"In contrast to the vitriolic rants you'll find on some political blogging sites, Palmer gives in-depth analysis and commentary." --Dan Cook, The Free Times


On Religion, Politics, and Denouncements

It seems that Barack Obama appeals to two types of people. The first type is traditional liberals and run-of-the-mill Democrats. They like his views on immigration, international relations, tax policy, and social issues. They are pro-choice. They are economic populists. They are more receptive to government intervention and regulation. They voted for Kerry. They voted for Gore. And they voted for Clinton. They were all left-leaning Democratic politicians whose political views largely matched their own. They might not have liked these candidates when they were at the polls, but the "D" after their names was more important than the name itself.

The second type is voters who view Obama as a means of expressing their anger at everything related to politics as we know it today. They hate big money. They hate the idea of corporate lobbyists feeding at the political trough. They hate the 24-hour political news cycle. They hate the media's tendency to focus on stupid stuff. They hate conventional wisdom. And they hate talking heads and incurious journalists who recycle the same old themes. To them, Obama's campaign is as much about them as it is about Obama. To them, an Obama victory in November would represent a triumph of people over the system and everything that makes it undesirable.

This latter group of voters consists of what I will call "protest voters." Some of these people are independents who dislike partisan rhetoric. A significant number of them are Republicans that Obama affectionately calls "Obamicans." (Even former Bush Press Secretary Scott McClellan may vote for Obama.) And many more are regular voters who have nothing to do with politics at all but believe Obama connects with them in a way that other politicians who came before him haven't. That explains why his donor base is so large and why so many of his contributions are for less than $100.

Hillary Clinton does not connect with voters the way Obama does because she has run a poor campaign and is blaming everyone for her bleak political situation except herself. It's sexism. It's the media. It's the national party disenfranchising (her) voters in Michigan and Florida. It's debate moderators. It's the right wing smear machine. It's the unfair system of caucuses instead of primaries. It's your mother-in-law and her hairdresser. And that turns voters off.

John McCain does not connect with voters the way Obama does either because he has one foot in the pool of bipartisanship and independents and the other foot in the pool of the unpopular George Bush and his off-putting allies. Thus, McCain's credibility is under suspicion. He is neither completely trusted by the right nor fully embraced by the middle, so he's suffering from a bit of identity confusion.

The reason why I referenced Obama's "protest voters" is because of the latest pulpit problem surrounding the Obama campaign. Catholic priest Michael Pfleger gave an incendiary sermon mocking Hillary Clinton and invoking the idea of White entitlement as it relates to the United States' racist past. This kind of rhetoric is common in liberal circles. The reason why this is such a big deal, however, is because Rev. Pfleger gave this sermon at Trinity United Church of Christ, also known as Obama's church--the same church where Rev. Jeremiah Wright gave his now infamous sermon about how September 11 should not have been a surprise to the United States.

Needless to say, the media are all over this story. Pundits are talking about how this strikes at Obama's "judgment" again. And Hillary Clinton is calling on Obama to denounce Pfleger explicitly. Comparisons between Michael Pfleger and Jeremiah Wright are commonplace.

This reaction was predictable, but regardless of how one feels about this pastor's remarks, one fact cannot be denied. This year's presidential campaign is setting a very dangerous precedent.

To start, Obama was not at the church when Pfleger blasted Clinton and invoked White guilt. And how often does Obama go to his church now anyway? He is in the middle of an intense campaign for his party's nomination and likely doesn't have the time to make it back to Chicago every weekend to go to his church. Why should he be held accountable for what that church's pastor is saying? Pfleger wasn't his pastor; Wright was! Why should he have to dissociate himself from that church because of this new pastor? And how offensive are these calls for divorce to people actually agree with Pfleger's remarks?

Having to disavow or dissociate yourself from an entire organization simply because someone in that organization, no matter how prominent, makes controversial remarks or has a potentially offensive policy is an unfortunate development because it prevents the electorate from focusing on issues that are far more important to their day to day lives. And it threatens to silence any politician whose views or personal history is deemed "too different" for others to accept.

Until 2000, Bob Jones University, a Christian school, had a policy that banned interracial dating. Should all Bob Jones University graduates have repudiated or boycotted their own college simply because of the school's politically incorrect policy? After all, those alumni paid thousands of dollars to go to that school and went there voluntarily, just as Obama voluntarily joined and stayed at that church.

There are several politicians who were affiliated with the Conservative Citizens Council, a White-supremacist organization. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, these affiliations lasted as recently as the 2004 election. Should all politicians who were once members or allies of this organization immediately denounce it and sever all ties with it? What about George Allen? What about Haley Barbour? They have won several elections despite these ties. Where were their calls for divorce? George Allen eventually lost his Senate re-election bid in 2006, but that was because he called a rival campaign worker a "macaca," not because of his relationship with the Conservative Citizens Council.

Jerry Falwell blamed September 11 on gays. How many politicians were still trying to curry favor with his church and that political wing after that? Even as recently as this campaign cycle, politicians, including John McCain, were still trying to win Falwell's endorsement. Where were his calls for divorce? Were such calls as intense as they are for Obama now?

Freedom of religion is protected under the Constitution. And separation of church and state has been advocated since our Founding Fathers' generation. But it seems that tabloid journalism is threatening this freedom because it is making politicians have to answer for people they have little or no control over. And what is the political statute of limitations for dealing with people who made offensive remarks in the past? Five years? Ten years? Twenty years? And why should we care?

Imagine that there comes a point when Obama is forced to leave his church because of media and political criticism. How fair is that? How many politicians have been drummed out of their own church because other people who could care less about them don't like what the church preaches? If Obama left his church, where would he go? Would his critics accuse him of mixing political calculations with the covenant? Would the media and his critics go to great lengths to research the backgrounds of all the pastors at this new church? What about the other worshipers who simply want to pray and enjoy Sunday fellowship without having to worry that the punditry will badmouth their church?

This gotcha game when it comes to religion has shifted from an unseemly though passably politically relevant exercise (e.g., Jeremiah Wright) to an outright offensive distraction. Not only is it offensive to the people who worship at the "offensive" church (nobody likes to have their church and their congregation branded as "wackos"), but it's also offensive to the millions of voters who don't care about this stuff at all and would much rather learn more about how our presidential candidates plan to handle Iraq, the struggling economy, fighting terrorism, and addressing gas prices.

The United States has a serious complex when it comes to religion. People who don't go to church at all are branded as God-haters. Non-Christians who seek to have their faiths be afforded the same level of acceptance or prominence in society as the Christian faith are excoriated for "forcing their beliefs" on others. Now people who don't go to churches "we" approve of are demonized as insufficiently Christian. And worst of all, this manufactured controversy surrounding Obama is giving license to others to demand that their political enemies pay for the actions of those to whom they are only tangentially related.

I sense that this latest controversy surrounding Obama will only make these "protest voters" even angrier or create a whole legion of new ones. And uncommitted voters and nonpartisan observers who are wondering how to make ends meet are probably looking at this supposed "pastor problem" and wishing people would just give this guy a break and let him run his campaign. People who were already against Obama don't need to be further swayed by yet another "offensive" sermon. But calling on him to sever ties with people for offenses they once ignored in the past reeks of political opportunism and is deeply offensive to people who don't believe anyone should have to worry about accounting for the shady characters that may or may not exist in their six degrees of separation.

If our nation continues down this road, there may be no one left deemed "decent" enough to run--unless he never befriended anyone or joined any group or organization whatsoever.


