Thoughts on the New Hampshire Debate (D)

This post will assess last night's Democratic debate. For my take on the Republicans, click here.

As I watched the debate, several facts became immediately apparent:

1. Bill Richardson has become the new Duncan Hunter. He was allowed to participate in the debate by virtue of his fourth place finish in the Iowa caucuses. However, he is a weak candidate and is not viable. Aside from citing his extensive resume, he did not really distinguish himself from the other candidates at the debate. He reminded voters of his wealth of experience, but that may not have been a good strategy to pursue, as Chris Dodd and Joe Biden also ran on experience and lost. And Hillary Clinton tried using "experience" to counter Barack Obama's message of "change" only to have her finish third in the Iowa caucuses. Richardson's problem is that he does not offer anything that the other candidates don't, save for having the most comprehensive resume and executive experience. But again, as Biden, Dodd, and Clinton will attest, that might not matter much. In addition to this, his signature issue, Iraq, is not playing as well as it used to because of recent military successes there, so his calling card of getting all the troops out of Iraq with "no residual forces" has lost some of its potency. Do Iowan voters have any buyers' remorse?

2. John Edwards clearly views Hillary Clinton as his main rival, rather than Barack Obama. He generally refrained from attacking Obama and commonly directed his fire at Clinton. Perhaps he believes that she is the easier candidate for him to beat? Edwards could plausibly argue that he is more electable than she is in addition to being more likable than her as well. It seems that Obama and Edwards are treating Clinton the same way McCain and Huckabee are treating Romney. By double-teaming their main rival, they stand a better chance of taking that rival out. Also, by not going after Obama, could Edwards be angling for the second spot on an Obama ticket?

3. It would be foolish to write off Hillary Clinton despite her poor Iowa finish. While I watched the debate, it was hard to tell who the real frontrunner was at times. She sounded competent and tough, especially when talking about foreign policy and national security. Obama and Edwards spoke more in generalities when it came to stopping terrorism and dealing with nuclear proliferation, a fact that was likely not lost on conservative-leaning voters who are disaffected with the Republican Party. The problem for Clinton, however, is that Obama now controls his own destiny. So no matter how well Clinton does at these debates, as long as Obama does well enough, she will never catch him. Obama made no obvious mistakes during the debate, so he leaves the debate in the same position he was in before it started: ahead. David Broder wrote more about how the race is now Obama's to lose.

4. Obama received a huge boost during the Republican debate when the moderator asked the Republican candidates why they were better suited for the presidency than Obama. The question was phrased to show that the GOP candidates may have been considering Clinton their default opponent a little too soon. I listened carefully to the Republican candidates make their cases against Obama and I noticed that they seemed to have considerable difficulty doing so. Romney, for example, talked a lot about the importance of "change." But the problem for Romney is that he is not the "change" candidate. He is the "manager" candidate. And the negative "flip flop" caricature has more resonance when describing Romney than "change." Huckabee was much more gracious as he talked about Obama and said they both represent a level of civility and pragmatism that the other candidates don't. So he helped build Obama up. Ron Paul did the same when he talked about how they both appealed to younger voters. Compare these remarks with their common remarks about "Hillarycare," for example, and it's easy to see that running against Obama is something they are much less prepared for.

5. John Edwards has tapped into the palpable anger among many voters regarding health insurance, corporate profits, and the struggles of the middle class. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that he would be a polarizing general election candidate who would make the corporate community recoil in horror. He is framing the difference between himself and Obama as how to bring about change. Obama seems to be in favor of a more conciliatory approach, such as negotiating with "the big drug companies," for example. But, as Edwards says, "you can't 'nice' these companies into giving up their greed." Edwards believes "change" should be achieved via a more confrontational approach. He essentially wants to punch "big oil" and "big pharmaceutical companies" in the jaw. I recommend reading this post I recently wrote about the implications of an Edwards nomination.

6. Edwards might not be going after Obama's throat right now, but he will have to engage him eventually. But how can he? How can anyone go after Obama, especially since his favorability ratings are so high? Clinton, whose favorability ratings are considerably lower, can ill afford to drive up her own negatives any further by going after Obama too vigorously. And Edwards runs the risk of coming across as too angry. Attacking Obama's thin resume did not work in Iowa, and criticizing his lofty, inspirational rhetoric only serves to further buttress his own arguments about cynicism and hope. Could it be that this race is closer to being over than we think?


If Obama wins New Hampshire, Clinton will be in serious, serious trouble. After winning in two overwhelmingly White states, I highly doubt that Black voters in South Carolina are going to hold him back in the primary there. However, even if Clinton loses New Hampshire and South Carolina, she would still have her high name recognition and deep pockets to help keep her competitive when Super Tuesday finally comes around. Her national polling numbers are about 50% higher than Obama's, so she still has a fairly large margin for error that the other candidates never had.

If Edwards is able to beat Clinton in New Hampshire, he would be able to make a strong case that he is the #2 candidate in the race. But then what? He is trailing Obama badly in South Carolina and doesn't have the money to go the distance with him.

Of course, if Edwards places third, his campaign will effectively be over. He may stay until South Carolina just to see if his heavy advertising here had any effect on the race, but it's hard to see how he could go on with so little money and no momentum.

Hillary Clinton could win New Hampshire. Even if Edwards places second, if he places second to her, he would definitely be finished. The race will then become the two-person race between "Hillary and Obama" that the media have been talking up for months. I can't help but wonder, however, where a lot of disaffected Democrats will go because Clinton is not as popular among Democrats as Republicans think, and a lot of Democrats simply don't have "Obama fever." Will these voters stay home?

Joe Biden and Chris Dodd supporters who value experience and a proven track record of results may throw their support behind Bill Richardson because he's the last "resume" candidate remaining on the Democratic side. However, if they are unimpressed with his campaigning skills, they may consider John McCain, the other "experience" candidate in the race. McCain is not as partisan as some of the other Republicans and he has high favorability ratings among Democrats and independents. Basically, he is an "acceptable" Republican to many Democrats and may win a lot of crossover support.

This is still a three-person race, but John Edwards only has one more chance to remain relevant.

3 comment(s):

Schenck said...

Hey Palmer,

Will read all this stuff when I get the chance (big project at work) but check out this article on Obama by Deepak Chopra... he's really captured something here:

Chopra on Obama

Schenck said...

Considering the implications of a pending Obama presidency (at this point I am almost positive he will win the primaries and next November), I have become frightened about something. OK, I'm gonna put it out there... I am afraid some one will go JFK/MLK on his ass. I know, it's a horrible thought, but what has often happened to idealists in positions of power, whether political or social? Of course this is quite nihilistic, and I hate to think this way (but I do more often than not)... Lincoln, MLK, JFK, Lennon, Pope JP II... Bhutto?? Of course this will not affect my vote, but what are your thoughts, Palmer? To hope for the best, I suppose?

Anonymous said...

It doesn't seem right to me that a primary campaign can begin and end with one state (see Biden and Dodd in Iowa) and a truly national campaign like Hillary's can be considered in "serious, serious trouble" for losing in 2 of 50 states. I think our system is a little off.

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