Pennsylvania Debate Aftermath

Last night Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama participated in their first debate in about two months in Philadelphia. This debate was significant because it represented the last best chance in which the two candidates could impact the race before the Pennsylvania primary on April 22. For Obama, a strong performance likely would have led to a much narrower Clinton victory in the primary, which could easily be spun as a moral victory for Obama who wasn't expected to win Pennsylvania to begin with. And for Clinton, a solid performance would have helped her pad her margin of probable victory in Pennsylvania and help change the narrative that she should simply get out now because Obama is the superior candidate.

Obama has more money, has won more states, has won more popular votes, and has broader electoral appeal than Hillary Clinton in terms of demographics. However, could Hillary Clinton really be the superior candidate? During the debate last night, Obama's delivery was devoid of the passion and authority with which he normally speaks. He found himself having to deal with the same controversies he thought he had put to rest long ago, such as his patriotism, Jeremiah Wright, and the Weather Underground. While discussing these issues, he seemed both annoyed and dispirited--hardly qualities that appeal to voters. It was quite obvious that he did not want to go down this road yet again. Surely he is being dogged by these questions on a daily basis and wishes these "distractions" would just stop so he could "talk about the issues."

But that's not going to happen. And worse for Obama, this is only the beginning.

An important point to remember is that this is merely the Democratic nomination race. While Obama may be able to survive and win the nomination, by no means will he be free from these controversies in the fall against John McCain and the Republicans. They will hammer him on his patriotism, his perceived racist church, and his perceived condescension towards downscale voters on a level that makes the attacks from Hillary Clinton look like flag football. If Obama is unable to take these hits from Clinton, he will be toast when he has the entire Republican campaign apparatus against him.

Hillary Clinton knows she will never be able to catch Obama in terms of pledged delegates. There simply aren't enough of them left, especially given the Democrats' proportional allocation of delegates. And she likely won't win the popular vote either. However, she does have one powerful card left to play: the doubts of the superdelegates.

Back when Obama was seen as a blank slate, it was an advantage in that there was no dirt on him. But now negative stories are trickling out and are making Obama look increasingly unattractive. These are not insignificant stories, such as past DUIs or fraternity-style pranks. These are politically significant problems that Democrats should be concerned with.

One of the questions asked at the debate concerned Obama's feelings about the American flag. This question was likely a result of Pingate (the controversy surrounding Obama not wearing a flag pin on his lapel) and the now famous picture of Obama not covering his heart during the playing of the national anthem. This kind of imagery really matters to a lot of voters, and Republicans can't wait to exploit it. Pingate dovetails with Michelle Obama's remarks about being "proud of her country for the first time in her life" and Jeremiah Wright's incendiary sermons. Is this nation, not long removed from "freedom fries," really prepared to send a candidate whose patriotism is suspect to the White House?

The case Clinton can make to the superdelegates is that Obama is a paper tiger who is simply too risky and far weaker in a general election than his fundraising and support in Republican bastions like Nebraska indicate. Clinton raised a valid point when she acknowledged that she had a lot of "baggage" at the debate last night. But she also added that she's a known quantity. Clinton is no saint, but at least she could say that the demon that the voters do know is preferable to the demon that the voters don't know. She might have her warts, but she does know how to fight and will not wilt under pressure or criticism. Obama, on the other hand, seems more hesitant and may use his rhetoric of "moving past this old way of doing politics" as an excuse because he really doesn't know that politics is not beanbag.

Both candidates have a point. But here's some further evidence that buttresses Clinton's argument. Negative politics works. It might not be attractive and it might tamp down voters' enthusiasm, but rarely do nice guys finish first at the ballot box. Everybody decries negative campaign ads and complains about how negative politics is. But they end up voting for these negative candidates anyway because their messages and charges resonate. The Willie Horton ad devastated Michael Dukakis in 1988. The allegations of John McCain fathering a Black child in the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary worked. The windsurfing ad permanently wounded John Kerry. Cerebral messages attempting to appeal to voters on an analytical level rather than a gut level often fail. Strength matters more than smartness when it comes to how people select their leaders. Does Obama know how to fight? If he won't stand up for himself, how do voters know he will stand up for America?

Should Hillary Clinton win Pennsylvania, she could make a strong case to the superdelegates there that she has a better shot of winning the state than Obama does. Obama could make it to the White House without winning Florida and Ohio because of his strength in places like Colorado and possibly Virginia, but losing Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania would be a disaster from which he could not conceivably make up enough ground to salvage the general election. Superdelegates in California, New Jersey, New York, and Texas likely understand this equation as well. Will they place what's best for the party ahead of what's best for the voters, even if that means tearing the party apart?

