MUSINGS

March 17, 2008

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by Charles Bierbauer

We thought we left things in good hands when South Carolina nudged the primary process forward. In January, we gave a nearly decisive boost to John McCain’s campaign, and put Barack Obama back on track for a heady two-person race for the Democratic nomination. Not a bad job for a state looking to have an early impact. Yet look at the mess we’ve got now.

DO-OVERS

Democrats in Florida and Michigan have discovered that haste makes waste. How many times have we told our children that? In their perceived urgency to reach the head of the queue, those states ignored the parental admonitions of the Democratic National Committee. You’ll lose your delegates’ seats at the convention; they were warned to no effect.

Whether Hillary Clinton was the crafty kid to stay on the ballot—just in case—or Barack Obama was the obedient child to remove his name is no longer the issue. Voters in Michigan and Florida were afforded incomplete options. “None of the above,” the choice Michigan voters had, does not constitute a vote for Obama.

With the likelihood neither Obama nor Clinton will have sufficient delegates to secure the nomination without a floor fight in Denver, the states in disarray must be addressed. Michigan Democrats want a second primary on June 3d. Can they legally do that? Why not! Enfranchising is better than disenfranchising.

Florida is contemplating a mail-in re-do. What does that portend? Need we remind you of the general election fiasco of 2000 in which ballots were lost, ballots were not counted, absentee ballots remained, well, absent, voters got butterflies when they saw one confusing ballot layout, and those dastardly hanging and pregnant chads were the bane of election commissioners and the delight of late-night comedians. Why is it always Florida that amuses and appalls us?

What’s to be done? Let ‘em vote. Who’s to pay? Frankly, I don’t care. The state parties for being unruly children. The DNC for not exercising parental authority. The campaigns. Anybody but the voters. Not their mess.

THE KEYSTONE STATE

I was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in Pennsylvania, and bleed Nittany Lion blue (also Gamecock garnet). Without being smug about it, I’m kind of pleased Pennsylvania voters have the next great say in the Obama-Clinton battle.

The race for the presidency was not meant to be decided by a few self-important states that stampeded to the head of the process. What’s wrong with all 50 states having a say in the matter? Disproportionately, yes. But not disinterestedly. Few would have guessed the race would last this long, but it’s not a bad thing. Starting so early is another matter. Perhaps in 2012 every state will want to hold back to have the decisive vote in June, July or August. Regional primaries, anyone?

SUPERDELEGATES

Who elected them? No one. They are the anointed. Party officials, elected office holders (not elected for this role), and appointed stakeholders. The stakes, as the Democrats’ superdelegate system was conceived, were to keep the party from being hijacked by a candidate out of the mainstream. Ask Walter Mondale. Or Gary Hart, for that matter.

This year, though many superdelegates eschew the notion of a nomination being decided in a smokeless back room, the 842 supposedly “unpledged” delegates are almost surely going to hold the votes that push Obama or Clinton above the nomination threshold that neither is likely to reach by the end of the primaries.

The superdels’ dilemma is whether to vote their conscience or vote in conformity with the primary results in their home states. It’s a choice, but there’s an awful lot of hand-wringing going on. If you’re a superdelegate, you’ve got a vote. Use it. Or did you just plan to party?

SURROGATES

Whether it’s former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro or the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, candidates bear the brunt of their supporters’ outrages and indiscretions. Muzzles are impractical. The First Amendment frowns on them.

Clinton and Obama surrogates, official or not, are free to say what they think.
The candidates, though, have little latitude. They must either acknowledge or refute those expressions, especially when they are hateful and disrespectful. It’s best when candidates act quickly and speak for themselves.

SEX

Surely, you didn’t think we’d leave out Eliot Spitzer, the latest politician to trip over his own hubris. It should be the national lament that the best and the brightest are no longer attracted to politics. ‘Nuf said.

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Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns for CNN from 1984 through 2000.  He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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TEXAS HOLDS ‘EM

February 25, 2008

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by Charles Bierbauer

The cards are clearly stacked against Hillary Clinton in her high stakes game to win the Democratic party’s presidential nomination.  It’s increasingly doubtful that Clinton will draw the winning cards in the big primaries in Texas and Ohio on March 4.