The Future of Cable News

(Note: This is a continuation of my previous post examining what "fair" and "balanced" mean. This post examines their impact on cable news.)

In the case of MSNBC, Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" draws the highest ratings of any show on the network. Liberals may call this show "fair," but it is certainly not "balanced." Conservative guests are rare, so the show comes across like a liberal political echo chamber at times. His show has an obvious liberal bent, especially towards Barack Obama. But does Olbermann come across as sympathetic to Obama because he believes Obama has made fewer major gaffes in comparison to Hillary Clinton and John McCain? Or does Olbermann come across as sympathetic to Obama because he actually agrees with Obama's political beliefs? And when was the last time Olbermann has had anything positive to say about Republicans or the President?

What will happen to Olbermann's show if Obama wins the election? Countdown has drawn rave reviews from liberals who view his show as a sort of watchdog ready to expose the excesses and improprieties of the Bush White House to the masses. But will he continue to serve as a tenacious watchdog against an Obama White House and call Obama out when he reneges on a campaign promise or engages in unseemly political behavior? What if Obama runs an administration that is so squeaky clean compared to the current administration's that Countdown simply runs out of material? Could this show really survive as an Obama cheerleader?

How about MSNBC in general? A McCain presidency would probably keep Countdown on the air in its current form. McCain and his advisers would likely routinely make Olbermann's "Worst Persons in the World" list, and the likelihood of staying in Iraq under McCain's stewardship would allow him to continue to rail against the war.

A Clinton presidency would likely do the same because of the "say anything" nature of her campaign and the sleaze that has come to define the Clinton brand. But unlike a McCain presidency, a Clinton presidency would give Olbermann a chance to present himself as an honest broker because there likely wouldn't be any shortage of avenues of impropriety for him to investigate and criticize. Calling Olbermann and MSNBC liberals would lose a bit of its potency because how often do liberals criticize liberals?

As for the Fox News Channel, Bill O'Reilly's "The O'Reilly Factor" is the most watched cable news program and regularly trounces CNN and MSNBC in the ratings, although Countdown has occasionally beaten O'Reilly in in the demo (adults aged 25-54) as of late. O'Reilly's show has an obvious conservative bent, as is evidenced by his use of conservative icons such as Michelle Malkin as his substitute hosts. Liberals on this show are commonly treated like pinatas, and extending invitations to fringe left elements only makes the rhetorical slaughter easier while making O'Reilly look reasonable by comparison.

Fox's 9pm show, "Hannity and Colmes," is even more partisan. Even though the show is called "Hannity and Colmes," it is clear that Sean Hannity, the conservative, controls the show and dominates the discussion while Alan Colmes, the liberal, sometimes offers what can only be described as token opposition. Conservatives may view both of these shows as "fair," but they too are not "balanced."

O'Reilly, Hannity, and Fox would love to have a Hillary Clinton presidency because she is familiar and she can drive up Fox's largely conservative audience. But her chances of winning the nomination are slim. Barack Obama is more of an empty slate. Jeremiah Wright will be looming in the background, but to what end will his name be invoked? If Wright trumps President Obama's day-to-day governance as far as Fox or other media outlets are concerned, then that would be neither "fair" nor "balanced." A President McCain would maintain the status quo, especially given the fact that Democrats control Congress, but at what point will the status quo become tired? Fox News came to prominence as a result of the failings of Bill Clinton and the early successes of George Bush. Fox has thrived on these foils, but both political families might be completely removed from the White House after this year's election. What next?

In short, cable news needs to develop contingency plans in the event that a candidate who forces them to change their business model ends up winning the election. Kicking George Bush around and blaming Democrats for everything can only get you but so far.

Dissecting "Fair and Balanced"

(Note: This is the first of two posts addressing the meaning of "fair," "balanced," and "fair and balanced." This post addresses what these terms mean and how they are flawed. The second post addresses their potential effects on cable news in the future.)

CNN is "the most trusted name in news."

MSNBC is "the place for politics."

Fox is the source for "fair and balanced" news.

All three of these cable news stations use these slogans to strengthen their brand image among viewers. CNN is the credible station. MSNBC is the station for people who want politics first and news second. And Fox is the station for people who are fed up with biased reporting. Of these three slogans, it is Fox's that will be scrutinized in this post because its veracity will truly be challenged by the results of this fall's election. Seeing that all news stations should strive to be "fair and balanced," this post should not be construed as a scathing critique of Fox in particular. (Fox just happened to choose a very good slogan.)

To start, "fair" and "balanced" are not interchangeable. "Fair" means that a situation is analyzed impartially or objectively. In other words, bad news is not spun as good news and good news is not spun as great news. Likewise, good news is not diminished and bad news does not go unreported. There is no Republican side or Democratic side when it comes to news. There are only facts. And these facts should be met by viewers of all political leanings with acceptance, be it enthusiastically or grudgingly.

"Balanced" means that all viewpoints are given equal consideration when analyzing or discussing an event. This often means having a liberal and a conservative be given equal time to present their arguments. Unfortunately, however, this "balance" usually means having a bomb-thrower on the left debate a fire-breather on the right. The ensuing shoutfest makes for good television, but it doesn't make for good journalism. And because most voters are somewhere in the mushy middle, moderates, independents, and people who fall into some other political category may not find partisan bickering particularly well "balanced."

One common complaint, usually among conservatives but also among liberals, is the aspect of "media bias." Media bias is often cited in response to negative stories about the chaos in Iraq, reporting on transgressions and missteps by politicians, analyzing the campaign contributions of journalists, and nuanced or selective reporting.

I wrote about media bias here last winter, but I also highly recommend this recent piece by respected political analyst Stuart Rothenberg on why criticizing Republicans these days is objective, rather than partisan:

"But let's not pull any punches about the state of the GOP: You can't nominate mediocre candidates or candidates from divided state or local parties, have Members of Congress admitting to affairs that produced children, have Members' homes and offices raided by the FBI, have Members go to jail, have Members picked up in airport bathrooms and have an unpopular president pursuing an unpopular war during a time of increased economic anxiety and still expect to be popular--or to turn things around.

"Yes, I know, the Democrats have had their share of embarrassments. For every Republican embarrassment, there is a Democratic one.


"Still, it seems to me, and to most people I talk with, that far more Republicans are involved in these problems and investigations of late, especially involving Washington figures. Democrats haven't had anything close to resembling the Jack Abramoff fiasco, for example, during the past few years."
Rothenberg makes a good point, but unfortunately, this is where "fair and balanced" often ceases to be either "fair" or "balanced."

First of all, what may be "fair" is not always "balanced." And what may be "balanced" may not always be what audiences want. How many Republicans wanted Ron Paul to be excluded from the debates, for example? If a television show wished to address September 11, for example, a "balanced" panel might include speakers who viewed it as a terrorist attack against the United States by vile radicals who seek to destroy our way of life as well as speakers who viewed it as a response to perceived American terrorism or aggression abroad. How many people would automatically tune out the latter group of speakers or instantly cite their inclusion in the panel as an example of "liberal media bias" even though the panel is actually "balanced?" And does the fact that this panel is "balanced" make it inherently "unfair?"

