Downside of Obama Strategy
Losses in Big States Spur General-Election Fears
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 8, 2008; Page A01
Democrats in Wyoming will hold caucuses today and — following what is now a familiar pattern — are expected to give Sen. Barack Obama the majority of their 12 pledged delegates.
But Obama’s losses Tuesday in Texas and Ohio — coupled with his Feb. 5 defeats in California, New York and New Jersey — have not only shown the strategy’s downside. They have also given supporters of Clinton an opening for an argument that winning over affluent, educated white voters in small Democratic enclaves, such as Boise, Idaho, and Salt Lake City, and running up the score with African Americans in the Republican South exaggerate his strengths in states that will not vote Democratic in the fall.
If Obama becomes the Democratic nominee but cannot win support from working-class whites and Hispanics, they argue, then Democrats will not retake the White House in November. “If you can’t win in the Southwest, if you don’t win Ohio, if you don’t win Pennsylvania, you’ve got problems in November,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a Clinton supporter.
Even some Obama advisers see a real problem. “Ultimately, all that matters is how the nominee stacks up against John McCain,” said one adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity, referring to the senator from Arizona and presumptive GOP nominee. “Right now, Barack is not connecting with the children of the Reagan Democrats. That’s a real concern.”
“It’s now a battle between the base and the new young Democrats and Democrats who are more energized than they’ve been in the past,” agreed Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), an Obama supporter. “I don’t know how that’s going to play out.”
With the campaign moving next week to Mississippi, another Republican state where Obama is expected to do well, these questions will only grow louder as the Clinton camp tries to minimize the importance of those states while raising the stakes for Pennsylvania on April 22.
Obama and his allies counter that California and New York are firmly in the Democratic column and that, as the party’s nominee, he could carry them just as easily as Clinton.
David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, said he is not going to be goaded into shifting from the current strategy, which is to get as many delegates from wherever he can. And he rejects what he says is the Clinton campaign’s attempt to give greater legitimacy to certain states — especially Pennsylvania, where Clinton is expected to have an advantage because of her support from the Democratic establishment there and because its demographics are similar to Ohio’s.
But many Democratic elected officials are worried. “No one’s jumping up and down in Okeechobee, Florida, saying we’ve got a perfect ticket,” agreed Rep. Tim Mahoney (Fla.), a moderate, unaffiliated Democrat in a swing district. “If you’re a Barack Obama, you’re going to have to figure out how to reach out to white, middle-aged men.”
Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), who like Mahoney has not endorsed either Obama or Clinton, is concerned about Obama’s poor performance among Latino voters in California and Texas. “It’s unfortunate,” he said, “because Barack Obama has done very well with Latino voters in Illinois, and I know his heart, and it’s for an inclusive agenda.”
Obama rejects the charge that he has failed to reach important segments of the party, noting that he has shown he can crack Clinton’s coalition of working-class voters, women and Latinos with his wins in the bellwether state of Missouri, the swing state of Virginia and the Rust Belt redoubt of Wisconsin. He also showed that he can expand the battleground into the coveted Mountain West, with his convincing win in Colorado.
“I don’t buy into this demographic argument,” Obama said. “Missouri, Wisconsin, Virginia — in many of these states we’ve won the white vote and the blue-collar vote and so forth. I think it is very important not to somehow focus on a handful of states because the Clintons say those states are important and that the other states are unimportant.”
In the ensuing weeks, Obama appeared to consolidate his support among the rest of the Democratic coalition. He prevailed in the diverse state of Missouri, won over rural and working-class whites in his Virginia and Maryland routs, and then prevailed easily in Wisconsin.
David Axelrod, Obama’s chief campaign strategist, said the strategy had an upside beyond the compiling of delegates. Obama was building a case with superdelegates that his appeal to nontraditional voters would have a ripple effect down the ballot in swing states such as Colorado and Iowa, where some of those superdelegates will be running for reelection. And by building organizations in all 50 states, Obama can make the case that he has an infrastructure primed and ready for the general election.
Then came Ohio and Texas, and all the old fears of Obama’s narrow appeal came flooding back.
“A lot of the states he’s winning are states that we’re not going to win in November,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), a Clinton supporter. “It’s not a strategy that bodes well, in my opinion.”
A Clinton campaign memo on Wednesday noted that of the 11 core Republican states that have held primaries or caucuses, Obama has won 10: Utah, Idaho, Nebraska, North Dakota, Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana. In 2004, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic nominee, lost each of these states by 15 points or more.
Obama aides still insist that it is a strategy that will work. Even after Tuesday, when he lost three out of four contests, Obama maintained his delegate lead. Indeed, his strength in the parallel caucuses in Texas may have actually given him more delegates than Clinton, even though she won the popular vote by 51 percent to 47 percent. But his campaign faces a legitimacy test that is beginning to resonate throughout the Democratic establishment: Can Obama win the big prizes?
With Pennsylvania looming, Obama has few good options. Some advisers say he should stick to a plan, hatched before Tuesday’s defeats, to spend some time in the next weeks traveling to Europe, Israel and Asia to bolster his credentials for the general election. But if he cedes the state completely, he destroys his strategy of winning big in the small states and staying close in the big ones.
Axelrod and other Obama aides said they have learned their lesson from Tuesday. Rather than accept Pennsylvania as a tiebreaker, they will play down their chances there and keep the focus on states such as North Carolina and Indiana, where they think their chances are better.
Pennsylvania’s primary will be followed by contests in West Virginia, Indiana and Kentucky, all of which have similar, lunch-pail demographics. If Clinton enters the summer on a roll, especially in the big states, the superdelegates may no longer feel that backing her would be opposing the will of the voters, an Obama supporter said.
“Superdelegates are politicians. They will not buck the will of the voters,” said a superdelegate supporting Obama. “The danger point comes if the superdelegates don’t see a vote for Clinton as bucking anyone.”