“Obama’s got a 10 up and a jack down,” says Democratic strategist James Carville, drawing an analogy to a game of blackjack.  Hillary’s showing a three.  And if she wins those primaries, Carville figures, “she only gets another three.”

If you know blackjack, this all makes sense.  Obama is holding 20 points of the 21 he needs to win.  Clinton has, at best, 13 (the three showing plus possibly ten on the down card).  Another three gets her to 16 but with an ever decreasing chance of beating Obama as the primary season plays its remaining cards.

If you don’t know blackjack, trust Carville.  He knows politics.  And judging from his admittedly raucous youth, he knows a thing or two about gambling.

Carville, sometimes known as the Ragin’ Cajun, shared his insights at a conference of journalism educators this weekend in New Orleans.  He’s an LSU alumnus and brutally honest about politics and the media.

Although an unabashed Hillary supporter, and a key strategist in Bill Clinton’s 1992 election, Carville thinks her chances of winning the nomination have grown slim.  Failure to win Texas and Ohio, where Clinton’s leads have been eroding, will pretty much end her chances.  Winning Texas and Ohio and a couple smaller states voting on March 4 would push her toward the Pennsylvania primary in April where she’d have to win again.  Losing any more key states is not an option.

No, Carville is not bailing on his candidate.  Bill has also said it’s over if his wife doesn’t win Texas and Ohio.

Carville is more analyst than strategist this election cycle.  He thinks the Clinton campaign has made some bad decisions, spent its money in some wrong places and, above all, never found the message to counter the Obama surge.  In truth, Hillary has tried just about everything.  She’s been tough; she’s been charming; she’s been shrill.  The rougher her throat gets from this dog-tiring campaign, the harsher she sounds, even when she may not mean to.

“It’s a classic match up between inspiration and perspiration,” says Carville.
He takes the view that most Democrats will be comfortable with either Clinton or Obama who differ less on ideology than they do on their approach to the process of governing. In Carville’s view, Clinton, the technician, will try to cut through obstacles.  Obama would try to go around them.

In contrast, Carville sees Republican John McCain struggling because he’ll never get the enthusiastic support of many Republicans, certainly not religious conservatives.  Carville sees only one Republican now on the national scene who would appeal to the breadth of that party, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who’s not been a part of this race.  Jeb’s biggest handicap is his last name.

Carville’s view on Ralph Nader’s entry as an independent presidential candidate is largely unprintable.  Rightly or wrongly, many Democrats still blame Nader’s Green Party candidacy in 2000 for Al Gore losing the election.

Back to the card game.  Even if Obama runs the table and Clinton is stuck on 13, he’s still likely to be shy of an absolute winning hand and the Democratic nomination.
There are no wild cards in blackjack, but there are in politics.

Those cards are held by the hundreds of Super Delegates, party stalwarts once expected to overwhelmingly support Clinton. These are folks who much prefer to bet on a sure thing than take a gamble.  For the most part, the Super Delegates seem to be hoping the nomination will somehow be resolved before the party convention so they won’t be asked to show their cards.

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Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns for CNN from 1984 to 2000.  Bierbauer is now dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university.  He is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.
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WAS TUESDAY SUPER?

February 11, 2008

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by Charles Bierbauer

Super Tuesday did what we thought it could.  And, then again, it didn’t.  It sorted out the Republicans and stretched out the Democrats.

Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama are in a race that could run right up to the Democrats’ summer convention if the Democrats want to risk the bloodying that might entail.  Mitt Romney has bowed out, as much to avoid the continued bludgeoning Republicans might endure had he stayed in.  John McCain is the nominee apparent.  Mike Huckabee will eventually fold his evangelical tent.  He has made his point that the conservative Republican right is uneasy with McCain, perhaps enough to get Huckabee a spot on the McCain ticket.

The good news for McCain is that he can anticipate some rest and replenishment, though there are still primaries and delegates to be won before the nomination is a lock.  But in McCain’s experience, Super Tuesday may have only been surpassed by the day he was freed as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.  This is a different kind of relief, but again a measure of vindication for McCain’s perseverance just months after his campaign appeared to be dying.

The bad news for Clinton and Obama is that there will be little rest, and the need for financial replenishment won’t go away.  There are more primaries this week and next.  Texas and Ohio in March.  Pennsylvania in April.