In the case of "fair," consider President Bush's approval ratings. By all polls, Bush is a decidedly unpopular president. He has recorded the highest disapproval ratings of any president in modern history. (This is according to reputable polls by CNN, USA Today, and Gallup.) In other words, he is in the same league as Carter and Nixon, at least as far as these polls are concerned. He has been under 40% for about two years now. Partisan defenders of Bush may say that this kind of "negative coverage" and "Bush-bashing" is not "fair," but numbers and statistics have no bias in this case. There is no "balance" when it comes to this. (Consider this graph that has tracked Bush's approval ratings since his inauguration.) The same poll questions are being asked every month and the news is being reported in the same way. So even though stories about "Bush's popularity reaching a new low" may not be positive, they are indeed "fair." "Balance" is irrelevant in this case.

Surely these defenders were happy to trumpet the polls that showed the President with approval ratings above 60%. And shortly after September 11, his approval rating spiked above 90%. Why did polls matter then, but not matter now? When polls actually do matter now, partisans gleefully cite the even more dismal approval ratings of the Democrat-controlled Congress to show that Bush is not the least popular person in Washington. But if reporting on polls is only "fair" when it makes one's preferred politician look good, then it's not really "fair" at all and the quest for "balance" when it's not necessary only further erodes the idea of "fairness."

(This post is continued here.)


McCain's Veepstakes: Reassessing Romney

Ever since John McCain effectively clinched the Republican nomination back in February, he has had trouble staying in the headlines and getting media attention. After all, the chess match between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton has become quite a political spectacle. However, McCain recently grabbed headlines by revealing that he was meeting with Mitt Romney, Bobby Jindal, and Charlie Crist at his home in Arizona. These three names are significant because they are all plausible vice presidential nominees. Thus, this meeting is seen by pundits as the first major step of the vetting process to determine McCain's vice president.

I wrote earlier that Florida Governor Charlie Crist was well positioned to be McCain's running mate. He's a good-looking popular governor of a critical state that could offset McCain's age. He also has little baggage and has no ties to the unpopular Bush administration. This would make charges of "George Bush's third term" a bit harder to make. However, George Bush carried Florida in both 2000 and 2004 and is trending Republican, so a Crist selection would be more of a defensive pick. It wouldn't add much to the electoral map, but it would take the state out of play for the Democrats.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's inclusion as a possible running mate is a bit of a surprise because he has the same weaknesses that Republicans have criticized Barack Obama for. He served as a congressman for three years before being elected governor in 2007. He assumed office this January, thus giving him about five months of executive experience. Obama has served as a state senator for eight years and a senator in Washington since January 2005. Obama, who has been mocked as "Obambi" because of his age and relative inexperience, is 46. Jindal, however, is only 36. So this would take Obama's youth off the table as a political weapon. One advantage of a Jindal selection, however, is that it could help inoculate Republicans from charges that they are insensitive to people of color, especially if Obama is their opponent, because Jindal is of Indian ancestry.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney is slowly rehabilitating his standing among Republicans. He had a tough time in the race for the Republican nomination and didn't really begin to catch fire among conservatives until it was too late. Given the Republicans' winner-take-all primary system, narrowly losing Florida was the straw that broke his campaign.

Despite his obvious political ambitions, I originally argued that Mitt Romney had nowhere to go because there were other more credible conservative alternatives out there and Romney's conservatism only looked appealing in comparison to his Republican opponents, all of whom had a serious flaw.

But three issues are working in Romney's favor:

1. Voters are increasingly pessimistic about the economy. McCain himself volunteered that he doesn't know much about economics. That remark is coming back to haunt McCain, so he desperately needs to burnish his economic credentials to regain his credibility. Mitt Romney has a good track record of turning businesses around and is well regarded by the business wing of the Republican Party. Democrats will have a difficult time attacking Romney over his economic competence because he obviously understands Wall Street. Railing against "tax cuts for the rich" probably won't get them very far.

2. The chaos engulfing the Democratic Party over Michigan and Florida is threatening to put both states out of reach by tamping down enthusiasm among the Democratic voters there. John McCain was already strong in Michigan (he won its primary in 2000 and narrowly placed second this year), but adding favorite son Mitt Romney (the winner of this year's primary) to the ticket could turn it into a prime pick-up opportunity for the Republicans. And because the Michigan economy is tanking right now under Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm, voters there might respond favorably to Romney's economic message. The word "change" may also backfire on Democrats there for this very reason. Any message of "change" could be viewed as a "change" from Granholm's stewardship. If a McCain-Romney ticket can peel away Michigan, it would force the Democrats to defend Pennsylvania and pick off Ohio.

3. McCain is still regarded as the underdog against both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. If McCain loses the election, Romney would be poised to assume the mantle of party leader and Republican frontrunner in 2012. And by being loyal to this year's standard bearer, he is burnishing his credentials as a reliable Republican who will do whatever it takes to see that Republicans get elected. Campaigning as McCain's veep would also give Romney the opportunity to show voters his softer side, thus helping him overcome the perception of him as emotionless and sterile. So really, even by losing the nomination, Romney can still win. It's as if Mitt Romney is to John McCain in 2008 as Ronald Reagan was to Gerald Ford in 1976.

Obviously, it is still early. It is not urgent that McCain choose his running mate right away, especially since Obama and Clinton are still fighting and the summer lull is coming. And the controversies surrounding Jeremiah Wright and John Hagee may reignite suspicions about Romney's faith, especially in light of the raid on the polygamous FLDS sect in Texas. All in all, however, Romney's stock value appears to be rising. Romney is not the consummate Republican, but McCain could certainly do worse.


Lame Political Discourse: Part 4 (On Phony Sympathy)

At an intense sports event, partisan fans go to great lengths to show their allegiance to their team and ridicule their rivals. We paint our bodies. We wear jerseys. We try to intimidate our opponents or make them lose their concentration. We wave pennants. We camp out for tickets. We invent derogatory nicknames for our opponents. We scream at the top of our lungs. And we boo the referees when they make calls against our team.

But this all stops when a player gets hurt. We are no longer Yankees, Blue Devils, Cowboys, Red Sox, Canucks, or Aggies. We are people, and we care about each other. One awkward landing, one tough tackle, one intense collision, or one player who must be taken off the field on a stretcher makes us all remember what is truly important. It's not about points. It's not about wins and losses. It's not about securing home field advantage for the playoffs. It's about common human decency.

The news about Senator Ted Kennedy's malignant brain tumor reminded me of this sports analogy. It's tragic news, to be sure, but somehow I don't feel that the decency we show a wounded athlete is being expressed here. Sure, the words are there, but given the over-the-top rhetoric that has come to characterize contemporary politics, I can't help but wonder if at least some of these words are nothing but phony expressions of sympathy.

How many ambitious Massachusetts congressmen are looking at Kennedy's health as their long awaited opportunity to advance from the House to the Senate? Sure, they like Kennedy because he's one of the most famous lions of liberalism and wields a lot of political power. But he and John Kerry have kept Massachusetts' Senate seats off limits for more than 20 years, thus blocking other politicians' progress in the state.

How many Democrats are looking at Kennedy's health as their long awaited opportunity to get some new blood in their ranks? Many of these Democrats express adoration for Kennedy in public, but how many view him as a windbag in private? How much do Democrats (and Republicans) who have not served long in the Senate really care? Sure, they'll say they are saddened by his health because the political ramifications of failing to do so are too great. But is it really sincere?

How many Republicans are looking at Kennedy's health as their ticket to getting rid of their political nemesis? It is said that senators are generally collegial towards each other, but given the partisanship that has characterized the past 15 years or so, how many Republicans are thinking more in terms of political maneuvering rather than the senator's well-being? If some Democrats' expressions of sorrow may be feigned, what could reasonably be assumed of some Republicans'?

