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“The Story” in Texas and Ohio

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MTP 03-02-08
Sunday on Meet The Press, Tim Russert hosted an interesting mix of veteran Republican and Democratic political strategists. They explored the Ohio and Texas Democratic primary election themes and the prospects for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Tim Russert introduced the panel saying “The race for the White House through the eyes of Carville, Matalin, Murphy and Shrum, only on MEET THE PRESS.” – [Transcript HERE]

While “Conventional Wisdom” has Obama pulling a victory out of Texas, if Texas turns into New Hampshire Redux – Mike Murphy thinks he knows the reason why:

“She’s got one thing working for her, that is the near death experience phenomena this year – every time it looks like the perils of Pauline, the train is coming, she has a rescue.” – Mike Murphy

Remember New Hampshire? – Obama up by 10 points in the polls the night before the primary, with Olbermann, Matthews and the media in general fawning and falling all over themselves waxing poetic about a new dawn for America. They virtually conceded the primary and nomination to Obama – right up to the minute that the votes were counted. There was lot of speculation of what moved the voters and changed the votes those last days. Was it – The Clinton tears? The sympathetic woman vote? The humanization of Hillary? Hillary “finding her voice”? – I think it is none of these, but a variation of Murphy’s observation. What moved the vote, was the specter of the nomination process ending in New Hampshire.

This is the dynamic – Clinton is such a polarizing personality that if a primary is perceived by voters as a popularity contest, or even just a mechanism for allocating delegates, Obama wins. If, in the voting booth, the voter is simply answering the question “Who do I like better?” – they tend to vote for Obama. It is when the voter clearly understands that they are voting for the end of the 2008 Democratic party selection process, that the dynamic changes. When a vote for Obama is a vote to end the Clinton campaign, the personality and likability preferences are swept away and voters face different, tougher questions:

  • “Am I certain that Obama is the best choice to lead the party?”
  • “Do I understand what an Obama presidency would actually be like?”
  • “Are we ready to decide now or should the process continue?”
  • “Should we or should we not look at this choice a little longer?”

In January, in New Hampshire, the frenzied media bias for Obama created the perception that a victory for Obama would be the practical end of the Democratic nomination process. In Texas and Ohio, a victory for Obama would, for all practical purposes, truly end the Democratic Party nomination process. My guess – Texas will be like New Hampshire, and when undecided voters walk into the booth thinking a vote for Obama is a vote to close out the selection of the Democratic Party nominee “beyond any reasonable doubt”, they will vote to continue the deliberation.

Bill Clinton certainly understood this dynamic, and may have made the smartest move on the campaign trail when he stated the stark choice explicitly – telling voters:

“If she wins Texas and Ohio, I think she will be the nominee. If you don’t deliver for her then I don’t think she can be. It’s all on you.”

He was making sure they understood that a vote for Obama was a vote to stop the Democratic candidate evaluation – the exact message that changed the vote in New Hampshire. This is also why the recent Clinton “It’s Three AM” ad is a great ad. It focuses on these unknowns and reinforces the point that a Clinton presidency is familiar, and an Obama presidency is a cipher – fundamentally unknowable.

James Carville explained the significance if she does win both.

“If she wins both, it changes the narrative, then she has a real case to make. She is coming back.” – James Carville

Exactly so. This is what I have been saying in posts here and in other comments. With a Clinton win in Ohio and Texas, the narrative – “The Story” – becomes more important than the elected delegate total. That said, it is appropriate to paraphrase an infamous Clintonian parsing and state: It depends on the what the definition of “win” is. What exactly does it mean to “win” in the byzantine undemocratic process that is the Texas primary/caucus?

In this context, the popular vote in Texas is the sole determinant of victory. Not delegates and not caucus results. As long as she wins the popular vote The Story stays intact. The Story is all that matters to her campaign now. The Story that Clinton wins all the big states except Illinois. The Story that momentum has shifted. The Story that Hillary Clinton is the new “comeback kid“. The Story is all that is needed to provide political cover for the superdelegates to vote for Clinton at the convention. Even a 200 elected delegate lead for Obama is the equivalent of a dead even tie, as long as The Story is intact.

Mary Matlin refines The Story with an interesting embellishment.

“If she wins both states, even fractionally, she can say he [Obama] can’t close the deal.” – Mary Matlin

Cross post continued at Divided We Stand United We Fall