Last week, on a whistle-stop visit to Pennsylvania, he pulled his motorcade over and went into a Shoprite in East Norriton. He was instantly mobbed, and one woman even persuaded Obama to sign his name on her hand. That sort of celebrity-style enthusiasm is simply impossible for Clinton to compete with as she runs her hardened, experience-based platform. “She lost her credibility. She’s run a campaign of experience at a time when Americans want change,” said Luntz.
That can be seen at the Red Lion meeting. Many of those there had never campaigned for any politician before. Now they sat and listened patiently as an earnest Obama staffer briefed them on the campaign’s plans for the final week of the Pennsylvania contest.
One of those listening was a local doctor, Jeffrey Kauffmann, who confessed that he had never “done anything political before”. But now he is closing his surgery on election day in the state so he can devote all his time to getting out the vote.
The fact is Clinton’s campaign is on the political equivalent of death row and April 22 is the date for execution. A win will only see the sentence deferred until May 6, when North Carolina and Indiana both go to the polls. An Obama sweep in those two states will be enough to knock her out. If she survives that, further contests await in West Virginia, Oregon, Kentucky and Puerto Rico. Luntz’s solution? “She should get out. She cannot win,” he said.
Clinton and her supporters do not believe that. They remain hopeful that if they hang on long enough, Obama’s campaign will implode in the face of some unknown controversy. It is a brutal tactic for a primary contest, and one that is plunging the Democratic party into civil war. If Clinton continues to survive the last remaining primaries, carving out enough wins to remain credible, that war will go all the way to Denver.
That is already having an effect. The negative advertising campaigns are having an impact on both their candidacies and providing a much-needed boost to John McCain. In a year when the political stars are firmly aligned for a Democratic win, the Republicans are reaping the benefit of the Democratic fight.
McCain is campaigning nationally already, raising money and uniting his party while the Democrats continue to slug it out. McCain is now ahead of both Obama and Clinton in the national polls. At the same time, the standing of Clinton and Obama within the Democratic party itself is slumping as each side’s supporters adopt a negative view of the other.
Both candidates’ approval ratings among their party now sit between 50% and 60%, reflecting a party that is splitting itself down the middle.
After Pennsylvania votes, that process will either worsen as the fight continues or finally give Democrats the chance to heal their wounds. For the moment, with Clinton clinging on to her lead in the state, it looks like the battle will go on.
As she stood on her fiercely guarded street corner in York, waving her placard defiantly, Linda Hengst was adamant that Clinton would win—and equally adamant that Obama is not fit to become president. “He does not have the experience or the stature,” she said. If Clinton wins in Pennsylvania, there is much more in-fighting to come. Its true cost will only become apparent in November.—guardian.co.uk Â