How many partisan political observers are looking at Kennedy's health as their ticket to getting rid of "the fat liberal who murdered his friend" 40 years ago? This is obviously a reference to the incident at Chappaquiddick in 1969. One common joke I've heard conservatives say is that they'd rather go hunting with Dick (Cheney) than driving with Ted (Kennedy). Any cursory glance at an online political forum mentioning him would reveal lots of bile and insults against him. How many of these people simply don't care about Kennedy's health even though they certainly know who he is? And even worse, how many of these people are actually rejoicing because of it?

I have no personal connection to Kennedy. I was born in 1977, long after the JFK/RFK assassinations, Vietnam, and the struggle for civil rights that he participated in. Kennedy is one of the better known senators and he seems to genuinely be concerned with his constituents. And because I live in South Carolina, I think more about Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint than Ted Kennedy and John Kerry. His health is obviously tragic, and I wish both him and his family the best.

I have no bone to pick with Kennedy. But some people do. How many people out there are reacting with apathy, phoniness, or glee? The same thing happened when Ronald Reagan died. And it will happen again when Jimmy Carter's time comes. How many of these people can express their sorrow with a straight face?

A part of me feels guilty for not having a little more faith in us as people. Not as Republicans. Not as Democrats. Not as conservatives or liberals. But as people. Can we really progress from talking about "our stupid president," "America-hating liberals," "terrorist-sympathizing Democrats," "heartless Republicans," "baby-eating abortionists," and "Bible-thumping wackos" to "our dear friend" and "our revered colleague" so easily?


Democrats' Demographics: A Convention Preview

Super Tuesday Part V takes place on May 20, when Kentucky and Oregon have their say at the polls. These two states are similar to North Carolina and Indiana in that Oregon is considered Obama territory while Kentucky is considered Clinton's turf. The most likely result will be a split decision in which Obama beats Clinton in Oregon by a fairly comfortable margin while Clinton beats Obama in Kentucky by a landslide.

Given that the results of these primaries are essentially foregone conclusions, what's the news value of these contests? There are two major questions that political observers are waiting to be answered: 1) What is the impact of John Edwards' endorsement, and 2) Will Obama's support among Whites continue to send warning signs to superdelegates?

John Edwards placed his credibility on the line by endorsing Barack Obama last week. As one of the remaining heavyweights who had yet to endorse, Edwards' endorsement was big political news. And this endorsement essentially stepped all over the news about Clinton's landslide victory in West Virginia. When considering Obama's veepstakes earlier, I noted that the delay in Edwards' endorsing Obama probably removed him from veep consideration. As it turned out, Obama didn't need Edwards' help in winning North Carolina. But it is quite possible that he could have helped in Indiana. Then again, endorsing Obama last week was probably more effective tactically because it got West Virginia out of the headlines. So perhaps Obama and Edwards timed this perfectly.

But how much does this matter? Given how ineffective Edwards was in 2004 for John Kerry, it is difficult to see how 2008 would be any different--at least regarding North Carolina. However, Edwards might be able to help Obama make inroads among rural Whites in Midwestern states. After all, Edwards was able to win a surprisingly large percentage of the vote in the West Virginia primary despite having dropped out of the contest more than three months ago.

Hillary Clinton will win Kentucky easily. However, if Edwards is able to help Obama keep Clinton's margin of victory down, he could make an argument that he is still relevant. But should Clinton rack up another 30-40 point victory, it would be obvious that Edwards has very little political clout left and he could no longer seriously be considered as a party heavyweight despite his geography, his drawl, and his good looks.

As it stands right now, the nomination remains Obama's to lose. All of the metrics are working against Hillary Clinton. Obama has won more states, more pledged delegates, and more popular votes. He has also recently pulled ahead of Clinton in terms of superdelegates. It is possible that Clinton can seize the popular vote by running up the score in Kentucky and Puerto Rico while keeping things close in Oregon, but having to rely on a US territory in addition to the controversial results from Michigan and Florida to win the popular vote probably won't sit well with party officials.

The only card Clinton has left to play is the demographic card. West Virginia did not net her enough delegates to make much of a dent in Obama's lead, but exit polls there confirmed what Ohio and Pennsylvania suggested: Barack Obama simply isn't doing well enough with downscale, culturally moderate to conservative, rural White voters. It could be because of racial discomfort. It could be because of a lack of cultural affinity. It could be because of political disconnect. Whatever it is, this is very important and Obama needs to find a way to remedy this problem.

Obama's coalition consists of Blacks, liberals, independents, and highly educated voters. Clinton's coalition consists of Latinos, women, social moderates, rural voters, and Whites. The argument Clinton needs to make to superdelegates is that her coalition is larger than his coalition. Blacks, liberals, and people with doctorates are going to vote for a Democrat in November regardless of who it is. The same could not be said, however, for rural Whites, blue collar voters, and moderates. And independents could go either way. So could Clinton do a better job of keeping more raw votes in the Democratic column even though Obama appeals to a more diverse electorate? Despite all the talk of multiculturalism and breaking racial barriers, the United States remains about 70% White. And while many of these White voters are genuinely concerned only with the issues, many others would like to have a presidential candidate they can relate to as well, as argued by conservative columnist Kathleen Parker.

A few months ago, the conundrum Democrats had was that they were torn between their head (Clinton) and their heart (Obama). Clinton was the safe choice while Obama was the inspirational one. Ironically, given the way they've presented themselves on the campaign trail over the past few weeks, Obama has turned out to be the more cerebral candidate while Clinton has become the candidate who connects with voters on a gut level. She might pander and she might be divisive, but she is definitely scrappy and has earned a lot of respect for fighting in the trenches and maintaining her never-say-die campaign. John Kerry, Al Gore, and Michael Dukakis were all cerebral candidates. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush connected at a gut level. The cerebral candidates all lost. Clinton's surrogates need to reinforce this distinction.

John McCain and Barack Obama are trading salvos on an almost daily basis. Even President Bush joined the fray by implicitly attacking Obama before the Knesset in Israel last week. In the event that Bush or McCain finds a major Obama weakness or forces him into a political briar patch, Clinton could position herself as the vetted alternative, thus reminding voters that her well spoken rival from Chicago is still too risky.

In short, Clinton can still win, but she no longer controls her own destiny. In order to win, she needs help. And she has about three months for this help to come. Giving new life to stories about Obama's struggles with White voters by running up the score in Kentucky would be a good way to start.


A Warning to Republicans

Even though the presidential race is generating the most headlines these days, one of the most important political developments this week has been the special election in Mississippi's 1st Congressional District (MS-1). This district, located in the northern part of the state, has been reliably Republican. In this week's special election, however, Democrat Travis Childers defeated Republican Greg Davis 54%-46%. This is the third special election that Democrats have won this year, thus increasing their majority in the House of Representatives to 236 Democrats to 199 Republicans.

Republicans could blame their previous special election losses on weak candidates and/or more hostile electorates. However, this special election can only be interpreted as a flat rejection of the Republican Party. George Bush carried the district with 62% of the vote in 2004 and the district has been represented by a Republican for more than 10 years. Even Vice President Cheney was sent to the district for a bit of last-minute campaigning, but the GOP lost this solidly Republican district by a very healthy eight points.