What do we know that we didn’t know before Super Tuesday?

The Democratic Party has some real rifts in the appeal of its candidates along ethnic and gender lines.  Obama can attract white votes, especially now that John Edwards is out of the race.  He’s still dominant with African-Americans.  Clinton has an edge with women, and since women are a majority of all voters, that edge is critical.  She is strong with Hispanics who don’t line up with African-Americans.  Broad strokes, of course, but sharp enough to suggest that each state presents unique challenges based on its demographics.  Note how many Super Tuesday states were won by wide majorities.

The Republican Party has a gulch between its very conservative wing and its moderate middle.  Romney could not buy enough votes with all the money he pulled out of his own pocket.  Huckabee did not need much money to appeal to the evangelicals and didn’t have much to broaden his appeal.  McCain is on his way to the nomination because he was the only Republican acceptable to moderates and independents and, therefore, the only candidate with a chance of a November victory.

What did we know that Super Tuesday confirmed?

The primary calendar always favors those who can make the long haul.  A candidate first has to get noticed—the retail politicking of Iowa and New Hampshire facilitates that.  A candidate needs to gain traction—the elder George Bush called it the “Big Mo” of an early caucus or primary victory.  Momentum brings money for the long haul.  In the long haul, delegates are what matters.

It is much easier to win—or lose—delegates on the Republican campaign where winner-take-all or winner-take-most states abound.  It is a much longer slog on the Democratic campaign where delegates are mostly apportioned according to the actual vote.  If Obama and Clinton continue to divvy up the primaries, the uncommitted party officials who are “super delegates” become the critical deciding force.

The calendar, of course, is brutal.  It begs reconsideration. The states’ mad competition to be among the first to cast votes created the Super Tuesday dash through more than 20 states.  Ironically, the states that abandoned March or even April dates may wish they’d held what may turn out to be a more decisive place in the process.

Michigan and Florida especially jeopardized their impact by defying Democratic Party rules in order to leap to the head of the queue.  The party retaliated by stripping away the two states’ convention delegates.  We’ve undoubtedly not heard the last of that action if the Clinton-Obama race remains so tight that Michigan and Florida delegates would be decisive.  Al Gore’s Florida lawyers must already be preparing their legal briefs.

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Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns for CNN from 1984 through 2000.
He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university.  Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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BLOOD ON THE FLOOR

January 28, 2008

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by Charles Bierbauer

Barack Obama’s victory in the South Carolina Democratic primary was—what’s an adequate word?—dramatic, overwhelming, impressive, gratifying, satisfying.  How, then, dare one suggest that there is still a measure of insufficiency in Obama’s triumph?

Obama more than doubled the vote for his closest competitor Hillary Clinton.  He outpolled Clinton and John Edwards combined.  According to exit polls, Obama was first with women, younger voters, college graduates and higher income voters.  Clinton won Horry County; Edwards won Oconee.  Obama won all the rest—Upstate, Midlands, Low Country.  He won 78 percent of the Africa-American vote.

Obama was justifiably elated Saturday night.  “We’ve got the most votes, the most delegates, the most diverse coalition,” he told supporters who jammed Columbia’s
Convention Center.

And 24 percent of the whites who voted in the Democratic primary.

Obama will say—has said—this is not a campaign of black versus white, but of “the past versus the future.”

By winning the Iowa caucuses, Obama demonstrated that he belongs in the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.  The pundits were impressed because Iowa’s minority population is negligible.  Still, Iowa could have been a fluke.  The next contests—New Hampshire and Nevada—went to Clinton.

South Carolina, we pundits said, would be a better test. It is the first foray into the South and has a significant African-American population that votes in strength in Democratic primaries.

The vote-for-one-get-two Clintons double teamed Obama. Senator Clinton challenged Obama’s record as a legislator at the Democrats’ debate.  Former President Clinton went on the attack, demeaning Obama’s campaign stance on Iraq as a “fairy tale.”

“Politics ain’t beanbag,” the writer Finley Peter Dunne observed about 100 years ago.

The Clintons play hard.  Obama got in his licks, too.  But the wounds were beginning to show, so much so that black leaders such as Rep. Jim Clyburn urged President Clinton to “tone it down.”