A second point to consider is the idea that Obama's margins of victory in the earlier states could be smaller if these states had the chance to vote all over again. How many people considered themselves strong Obama supporters in the past before the Jeremiah Wright and Bittergate stories broke? How many of these voters wish they could take their votes back and give them to Clinton or even John Edwards? And how much more negative stuff is out there about Obama? Earlier I speculated that the Democratic Party could be irreparably damaged by Clinton winning the nomination on the backs of superdelegates even if she lost the popular vote. However, could more Democrats actually be more content with her potential nomination than was originally thought? Does buyer's remorse exist among Obama voters? And if so, how much? And if this buyer's remorse regarding Obama coexists with serious reservations about Clinton despite Obama's unattractiveness, would this make the prospect of an Al Gore nomination a bit more appealing?

This race is not over.

10 comment(s):

Nikki said...

Great piece Anthony, I didn't watch the debate last night and I wanted to. I think my husband was watching the JAZZ game...I appreciate the analysis and think you are right on. It is going to be interesting to watch the political version of desperate housewives unfold! :)N

Reginald Harrison Williams said...

Obama nor Clinton did well last night. In fact, I thought the whole debate was ridiculously petty. McCain really looked good based on the fumbling of these two Dems last night.

I must admit that both looked weary and tired. Both gave weak answers. Both did not look like leaders for our country.

In the end though, I must fault ABC for putting together such a terrible debate (George S as a moderator? Can you see the possible bias in favor of Clinton?). Almost all of the debate was about "non-Policy" stuff.

With political programs like this, I cannot wonder why Americans are so ignorant of politics.

McCain needs to feel good about his chances now.

namaste said...

hmmm... i'll hold my tongue on what i think about rhw's observations, except to say i disagree.

anthony, great post. i was beginning to think you were going soft and getting a bit hypersensitive about obama.

i was not born in this country, but i have lived here my whole life. i fly the flag, i wear the pin, and i cover my heart. obama has his head in the clouds if he really thinks "the issues" matter more than his patriotism. you make a lot of valid points in this post, but the most excellent observation is the one about voters being less analytical and more visual and reliant on their gut feelings. obama is a talker and a romantic. a realist and a fighter, he's not.

i also agree with your point about buyers' remorse. i bet a LOT of voters would love a do-over right about now.


Schenck said...

Here is what I see... I see people saying "these things matter to voters" regarding pin-gate, wright-gate, weather-gate, bitter-gate, orange juice-gate, bowling-gate, sinbad-gate, etc. What I do not see is a single voter to whom these things matter.

What I also see is 15,000 comments (and counting) at the ABCnews article about last nights debate, of which approx. 95% are disgusted Americans. Kudos to the crowd booing George before the last commercial break. This was not a political debate; this was the season finale for The Jerry Springer Show. I was hoping for another "Lamentations" post on this.

Brett said...

Obama is definitely turning out to be anything but a saint (and to be honest, anyone who thought he would be, rather than a politician, was rather naive), but I wouldn't relinquish this high ground to Clinton yet.

The thing about her being a "fighter" - well, I'm not sure that she really is, or whether that's even a good thing. Think of how her health care plan failed in 1994, or how much difficulty she's had running a competent campaign compared to Obama. Think of all the bad news about her campaign being in arrears to a whole host of small folk for months at a time. Those are not convincing images.

That said, I hope I wasn't the only person who found Stephanopolous's question "Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?" rather stupid.

Dominic said...

Okay, I've been reading your blog for a couple of months now, and never felt the need to comment on anything because I generally agree with your analysis' on most issues...but not so much this time.

While it may be true that Obama lacks the "patriotism" that John McCain has, but is waring a crappy chinese-made button all there is to patriotism? Aren't we a country founded by dissenters, foreigners and religious zealots? Just what the hell is patriotism if we're measuring it on cheaply made buttons that our politicians ware? I know I wasn't alive at the time, but didn't Teddy Roosevelt get fed up with the establishment and almost win a re-election on the Bull Moose ticket...

The whole "debate" was a sham, hell, it wasn't even a debate! The Weather-gate, Sinbad-gate and all the other crap we want to apply "gate" to, really means doodly-squat when compared to, oh, I don't know, the never-ending list of problems with the middle-east, the collapsing US(/global) economy, the outsourcing of US Jobs, the immigrant "problem", aren't all these things more important than ratings & gossipy trash? Sure, it's an essential part of any election as it helps to build character for the candidates, but who does this really serve? It sure as hell doesn't serve the average voters.