Given the overall composition of the district, not just any Democrat can win here. Childers is pro-gun and pro-life, much like other moderate to conservative Southern Democrats. However, Democrats aren't supposed to win these kinds of seats. Democrats and party strategists are surely licking their jowls because there are dozens of congressional districts elsewhere that are less Republican than MS-1 and are currently represented by Republicans. Republicans are justifiably terrified at their electoral prospects this fall because it could potentially be another wave election like 2006. And if that happens, Republicans would truly be in the political wilderness, as Democrats would be tantalizingly close to a supermajority that could override a potential presidential veto from John McCain.

Why are the Republicans losing? Partisan Democrats gleefully cite a tarnished Republican brand for their defeats, but here are a few other reasons along with some actual solutions that Republicans might wish to adopt for their own political survival.

1. There's a lack of new ideas. What is the newest great Republican idea? It seems that all Republicans talk about these days is tax cuts and not "surrendering" in Iraq. These two issues do not offer any vision about where the party wants to take the nation. In the past, especially during the Gingrich Revolution, Republicans were able to articulate bold ideas that excited the electorate. Entitlement reform and personal responsibility were fresh ideas that contrasted greatly with what the Democrats were offering at the time. If the GOP chooses to run on the same ideas that they ran on in 2002, then they had better get used to losing elections.

2. There's a lack of solutions. Voters are angry. They are angry about the economy. They are angry about healthcare. They are angry about gas prices. They are angry about Iraq. They are angry about immigration. They are angry about unsafe and defective Chinese products. They are angry about jobs disappearing overseas. So what did Republicans offer as solutions in the MS-1 special election? Accusations of liberalism, warnings about tax increases, linking the Democratic candidate to Barack Obama, and invoking Jeremiah Wright. Politics is obviously a contact sport, but there comes a point when voters expect those who seek to represent them to be able to offer meaningful solutions to their concerns. The Democrats' ideas are not necessarily good, but at least they are something. You can never beat something with nothing in politics. Interestingly, congressional Republicans seem to be guilty of exactly what they criticize Barack Obama for--offering a lot of talk, but no real solutions. Hearing the word "liberal" bandied about is not what voters want to hear when 80% of voters think the nation is on the wrong track.

3. A vote against a Republican is a vote against Bush. The public knows that the Democrats control Congress. And this Congress is not popular. However, the public also knows that a Republican controls the White House and leads the country. Republicans were tripping over themselves to have Bush campaign on their behalf in 2002 and 2004. But he has since become a radioactive albatross and Republicans down the ballot are paying the price. Bush's approval ratings are now south of 30%. Even though Bush will never be on another ballot, it is possible that voters are trying to vote against him by voting against his party. Bush might not be keen on listening to Democrats, but he should be more receptive to listening to Republicans. It might be in all Republicans' interest to pull Bush aside and tell him about how much he is killing them politically. If Bush were to up his approval numbers to 40%, voters might be a bit less apt to punish his party at the ballot box. Republicans should be more proactive in helping their party's leader right his ship because the further Bush sinks, the further Republicans everywhere sink. Or perhaps they would be better served by not letting Bush speak for them. Could Republicans benefit by going against the President and redefining what it means to be a Republican?

4. No one political party can stay on top forever. The Democrats controlled Capitol Hill for decades before finally losing in 1994. Republicans have controlled all the levers of power for most of Bush's presidency. If 2008 is a "change" election, then no matter what Bush or the Republicans do, voters simply might have had enough. This does not mean, however, that Republicans should resign themselves to getting demolished at the ballot box. One of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney's strengths was his ability to adapt to an ever-changing political landscape by repositioning himself and changing his message. Given that the current president is a Republican and that Republicans controlled Capitol Hill until 2006, "change" might be too hard a hard sell for Republicans to make. However, the success of Barack Obama at the expense of Hillary Clinton, the unlikely Democratic victory in the special election in Mississippi, and overall dissatisfaction with the way things are going with the nation right now suggest that "change" is a message smart politicians of all stripes should adopt.


Race Relations: Questions for the Fall

Now that it is more certain than ever that Obama will be the Democratic nominee, he has shifted to a general election strategy that focuses on John McCain while ignoring Hillary Clinton. The rigors of a general election campaign will force Obama to present his message to voters who are more hostile to his candidacy than voters in a primary election campaign. The 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns brought us frivolous issues like drunk driving arrests, post-Vietnam patriotism, fuzzy math, windsurfing, cursing at journalists, and earth tones. The impact of these issues on one's ability to govern was limited, but the media made a very big deal out of them anyway.

However, one issue that is almost certain to provide a subtext of this fall's campaign is the issue of race. Barack Obama has done a reasonably good job of staying away from proactively making race relations the core of his candidacy. His contributions to the discussion have largely been in response to media-generated inquiries (e.g., "Is Obama Black enough?"), the rhetoric of his political opponents (e.g., comments about his middle name and Hillary Clinton's South Carolina campaign), and circumstances surrounding those he once associated with (e.g., Jeremiah Wright).

Kevin Merida of the Washington Post penned an excellent column addressing racist incidents targeting Barack Obama campaign volunteers in Indiana and Pennsylvania. Some of the incidents mentioned in the article are quite discouraging, as they were directed against teenage supporters of the senator, both Black and White, in broad daylight.

In addition to being a good read, this article is significant because it represents the easiest angle from which the media tend to address any discussion of race in America. The media are guilty of walking on the same trodden path, fighting the same old battles, and relying on the same tired talking heads for "insight." In the case of Obama, this means identifying him as "Black" even though he's biracial, and playing up the "White racism" directed at him and his supporters.

We've talked about this story many times before, and it's not going away. How many more times do we have to explore whether Blacks overuse the "race card" or whether Whites are insensitive to the concerns of people of color? This is not to trivialize the issue of race by any means, but it does make many people hope that if we as a nation are going to try and address this issue, we will at least explore new ways to discuss it.

I encourage you to read Merida's article and think about these questions. These would be good questions for the media to pursue, rather than the same old assignments of blame and obfuscations:

Is it possible to be a racist and a Christian at the same time?

Is it possible to love America and harbor blanket hatred towards an entire segment of the American population at the same time? Can one be both patriotic and racist?

Is one group of people called upon to denounce the misguided members of their race more often then members of another group?

To what extent are racism and economic conditions related?

Has Obama truly exercised restraint in playing up these issues in the media? Have the media been helpful, harmful, opportunistic, or derelict in examining the racism swirling around his campaign thus far?

Does the near monolithic support of one candidate among one demographic group overshadow the near monolithic support of another candidate among another demographic group in terms of scrutiny? If so, why is there such a disparity?

Why are some people so reluctant to acknowledge that the issue of race is a bigger and more persistent problem than they may think? (It's amazing that people are still saying things like "Hang that darky from a tree!" in 2008.) And by the same token, why are some people so eager to tar others as racists at the slightest perceived injustice?

Why are some people so ready to interpret any criticism of Obama as evidence of racist tendencies? And how can one distinguish between people who have legitimate criticisms of Obama and people who use these criticisms to mask their own racism?

How will Republicans deal with voters who openly support them out of racism against Obama? How strongly will they denounce such voters? Will they denounce racist voters with the same fervor they had when they called on Obama to denounce Jeremiah Wright? Will voters demand that Republicans do so? How hard will Republicans work to overcome the perception that their party is a haven for bigots?

Would some of the criticisms surrounding Obama (e.g., Pingate, Bittergate, Wrightgate, Muslimgate) have survived as long as they have in the media and among voters had he been White? Are similar warts among other candidates being ignored?

How have rumors about Obama's religion persisted for so long? And who is perpetuating them? And how can elected officials who knowingly spread this misinformation be held accountable?