Bill Clinton is in an unprecedented situation. We are used to candidates hammering each other.  We are accustomed, alas, to exaggerations and half-truths.  We expect spouses to be loyal and are no longer surprised when one is outspoken.  But we prefer to think of former presidents as statesmen more interested in unity than partisanship.

“There’s blood on the floor,” says Donna Brazile, the Democratic strategist and television commentator who ran Al Gore’s presidential campaign.  Brazile is close enough to the Clintons to have endured what she describes as a 30-minute telephone tirade from the former president.  Brazile thinks the party has been seriously wounded by the Clintons’ actions.

Political parties routinely mop up the blood between their primaries and the general election.  But this campaign still has the knives out, not the mops.

The Clintons–can we even think of them singularly any more?—have also wounded themselves with the African-American community in which Bill, at least, was held in great esteem.  Hillary’s hopes of holding the majority of African-American votes, especially black women, is gone.

For Clinton, that may be the price to pay in the hope of winning the majority white vote in the 22 states going to the polls on February 5.  California, New York, New Jersey and others don’t look like South Carolina.

For Obama, this new twist on race in the 2008 campaign makes Saturday’s victory as challenging as it is remarkable.  His 28-point margin of victory doubled the margin of any poll going into the primary.  That victory should not be diminished.

Yet as much as we anticipated the South Carolina primary because of the substantial African-American vote, the question that follows Obama now is how well can he do in states where African-Americans are not such a powerful constituency. Edwards staying in a race in which he looks to be eternally third probably takes more votes from Obama than Clinton.

Fair or unfair, presidential candidates must run a brutal gantlet where they are hit from both sides. The blood on the floor wasn’t caused by a beanbag.

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Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns for CNN from 1984 through 2000. He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university.  Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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THE EXPECTATIONS GAME

January 4, 2008

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by Charles Bierbauer

You don’t have to win the Iowa Caucuses, as presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee have just done. You just have to beat expectations.

Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Mitt Romney came up short. On to New Hampshire for a second, perhaps final, chance for trailing candidates. Time is short.  They have five days to change their fortunes.

An Iowa loss is not fatal, no more so than losing the first game of a football season. Ohio State and LSU both made it to this year’s NCAA championship with blemished records. In the past 32 years, only Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush won contested Iowa caucuses and then the presidency.

But losing in Iowa is painful when, like Clinton, you are expected and expecting to win. Or like Edwards, you have pretty much invested your energies and resources on the first roll of the dice, hoping that Iowa will push you to the head of the pack and replenish your bankroll. Or like Romney, you have outspent your opponents by a factor of 20 or 30 to one, but been outscored by a challenger (Huckabee) who was an asterisk in the polls only a couple months ago.

THE DEMOCRATS

Obama has shattered the expectation that an African-American candidate cannot win in a state where even the Democratic voters are 93% white. Obama neither mentions that, nor campaigns as an African-American. But TVs talking heads note his Iowa victory changes the expectations about a black candidate winning the white vote.

Donna Brazile, an African-American strategist who was Al Gore’s campaign manager, says Obama has “momentum for New Hampshire and beyond,” meaning South Carolina and its large proportion of African-American Democrats. CNN analyst Bill Schneider speculated that black voters may not want to block the first legitimate chance for a black candidate to gain his party’s nomination.

Hillary Clinton had expected to share the African-American vote with Obama, in part because she appeals to older women, in part because Bill Clinton is still the favorite politician of many blacks. Hillary’s organization and funds are deep enough to withstand a second loss and make an uphill climb. But no more third place finishes if she’s to do it.

Edwards may barely make it to South Carolina, so top heavy was his investment in Iowa that even a second place falls short of Edwards’ early expectations. And he cannot realistically expect to win the state he was born in with Obama and Clinton in the race.

THE REPUBLICANS

Huckabee, needless to say, has dramatically exceeded expectations. He has captured the vote of the so-called religious conservatives who had been searching the political wilderness for their candidate. He has captivated the media who have crowned him “frontrunner.” In an irony, Huckabee does not now need to win in New Hampshire. Indeed, he is not expected to.

Romney, on the other hand, really needs to win New Hampshire before the primary campaign swings to the South where Romney is not expected to do as well.

