Friday, September 12, 2008


Underestimating Gov. Palin comes at some risk

There is no doubt that John McCain’s choice of Gov. Sarah Palin has energized the right and given some badly needed CPR to his campaign. It appears that not picking a woman to serve as his running mate, Hillary Clinton or otherwise, has hurt Barack Obama’s campaign. It’s self-evident, I think, that Palin is intelligent & a superb speaker, whatever her beliefs, lack of experience, or level of corruption. I also think it’s self-evident that Obama’s long drawn-out battle with Clinton, which dragged on months longer than necessary, has exhausted his campaign and that right now, on the surface at least, it looks very much the same way Clinton’s campaign looked the day after Super Tuesday. As tho it had focused so long on a single goal (Super Tuesday for Clinton, gaining the nomination for Obama) that whatever came next appears to have been a surprise.

However, in the long run, I will be the one who will be surprised if McCain manages to pull this rabbit out of the hat on election day. Because, in the long run, I think picking Joe Biden has done Obama more good than picking Palin will have done McCain. On the other hand, had Obama picked a woman & had McCain picked Tom Ridge, old pro-life, not-much-of-a-speaker, Bush-appointee Tom Ridge, I think McCain would ultimately have won this election. Picking Palin instead is a game changer alright, but McCain doesn’t appear to grasp the game.

I know that’s counter-intuitive, but I think American politics are counter-intuitive, precisely because electoral politics are not national politics. As George W. Bush demonstrated quite effectively in the year 2000, thank you, national polling numbers mean exactly nothing. Nada. Zip. The real question – the only question – is which votes did you get where? A pick like Palin, that increases McCain’s victory in Texas and Alaska and maybe elsewhere in the Bible Belt, all states McCain was going to win anyway, has no real impact, except insofar as her coat-tails may decide some down-ticket races for local office. I can’t think of a single state that she actually turns from red to blue. At best, she mutes the remote possibility of Libertarian candidate Bob Barr tipping Georgia to the Dems, the way Ralph Nader tipped Florida in 2000 into the hands of the Supreme Court.

Joe Biden, however, has taken Pennsylvania from the toss-up category to blue, rather the same way that a Tom Ridge would have had just the opposite effect. With 21 votes in the electoral college, the shift of those choices equals a swing of 42 electoral votes, enough to have ensured McCain a victory. Biden is well-known in Pennsylvania because Delaware is functionally a suburb of Philadelphia, save for the very southern part of the state, which is a suburb of Baltimore. Plus Biden was born & spent a portion of his childhood in Scranton in Pennsylvania’s hardscrabble northeast. He talks the talk and people can see that.

In spite of national polling, and in spite of eight years of unparalleled incompetence and rapaciousness on the part of the Bush administration, this is going to be another razor thin election. With eight weeks remaining, there really appear to be just four states that truthfully are still in play, and which aren’t leaning clearly one way or the other: Ohio, Virginia, Colorado & New Hampshire. If Obama wins either Ohio or Virginia, all he needs is one of the smaller two to win. McCain has to win both those states, or three of the four, to beat him.

McCain and his camp actually do believe that this is an election about change, and that whatever feels furthest from business as usual is an advantage. As David Brooks put it in The New York Times the other day, “weirdness wins.” The problem with Palin is not that she has so little experience, but that she may have too much, and that voters will realize that she’s just one more pol, Mike Huckabee with a gun instead of a guitar. And there is no way you are not going to see that clip of McCain admitting he votes with Bush 90 percent of the time a thousand times in the next eight weeks.

But the reason that change is the issue for both parties has a lot to do with what’s wrong, from the war to the economy, which is worse off even than Obama is prepared to let on.

So I think this election ultimately is about economics. Not, according to his own admission, McCain’s strong suit. Nor Palin’s. Plus, according to Bizjournals, four of the ten worst metros for jobs right now are in Ohio, while two others are nearby in Michigan. That and the profound demographic shifts in recent years in Virginia work to Obama’s advantage.

But it was Karl Rove’s hypothesis that, once you broke the unions, manufacturing states like Michigan & Ohio would be more apt to vote like southern states, that their demographics are much closer to the American south than they are to either seaboard, and that many people in the manufacturing sector are in fact transplanted southerners with value systems the GOP understands well. Thus, in theory, the worse things are in Ohio, the better the GOP should do there. This election should present an opportunity to put this premise to the test. That’s why Palin’s job is to turn the election in yet another round in the culture wars.

But this is where I think Obama continues to show, as he did in beating Clinton by demonstrating that he understood the importance of the caucus states & the caucus process, that he understands the task before him better than any Democrat before him. And that’s why we have Joe Biden, a pol with distinct regional appeal, rather than somebody who bumps a demographic but whose impact is filtered out by its distribution throughout every region. There may be regions where the African-American, Jewish-American, Spanish-American, Arab-American, even Hmong- & Sikh-American vote is concentrated. But women account for roughly half the vote everywhere. The percentage who don’t mind the fact that Palin is to women as Clarence Thomas is to African-Americans is a fraction of that vote, and the places where it concentrates are in the (surprise) red states.

All of which suggests that, barring any major gaffes from camp Obama,unless the GOP can concentrate the powerburst impact of Ms. Palin on some geography, such as Ohio, all her presence on the ticket will have accomplished is to ensure the election of Barack Obama, regardless of whether or not he wins the popular vote. And until such time a female politician can demonstrate the kind of pull that shifts an important state from column A to column B, all this kafuffle over the so-called Palin effect is exactly that, the mumbling of cable talking heads who need something to yatter on about, and who certainly won’t choose news or the issues as an obvious topic.


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