How much responsibility should people of all races (including Whites) take in an attempt to achieve racial reconciliation or at least arrive at a bit of civility in our dialogue about the subject? And who constitutes the next generation of leaders who will push the discussion of race in a new direction? Why are people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton still the first "leaders" the media consult when seeking "insight" about race?

For better or worse, race is not going away this fall, so pundits, politicians, and voters should get used to it. Regardless of how it plays out in the weeks and months ahead, Obama's candidacy presents the nation as a whole a unique opportunity to address this subject in a raw and substantive way that is more productive than the same tired discussions we as a nation are used to having. Some voters might not be comfortable being confronted with this issue yet again, but given Merida's article, perhaps the reason we even have to discuss it at all is not because of Obama himself...


The Importance of Name Identification

I was watching television with my wife a few days ago. We were watching MSNBC's "Race for the White House," which is basically a political junkie's dream show: nothing but punditry, punditry, and more punditry. Political junkies are so well acquainted with Washington's pundits, columnists, and opinion makers that the mere mentioning of their last names evokes strong expressions of support or disgust: Scarborough, Bennett, Hume, Maddow, Smerconish, Borger, Dowd, Brownstein, Gergen, Will, Freidman, Robinson, Olbermann, Schneider, Buchanan...

Anyway, the pundits were talking nonstop about the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama post-Indiana/North Carolina. Should Clinton drop out? Will Obama choose her as VP? What happened to Bill Clinton's political skills? Was she pandering with the gas tax? Who made the biggest gaffe? Of course, I was happily taking in all of the pundits' hot air, both nodding in agreement and shaking my head in disbelief. My wife was watching the show with me too, but she wasn't paying much attention to what the pundits were saying. She was just happy watching television with me.

After the show had to take a commercial break, my wife broke her silence:

"Poor John McCain..."
Intrigued by my wife's sudden foray into political analysis and punditry, I had to ask why.
"Because nobody's talking about him anymore."
Interestingly, I had no response to this. And it was difficult to concentrate on the rest of the show from then on. I couldn't help but think that even though my wife does not follow politics much at all and has no clue who people like Jill Zuckerman and Roland Martin are, she very well may have been onto something that I haven't heard many of the "professionals" touch on so far.

Most pundits seem to believe that the extended race between Clinton and Obama is hurting the Democratic Party. I've tended to agree with this view, and there have been polls suggesting that their supporters may vote for John McCain or stay home if "their candidate" doesn't win the nomination. White women, a major part of Clinton's base, are sensitive to the idea that "men" unfairly forced her out of the race. Blacks, a major part of Obama's base, are sensitive to the idea that "Whites" took the nomination away from "their" candidate.

These are very real problems. But then I think about what my wife said.

Nobody's talking about John McCain. It's as if Clinton vs. Obama is the main event while Obama vs. McCain (the more likely November scenario) is the undercard. In other words, the primary election seems more important than the general election this year. Democratic voter registration and party identification have increased substantially compared to 2004. Democrats have been outvoting Republicans in almost all of the primaries so far this year. Democrats are clearly more enthusiastic about the upcoming election than Republicans. Both Clinton and Obama have been all over the news for months, while John McCain's name is barely mentioned. I would not be so quick to call this "media bias," but the fact is that there simply isn't much news to report on the Republicans these days simply because that race is finished.

If Clinton and Obama continue battling each other through June and Clinton takes her fight all the way to the convention, this news will continue to dominate the airwaves the way it is now. Once the Democrats finally have a nominee, he (or she) will be matched up against some guy that either nobody knows or everyone has forgotten about. Obama and Clinton may be beating each other up to their collective detriment. However, they are also at least getting their names out there. And if my wife is any indication of average voters who don't follow the 24-hour political newscycle, perhaps the real loser in the Clinton-Obama fight is John McCain.

Think about why there is so little turnover in congressional elections. It's not simply because of gerrymandering or the idea that voters really like their congressmen. It's also because their challengers often don't have the money or the megaphone to get their message out. So when it's time to vote, voters see one name on the ballot they do know and one name they don't. Unless the person is a partisan supporter or a partisan critic, more often than not he will vote for the person whose name he has at least heard of. This would seem to render one's unfavorability ratings moot. After all, Hillary Clinton has been able to win 49% of the vote in the primaries and caucuses thus far despite her "sky high negatives."

This post is not intended to be an endorsement of any candidate. However, John McCain had better make himself a part of the discussion sooner rather than later because he risks fading into political obscurity as far as nonpartisan and less engaged voters are concerned. Hillary Clinton and Republicans have argued that Barack Obama is "too risky" to be President because nobody knows much about him or his resume. Ironically, however, the "riskier" choice to these voters may very well be the candidate nobody is talking about right now. Will name ID trump policy positions and resumes at the ballot box in November? Talking with my wife a few days ago suggests that this may very well be more of an issue than the pundits realize at present.


Hillary Clinton: What's Next

In the eyes of most pundits and political observers, yesterday's split decision in the North Carolina and Indiana primaries was actually a devastating blow to the presidential aspirations of Hillary Clinton:

1. Even though she won Indiana, she only won by 2 percentage points, which is far less than what most people had expected. That disappointing finish really blunted some of her preferred talking points coming out of the election--that she had real momentum and that Obama had real problems among voters in the Midwest. People aren't talking about Obama's inability to win places like Ohio as much as they used to.

2. She lost North Carolina by such a large margin that it essentially canceled out the popular vote margin she had racked up in Pennsylvania. She can still claim to be leading in the overall popular vote, but given the quasi-elections of Florida and Michigan, this popular vote "lead" is not entirely credible. And more importantly than popular votes, Obama netted more pledged delegates again, thus making the math that much more difficult for Clinton.

3. There are too few contests remaining for her to catch him. The next three primaries are in West Virginia, Oregon, and Kentucky. After that are the electoral gold mines known as Montana and South Dakota. Puerto Rico is a bit more lucrative, but even that state with its high Latino population won't be enough to put Clinton over the top in terms of pledged delegates.

Obama gave a conciliatory victory speech last night. He is clearly trying to shift from a primary election campaign to a general election campaign and wants to extend an olive branch to Clinton. Although nobody's pressuring her to give up the fight just yet, the pressure is definitely on her not to tear Obama down any further because doing so would turn most of the party against her. Much to the delight of her supporters, Clinton said she was going "full steam ahead," which is her right, but lots of pundits are wondering why.

Here are some possible reasons why Clinton is still in the race:

1. It's so late in the process now that she might as well just let all 50 states vote. And after all, she has said on the campaign trail several times that she was going to campaign everywhere and fight for this election. Dropping out of the race now would undercut her image as a "fighter." And what about Florida and Michigan? She keeps talking about how "their votes should count." Well, if she drops out of the race, how will she fight to have their voices heard? And on a more basic level, she has been running for president for years. If she's going to pull the plug on her presidential bid, she might as well do it when things are officially hopeless. Her political situation hasn't reached that point just yet, but it is getting close.

