10/14/2007

Obama: Why the Dark Horses Need Him

Much has been written about the perceived inevitability of Hillary Clinton based on her superior fundraising and strength in national and state polls. Clinton raised the most money during the third quarter and sits atop all national polls and almost all state polls, although her lead in Iowa is a bit more tenuous. Given this enviable positioning, Clinton could conceivably score a knockout punch by winning the first contest in Iowa and then running the table after that. The political calculus for all the other candidates is simple: Any other Democratic candidate who wants to be the nominee must stop Clinton in Iowa. It doesn't matter if Clinton places second or third; she just can't win Iowa if they want to have a chance of slowing her down.

Here's how things stand in Iowa right now:

Mike Gravel is registering no support at all in most Iowa polls. Chris Dodd is not beating the margin of error. Dennis Kucinich is performing a bit more strongly than Chris Dodd, but he doesn't have a credible campaign apparatus. Joe Biden has been getting some good publicity because of his Iraq policy, but he is barely outside of the margin of error at about 5%. Bill Richardson is in the low double digits, but his weak debate performances have stalled his momentum. And John Edwards, who has practically been Iowa's third senator since the 2004 election, has seen his lead over Clinton turn into a deficit over the past few weeks.

This leaves only one candidate who is positioned well enough to defeat Clinton in Iowa and make the race for the nomination competitive again: Barack Obama. Salena Zito of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review touched on this issue here. However, unlike Zito, I don't believe Obama is the only person who could benefit from an Obama victory in Iowa.

Even though the other Democrats might be tempted to pile onto Obama, I think they would be wise to lay off of him for now because he is the only candidate capable of stopping Clinton. If she wins Iowa, her inevitability will be confirmed and it will simply be too late to try and defeat her in New Hampshire or South Carolina. Without question, she will be the nominee. However, if Obama were to win Iowa, that would mean that Clinton and one other candidate would live to fight another day. And if that were to happen, the dynamics of the race would change considerably. This is how dark horses can win.

Should Obama win Iowa, John Edwards would be forced out of the race because he simply cannot afford to place second or third there. He placed all his chips on an Iowa victory and he doesn't have the money to go the distance after that without a huge media boost stemming from a strong showing there. There's also not enough room for Obama and Edwards to coexist anyway. Thus, one of these three "tickets" out of Iowa would not belong to him if Obama won. This leaves Richardson, Biden, and Dodd as the potential beneficiaries of the final ticket to New Hampshire.

Obama is also the only candidate who has the financial resources to match Clinton step for step in a national campaign. Should Richardson, Biden, or Dodd be the third candidate left in the race after Iowa, they likely would not be the target of negative advertising from either Clinton or Obama because they would train their sights on each other. Meanwhile, while Clinton and Obama go back and forth, the final candidate would be able to take the high road and focus more on actual policy details than on petty attacks and counterattacks. Staying above the fray and acting like a competent statesman could potentially be quite attractive, as it would contrast nicely with the Clinton-Obama slugfest.

The media love a good storyline, so if this scenario were to take place, the media could build up Richardson, Biden, or Dodd as the experienced observer who is above politics and who had to claw his way out of the political wilderness. Think of it as another "Comeback Kid" narrative. When there are only three candidates in the race, it is much easier to compare and contrast them with each other, especially in the context of a debate. Voters who are leery of Clinton's polarization and Obama's inexperience would then have a third option in Richardson, Biden, or Dodd who combines experience, leadership, and a lack of polarization.

So in short, Richardson, Biden, and Dodd would be wise to avoid tearing down Barack Obama because they need his polling strength and his campaign cash in order to survive. John Edwards, the weakest "top tier" candidate who also has the most to lose, is the candidate they would be wise to attack. There's no way Bill Richardson can triple his support and overtake Clinton at present, for example. However, if John Edwards' numbers keep trending downward while Richardson and Biden's numbers slowly move up, they might eke out a third place showing in the Iowa caucuses. But this won't mean anything if Obama can't get it done against Clinton. That's why attacking Obama will only make their own political survival that much more difficult.

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Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.