John McCain, largely ignoring Iowa except for a late flurry that put him in a virtual tie for third with Fred Thompson, could improve his overall chances by further weakening a wobbly Romney in New Hampshire. A rejuvenated McCain and a plucky Huckabee would then be expected to fight for the next surge here in South Carolina. (Frankly, I don’t know what to expect of Thompson, but I’m not alone.)

Rudy Giuliani wound up sixth among Republicans in Iowa, leading analyst David Gergen to opine on CNN that “Giuliani’s strategy worked.” You can’t lose Iowa if you don’t play. Giuliani was in Florida, noting he’d “paid attention to the states others haven’t paid attention to.” He’s gambling on getting past Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, but it’s one way to beat the expectations game.

Note to candidates: If your name is not mentioned here, you’ve exhausted your expectations and may already be a former candidate.

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Charles Bierbauer followed the campaign trail from Iowa to New Hampshire and beyond as a CNN correspondent in elections from 1984 through 2000. He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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OPRAHBAMA – THE EVENT

December 11, 2007

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by Charles Bierbauer

[The Video Report] 

Oprah Winfrey stepped out of her pew Sunday—out of her comfort zone–and into Williams-Brice Stadium. Oprah uncomfortable in front of a crowd? Hard to imagine.

“This is the first time I’m stepping out of my pew because I’ve been inspired,” the doyen of television talk show hosts told the sun-baked crowd that had come to see her–many just from their own church pews–and Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama. “In the past, I’ve been disappointed by politicians.” Pointedly, she said she rarely has politicians on her show, because “I only have an hour.”

Oprah spoke for 18 minutes on Obama’s behalf, warming up the crowd for the candidate’s nearly 40-minute expanded stump speech. Michelle Obama took four minutes to introduce Oprah. It all wrapped up in a neat TV hour.

Of course, there’s much more to it than that. The campaign event, once announced, quickly outgrew the University of South Carolina’s 18,000-seat Colonial Center and was shifted to the 80,000-seat football stadium. People came from all over South Carolina and neighboring states.

Obama called it “the biggest crowd in the campaign. Period. Of any candidate.”

It probably was. Campaign aides said there were 29,000 on hand, filling perhaps a third of the stadium. That defies an old political maxim that says a small room filled looks better than a large venue two-thirds empty. But that wasn’t the point for the Obama campaign’s Iowa-South Carolina-New Hampshire Oprah road show.

“What’s inspiring is not just the size of the crowd, but the makeup of the crowd,” Obama said. It was young and old, white and black (probably 75 percent African-American), and made up of “Democrats, independents and, yes, even some Republicans.”

Political crowds typically have three components: the committed who are there to reinforce their beliefs, the uncertain who are looking for a candidate and the merely curious who may or may not make up their minds by election day. Sunday’s gathering added the admittedly star-struck.

An undecided voter from Walterboro said Oprah’s presence “somewhat” influenced his decision to come because “people follow her.”

Oprah did not make the same assumption, or at least did not admit it. “I know the difference between a book club and this seminal moment,” she said, referring to her ability to catapult a book to best-seller status with her endorsement.

I don’t endorse candidates here. But as an educator, communicator and former foreign correspondent, I can applaud the concerns Oprah raises as her own and ours.
Education: “We shake our heads because we can’t believe the quality of our schools.”
Communication: “We have a global knowledge economy.”
Foreign policy: “Our estrangement from the rest of the world–it does matter what the rest of the world thinks of us.”

These are questions for any candidate to address, not just Obama. He may not have the answers. But if it takes Oprah to get us out of our comfortable pews on those issues, as she has gotten her viewers to engage on many other matters, then perhaps it’s good that she was stirred and inspired.

Oprah’s endorsement of Obama is still unquantified. But she certainly commandeered one weekend in December for him, from wintry Iowa and New Hampshire to balmy South Carolina. Of all the candidates running for president, only Hillary Clinton can bring along a celebrity to match Oprah’s popularity. Bill Clinton. Maybe.

We’re getting close to the measurements that count. Watch the political polls over the next week to see if there’s an Oprah effect. Watch the early primaries, now just a month away, with Obama probably needing to win in Iowa and here in South Carolina to stop Hillary. Watch Oprah’s ratings on the outside chance there’s a backlash. She may have put more at risk than anyone by stepping off her studio set and out of her pew.

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Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns for CNN from 1984 through 2000. He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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