2. She wants to go out on a high note. One of the golden rules for athletes is to retire when they're at the top of their game, not when they are fading. Michael Jordan did just that when he sank the game-winning shot at the buzzer in Game 6 against the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals. That shot gave the Chicago Bulls their third consecutive NBA championship and their 6th title in 8 years. Jordan was clearly on top. But then he came back to play for the Washington Wizards a few years later. He was still a formidable player, but there were times when he showed his age and did not intimidate players the way he used to. So even though he was having fun, his legacy was tarnished a bit. Does Hillary Clinton really want her last hurrah to be a narrow escape in a state she was supposed to win comfortably? If she's going to get out of the race, she might be better served by doing so after a strong finish somewhere else. Kentucky and West Virginia seem to be perfect places for her to do so. But that brings up this next option:

3. She really thinks she still has a chance to win this.
Clinton should make a significant dent in Obama's delegate lead after West Virginia, Kentucky, and Puerto Rico have their say. Mind you, her gains there will not be enough to totally change the race unless she wins by something like 85-15. However, any pledged delegates she can rack up in these easy states function as superdelegates she doesn't have to plead with later on.

4. She is crossing her fingers that Obama will self-destruct. Basically, the only way Obama could lose now is for there to be some scandal or incriminating video that exposes Obama as a fraud or a criminal. Jeremiah Wright was the closest thing to a campaign-ending event that has happened so far. Since it happened once, it could happen again. By circling the political shower drain, Clinton could hope that Obama somehow loses his footing and slips down the drain into political oblivion. Anything can happen before the convention, so at least Clinton has a prayer.

5. She wants to quit, but also wants to pay off her campaign debts. It is common practice for failed presidential candidates to ask their supporters to help retire their debts with one final campaign contribution. Clinton has loaned her campaign millions of dollars. Supporters will be more likely to donate $25 to someone who is still fighting to be president than to a failed candidate who comes across like a political panhandler. Once Clinton drops out of the race, she will lose a lot of her influence among her supporters and she'll have a harder time paying that debt down.

6. She wants to improve her brand image and/or make a case for Obama's vice president. I argued in February that an Obama-Clinton ticket was not gonna happen. However, if Clinton runs a clean campaign and helps make her base consider him more acceptable, perhaps he could reward her with the #2 slot. However, there are far more attractive options out there for him to choose. And besides, Clinton contradicts too much of his own political message to make such a ticket a cohesive one. Clinton doesn't have to accept Obama's invitation, but if Obama at least makes the offer, it could be good for the Democratic Party because it would heal the base. And besides, does Clinton want to be known for kneecapping Obama and throwing the election to the Republicans? If she does this, she could kiss her chances in 2012 goodbye. Remember, her legacy is on the line too, so she also has a vested interest in resolving this process amicably.

Obama is doing the right thing by focusing on John McCain. He gains nothing by mixing it up with Clinton anymore, and trying to win delegates he doesn't need in West Virginia and Kentucky would distract him from the more important task of engaging John McCain. Clinton is really in a box now because she can't go after Obama like she used to. All she can do is just present her case to the voters and hope that her retail politicking in places Obama "has left behind" is noticed by rural voters everywhere and superdelegates from rural states because it is these rural (swing) voters that decide elections.


Handicapping Indiana and North Carolina

May 6 is Super Tuesday III. For voters in Indiana and North Carolina, they will have a chance to either definitively end this race, grant Hillary Clinton one more stay of political execution, or cause voters everywhere to rethink Obama's strength.

Indiana is a lot like Ohio and Pennsylvania, both of which Clinton won. They are largely rural White states with large blue-collar populations and a handful of major industrial centers. And North Carolina is a lot more like Virginia than South Carolina, both of which Obama won. Like Virginia, North Carolina is a young, ethnically diverse state with a lot of well-educated professionals and university students.

In short, Obama has far more to lose than Clinton does simply because Clinton is already running as if she has nothing left to lose. Her stock is rising and she is much better at managing expectations. Obama is still reeling from his own controversies and missteps and is having to fend off renewed doubts about his electibility. So it appears that Obama is a bit stalled while Clinton has a little bit of momentum. That will all change after the polls close, however, as pundits and political junkies everywhere will have fresh election data to pore over and new storylines to pursue.

Here are the four possible outcomes:

1. Clinton wins Indiana, Obama wins North Carolina. This seems to be the most likely outcome, and both candidates could spin this as a victory. Obama would cite the lack of remaining pledged delegates and winning a state post-Jeremiah Wright as a win while Clinton would claim another victory in a largely rural state, thus reinforcing her argument that she is more in touch with Reagan Democrats. As an added benefit for Clinton, the two electoral contests that follow are Kentucky and West Virginia, states that should be even easier for her to win. So she could possibly build momentum even with a tie in North Carolina and Indiana.

2. Clinton wins both states or Clinton does significantly better in North Carolina than Obama does in Indiana. This is the Obama nightmare scenario. Yes, the delegate math would still favor Obama, but voters and superdelegates don't care about delegate math if the person winning it is seen as a walking political zombie. It would be much harder for Obama to claim victory (the nomination) because of abstract concepts like "delegate math." If Obama loses both states, the perception would be that Clinton is hot while he is fading. Superdelegates would begin to seriously question the wisdom of throwing their weight behind him because he would have lost three major contests in a row (including Pennsylvania). On top of this, the next two contests coming down the pike are in Kentucky and West Virginia--states Clinton should win easily. That would mean five losses in a row for the "delegate math" leader and favorable press for the self-described Comeback Kid. If this happens, here's the case that Clinton will make to superdelegates: "Obama may have won the first half of the game, but I've won the second half. I know how to fight and claw back even when the chips are down. Can you trust Obama to do the same?"

3. Obama wins both states, regardless of his margins of victory. It would be very, very difficult for Clinton to continue her campaign because Obama would have won on "her" turf. For superdelegates and pundits who desperately want this race to be over, Obama clinching Indiana would effectively end this race in their minds. They would then pressure Clinton to "reassess" her campaign.

4. Obama wins Indiana, Clinton wins North Carolina. Should both candidates lose the states they were expected to win, all pundits would probably just call it a day, resign from analyzing politics altogether, and place their money on Mike Gravel winning the White House.

Here are the voting blocs worth watching:

Young voters. Early May is normally the time when university students are either in the middle of final exams or are enjoying the week between final exams and graduation. This provides a double whammy for Obama in particular because these voters form such a large part of his base. If it's exam time, 18-25 year olds might be too busy to come out and vote because they're cramming for their classes. If it's downtime, these voters might be more likely to be out of state (or at least out of their voting precincts) because they're enjoying their last week of freedom before graduating, summer school, or starting their new full-time jobs. North Carolina is chock full of large universities: The University of North Carolina and its satellite campuses, Duke University (my alma mater), North Carolina State, Wake Forest, North Carolina A&T;, Appalachian State, and North Carolina Central University are home to tens of thousands of students. If they don't turn out, Clinton would have to feel pretty good about her chances.

Black voters. North Carolina represents the first state with a sizable Black population to head to the polls since Jeremiah Wright exploded in Obama's face. Black voters were originally reluctant to support Obama (remember those ridiculous "Is Obama Black enough" questions?) because they feared Whites would not support him, but his victory in overwhelmingly White Iowa and his near victory in equally overwhelmingly White New Hampshire confirmed to these voters that he is indeed able to garner significant cross-racial support. Obama acquitted himself in the minds of these voters, and Clinton helped push these voters to him with the racialized tone of her South Carolina campaign. So Blacks got excited and flocked to his campaign. However, Wright has clearly injured Obama and now doubts are creeping back in again about his electibility. Will Blacks come out to the polls? And if so, will Obama win 85-90% of their votes? Should Clinton overperform among Blacks in North Carolina, she will be able to use that as a potent talking point: "I'm working hard for everyone's votes. I know I have some fence-mending to do, but I'm doing it and North Carolina has proved it. Give me a chance." And could Obama really make the South competitive in a general election if Blacks are not completely on board?