Obama's bitter-gate babel is quite ironic. People got pissed off because he told the truth, oh no! I've lived in rural Georgia, and spent many summers in rural Pennsylvania as a kid. People there own guns and god because there isn't much else out there. Whats more is that many people CHOOSE to ignore politics because it's this kind of mud-slinging, mind-numbing, semantic-garbage that turns them off to the global community. It's the apathetic, "I don't live in Washington, this doesn't effect me, I've got crops to plow and cattle to deliver!" effect.

And it's not just rural voters and people either. The more this sadistic version of politics goes on, the more people will revert back into their shells, poking their mice away from porn only when they feel absolutely out-raged that people are ignoring all these potentially catastrophic problems, like internet censorship, oh no!

These are supposed to be presidential candidates, right? It honestly looks like, after last nights debate, coupled with the spastic and sloppy reporting of candidates denying coffee, or eating cheeseburgers and waffles, it's no wonder the rest of the world mocks our heaping pile of democracy.

Anthony Palmer said...


You may be surprised to know that I actually agree with your position 100% on this. I personally could care less about the flag pin. I encourage you to read this post I wrote last fall called Obama's Flag Flap.

The problem is, however, that this stuff really matters to a lot of people and makes for TERRIBLE politics. Obama would have been better off just keeping the flag pin on or never wearing it in the first place. BTW, have you ever seen the MSNBC interview when Dan Abrams asked this congressman from Georgia about the pin? The congressman was saying that Obama wasn't patriotic because he didn't wear the pin, but this congressman wasn't wearing a pin himself and Abrams called him out on it! Hilarious.

In short, I think a better indicator of one's patriotism is the steps they take to make this nation better through their actions and proposed legislation. Anybody can go to Walmart and buy a flag pin, including Osama bin Laden himself.

Thanks for being a regular reader of The 7-10. Feel free to comment anytime--you don't have to stay in the shadows!



I'm starting to think that this will be the last debate before the general election debates begin. There was clearly no benefit for Obama here, and since he's leading, he might as well try to run out the clock. I think voters have had enough of Obama vs. Clinton, so it's about time for this soap opera to end.



Yes, this debate certainly didn't make the top 10. And I thought some of those questions were unbelievably off base. I read that Stephanopolos got one of his loaded questions from Sean Hannity himself. Ugh.



Tying in with my comment to Dominic, I don't think the flag pin stuff should matter so much because anybody can go out and buy a pin. HOWEVER, I can definitely understand how it does matter to a lot of other people because if you are perceived as not being proud of your country, then why should you be entrusted with the presidency? Voters are wired differently, I suppose. But I do think that the other issues on voters' minds may end up trumping the patriotism card this time around. We'll see. Thanks for commenting.



I'm conflicted about the debate questions. Remember the 1988 debate question from Bernard Shaw to Michael Dukakis about the death penalty and his wife being raped? That was a tough question that was of the same ilk as some of the questions about Wright and the Weather Underground. But it turned out to be a defining moment in Dukakis' campaign and destroyed him.

But at the same time, with all the other important stuff going on, I'm surprised ABC spent the first 45 minutes of the debate on this stuff. I think it matters more to Republicans, who were not the intended audience of this debate.

There's so much more I want to write, but perhaps another "Lamentations" post is in order. I still want to write about Bob Barr, for example. Once this academic grind ends in about two weeks, we'll see.



This debate was good training for Obama because it will only get worse from here. He won't be able to dismiss these kinds of questions as stupid politics in the general election. If he doesn't fight back, he will be swiftboated like Kerry for sure.

And yes, that question about Wright loving America as much as he did was insane. As a journalism student, I shook my head in disgust. Questions like that are what put journalists in the same despised league of lawyers, politicians, and used car salesmen. Ugh.

Thanks for the comments everyone.

Phillip said...

Really good and thorough analysis, Anthony. Obama has to stick to who he is, however. He may well lose, but in a country where as you say "negative politics works," then our very democracy is in danger. We need to launch a counteroffensive of all the millions who are disgusted with American politics at it currently exists. Obama may win, he may not, he may not even get the nomination, but he needs to remain at the helm of a nationwide movement that rejects the garbage that passes for political discourse and "journalism" these days.

I liked Obama before. With each passing "controversy" and the way he continues to carry himself and his convictions, his stature rises in my eyes by the minute. He should continue what he's doing, win or lose.

The struggle at stake here will not be decided in the course of one election, but some years to come. The health of the republic hangs in the balance.

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

they both still have foul health lans, just being objective chk this joining the rest of the civilized world

Freadom said...

I never watched the debate, but I was thinking about writing a post similar to this. I suppose I don't have to now since you pretty much covered everything I would hve to say on the subject.

I agree with you dead on that Obama's problems with Rev. Wright, the lapel pin, etc, may not pose a problem with him getting the dem. nomination, but when he's going head to head with McCain, I think he will be in a heep of trouble.