(Crossposted at MyDD
I’ve seen people — including some who really ought to know better — say that any recent Democrat would be automatically elected in the current climate, with an implication that even the current margin and map are merely to be expected given the fundamentals of the election. I disagree — strongly. That’s exactly what we all thought in 2004 — that anyone could beat Bush. And what we got was a worse defeat than 2000, even against a wildly unpopular President.
Candidates and campaigns matter, and there are reasons that this particular candidate is in the position that he’s in right now. And, yes, the fundamentals of the election are lifting Obama’s boat, but to make the mistake that it’s merely the fundamentals; that there’s no particular strength on Obama’s part; that any Dem would be where he is; is in my opinion a major error.
Please note — I do not want to fight the primaries over. Nothing in here should be viewed as disparaging of any other candidate (in particular, as I state below, I believe Hillary would be doing just fine right now, were she the nominee). This is aimed squarely at the view that Obama is no stronger than “generic Democratic Presidential candidate”, it’s not saying he’s the strongest candidate imaginable, nor that only Obama could be winning right now (which is patently absurd).
Of recent Presidential candidates: Dukakis, Mondale, and Kerry, at least, would most likely have managed to screw up this year. Partly that’s a reflection on them; partly, it’s looking at how the right-wing smear machine would have functioned vs. what we know of their reactions to it. Gore, who knows? An Al Gore who ran as Bill Clinton’s third term would win; an Al Gore who ran away from Bill Clinton would tank. Bill himself (1992 Bill, that is) would probably be in a similar position to Obama, maybe a little bit better, maybe a little bit worse — different strengths and weaknesses, but comparable.
Of those who ran in this year’s primaries: the election would be hugely different if Clinton were the nominee (no Palin, different mix of states). I’m pretty confident she’d be winning handily — but not the same way, and by the very nature of the 50%+1 strategy in a smaller mix of states. Edwards would be dogged by infidelity (though McCain has little ground to attack on that issue), but his populist positions would be good for the economic climate. On the other hand, the Edwards who ran for VP in 2004 was missing in action way too much of the time. The others have their own strengths and weaknesses one can fill in, but my view is that none of them are as strong as Obama or Clinton, or Edwards either, and would correspondingly not be doing as well.
Here’s why I believe Obama is fundamentally different from “generic recent Democratic Presidential candidate”:
1) Obama’s ability to both defend himself and counterpunch, which in general has been notably lacking in “generic Democratic Presidential candidate”. Traditionally we just haven’t had the guts to go after a candidate’s perceived strength or flat-out call them out on the lying.
For instance, against nearly any other Democrat, McCain’s pivot to Maverickyness would’ve worked. There are exceptions — not better than Obama, but no worse — but in general I see this as a better tactic against anyone but Obama.
2) Against nearly anyone but Obama, McCain wouldn’t have chosen Palin. Palin was a combination of a (largely futile) attempt to go after Clinton voters, a grab at taking the “historic” mantle away from Obama, and a defensive move towards energizing the base. Nominate Clinton (or have a year where Clinton didn’t run) and that goes away. For most anyone besides Clinton or Obama the historic mantle isn’t there in the first place. And against most Democrats the base would’ve already have been mobilized. The truth is, despite all the “most liberal senator”, etc, rhetoric, the base hadn’t decided even in August that Obama was all that bad. Some of the other candidates wouldn’t have that luxury.
3) Obama’s ground game is at an entirely different level than any other Democrat’s. Whether it’s better than the Republicans’, who knows? But we’ve never seen anything remotely similar. How effective it’ll be in the end is still unanswered, but there are no indications that I can see right now that it won’t be effective, and huge reasons to believe it will be.
If nothing else, the ground presence is remarkably different than in previous cycles — and we have the nearly unprecedented situation that, in the last half of October, the Democratic candidate is moving into red states to make plays and expanding the campaign. Within this category also goes the incredible use of non-traditional campaigning (cell phones, video game ads, web-based organizational tools, etc) that I’m not sure anyone else would’ve exploited as well.
4) Obama’s unflappability and lack of drama is incredible. That’s been critical in making McCain look erratic. Against the average politician McCain would look fairly good — people usually like it when someone looks like they’re “doing something”, partly because there’s usually a lack of anyone calling them out on the usefulness of what they’re doing. Every other campaign that I can think of has had leaks, infighting, public differences on strategy, etc, and that would play against the consistent push that Democrat=stable, McCain=erratic.
5) Rejecting public financing. That was an extremely gutsy move that I’m not sure anyone else would’ve made (or should’ve made; you’ve got to be pretty sure of your fundraising first, and that you can fund-raise adequately without clobbering your campaigning time). The payoff has been an enormous campaign — not just in media, but certainly there’s an almost unbelievable paid advertising edge.
One telling point is that I see one or two Obama ads per network TV show — in Texas. There’s zero McCain presence here (of course) — haven’t seen a McCain ad on TV since the Olympics. That’s going to move the dials a bit here. Enough? Probably not. But it makes a difference.
6) Tying in with both points 3 and 5 is the enthusiasm gap. Obama is, simply put, an inspirational candidate. I give Hillary full credit here — she would also have an enormous enthusiasm gap (however, even in the primaries, Obama’s was larger than hers). However, one can’t credit “generic Democrat” with being inspirational. Certainly Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry were anything but inspirational. Bill was; Edwards had the potential to be. Heck, Gore could’ve been, if the Gore we’ve seen after the election had been running.
I see the “any Dem would be winning” argument as an extremely weak defense of all those old doom-and-gloom posts, where we were told that Obama was unelectable (for any of a number of reasons). After all, the thesis of those posts was that McCain stunk and any Democrat should be up double digits, but Obama was such a poor candidate that he’d be unelectable anyway. I remember the unfavorable comparisons to Dukakis and Kerry, the people hand-wringing that Obama’s map would look like Mondale’s. The word landslide was bandied around, and it wasn’t in a pro-Obama way either.
The fact is, this election, in terms of EV, has gone down very much along the lines we on the Obama side thought it would go. Expand the map, play in the West, play in states like Virginia and North Carolina, make a serious push in Indiana and Missouri, defend the Kerry states, and campaign the heck out of Ohio and Florida. Certainly the economic collapse prodded things along — considerably — but you could already see things shifting post-RNC and pre-collapse. Post-RNC, pre-collapse, we were already looking at Kerry+IA+NM, with defense in NH and MI, and serious plays in CO, NV, IN, OH, FL, and VA. Yes, those states are more blue with the collapse; that doesn’t mean “generic Democrat” wins them or even leads there.
Whatever your view of Obama’s advantages and disadvantages, and even if you do think the fundamentals of this election guarantee that any Democratic Presidential candidate wins, this is no time to get complacent and believe that we’ve won. If nothing else, 2004 shows that the fundamentals can be strongly in your favor and you can still lose. Until the votes are all cast, we haven’t. Something (major world event/unknown smear) could still get in the way (or of course dead girl/live boy, but with Obama’s lack of drama it’s extremely hard to imagine things blowing up that way, at this point). We need to run like we’re chasing every last voter to get to 50%+1, even if hopefully we’re instead building a “mandate” narrative.