Rural White voters. If Obama is unable to improve his standing among rural Whites in either state compared to Pennsylvania, Democratic superdelegates will have a major cause for concern. These voters, who likely would have voted for John Edwards, would potentially be lost to John McCain in a general election because of "bitterness," "elitism," and the perception that Obama is out of touch. Obama's latest charm offensive of playing basketball and downing beers in local bars may help redefine him as more down-to-earth, but if Obama's coalition is independents, Blacks, and well-educated liberals, is that really broad enough to win a general election?

Northwest Indiana voters. This corner of the state is a part of the Chicago media market. While the national media are slowly moving on from Jeremiah Wright, the local news stations are probably eating, drinking, and breathing him. Remember, Chicago is essentially Obama's hometown. Are they sick of hearing about the issue? Do they view Obama as damaged goods? If Clinton is able to hold down Obama's margin of victory in the Chicago suburbs, she could be on her way to a healthy victory in the Hoosier State. Questions about Obama's strength among suburban voters may also linger.

Final predictions

Indiana: Clinton 54%, Obama 44%
North Carolina: Obama 50%, Clinton 46%, Edwards 3%


Energy, the Environment, and Political Hypocrisy

One of the more interesting political sideshows last week concerns the federal gas tax, which is assessed by the federal government to pay for the nation's transportation infrastructure. Revenue generated by the gas tax pays for new roads, tunnels, and bridges; repairing old or damaged ones; and conducting research to determine how and where to build new ones. Currently, the federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon.

Obviously, the more gas you buy, the more you pay in gas taxes. Some liberals have suggested increasing the gas tax as a way of driving down demand. This, they argue, would result in a cleaner environment and less dependence on foreign sources of oil. It's hard for politicians to not be in favor of either of these issues, especially the latter one because there is a major national security advantage to not having to rely on oil from nations that are either unstable or hostile towards the United States. Both John McCain and Hillary Clinton have stated countless times that they are in favor of reducing the United States' dependence on foreign oil. But curiously, both presidential candidates have advocated repealing the federal gas tax for the summer. John McCain has called for a suspension of the tax from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Hillary Clinton wants to introduce a gas tax holiday bill that would temporarily repeal the tax for consumers and offset it with a tax on energy companies to make up for the lost revenue.

For both McCain and Clinton, proposing a gas tax holiday seems like good politics. However, it must be said that this also makes for lousy policy and reeks of hypocrisy.

Here's why a gas tax holiday seems like a political winner. Everybody knows gas prices are going through the roof. Gas is two or three times more expensive now than it was seven or eight years ago. And money that people are spending on gas is money that is not being spent on local businesses, televisions, restaurants, and hotels. So the perception that a politician wants to take real, tangible steps to ease the pain at the pump seems like it would go over well with voters.

Hillary Clinton does not want to be seen as opposing a tax cut and presumably would want to blunt McCain's political advantage on this issue in the general election. And because Democrats are not known for cutting taxes, this could potentially go over well with voters who may be pleasantly surprised to hear Hillary Clinton of all people on the side of the taxpayers. This also buttresses the perception that she, not Barack Obama, is more in touch with average voters because Obama does not support repealing the gas tax. Working-class voters will look at Hillary Clinton and think that her idea to repeal the gas tax will allow them to make their family trip to Grandma's house, an amusement park 200 miles away, or a weekend vacation in the mountains a little more affordable.

And for John McCain, he gets to tell voters that he's trying to cut taxes. As a Republican, taxes will always be too high. So advocating a suspension of the gas tax even if it doesn't become law allows him to say he tried to cut taxes like a good Republican should to help all Americans, but had his proposal blocked by the "tax-and-spend" Democratic Congress.

But like I mentioned earlier, pushing for repealing the gas tax is intellectually dishonest and blatantly hypocritical. Many people have already criticized this idea (here and here). One common theme of these criticisms is the idea that the lost revenue could cost hundreds of thousands of construction jobs. Less tax revenue means less money for road projects. Less money for road projects means fewer projects to go around. Naturally, fewer projects will require fewer workers to complete these projects. And if fewer workers are needed, then that means some people will have to find another way to earn a paycheck. Conservatives in particular would counter that lower taxes would increase revenue, but several prominent conservatives and economists disagree in this case.

A more obvious criticism is the fact that lower gas taxes and reducing our dependence on foreign oil simply cannot coexist. By making gas more affordable, that will encourage more consumers to buy more gas, which is bad news for the environment that both McCain and Clinton claim to want to protect. In turn, this cheaper gas will decrease supply and ultimately lead to higher gas prices. How can Hillary Clinton and John McCain talk about the importance of energy independence if the gas tax holiday they propose will only make this nation more dependent on the very nations we're trying to gain energy independence from?

A final criticism is the idea that repealing the gas tax will not save consumers much money. With an 18.4 cents/gallon gas tax, buying 20 gallons of gas means paying $3.68 in federal gas taxes. If a consumer buys 20 gallons of gas every week for the roughly 14 weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day, that would save consumers a grand total of $51. Three or four trips to Domino's Pizza would easily offset this. So in short, Barack Obama has it right when he says this gas tax holiday is a gimmick.

This is where the second element of hypocrisy comes in that not a lot of people are talking about. Any discussion of weaning the United States off of foreign oil is usually met by calls from conservatives to drill for domestic sources of oil, such as in Alaska, in the Western states, and off the coasts of Florida. Another popular conservative solution is to build more oil refineries.

However, it seems that conservatives are quite conservative when it comes to money, but not when it comes to energy. Merriam-Webster defines conservative as "marked by moderation or caution." One of the more popular analogies I hear conservatives use to explain their political philosophy is the example of having a canteen of water in the desert. Instead of drinking it all quickly, they use their water conservatively because they don't know how long they will be in the desert. Political conservatives commonly criticize people for not living within their means, for not saving their money, and for not being prepared for when disaster strikes. Conservatives' criticisms of those affected by Hurricane Katrina and the mortgage crisis tend to reflect these themes. ("Why didn't they save their money? Why are they living in such an expensive house? Why didn't they cut down on their spending?")

These criticisms are well founded. So why do these conservatives not advocate energy conservation? Rather than just drilling for more oil, why don't they recommend driving less or driving more fuel efficient vehicles? Drilling for oil in Alaska or building a new oil refinery will take several years, and like all natural resources, there is only a finite supply of oil deposits available. So that's akin to kicking the can down the road. However, it is easy to use less gas now. Another solution is to increase fuel efficiency standards for new vehicles, but that's commonly opposed because it would presumably cost American jobs and make American cars less competitive because of higher costs. (Never mind the fact that fuel-efficient imports are slowly taking over the American auto market.)

Driving less, using public transportation, biking, carpooling, and using more fuel-efficient vehicles would decrease demand, reduce the amount of foreign oil we use, and presumably lower prices while benefiting the environment--all benefits that could be enjoyed far sooner than simply more drilling. This would seem to paint John McCain in particular as even more of a hypocrite because in addition to advocating a policy that would only further reduce supply, continue our dependence on foreign oil, and harm the environment as an unintended consequence, he is also advocating a position that flies in the face of what conservatism purports to represent.

It seems that when it comes to energy, liberals are more conservative than conservatives themselves. And as for the presidential race, even though Barack Obama may be taking the politically riskier position by not supporting repealing the gas tax, he appears to be dead right on the merits.

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