Obama’s Pyrrhic Michigan Victory

Real Clear Politics; by Thurlow Weed; June 02, 2008

Yesterday’s DNC decision to award Obama delegates in Michigan even though he was not on the ballot surely seemed plausible to Democratic leaders trying to find a way out of their dilemma. The idea of splitting the baby in Michigan and Florida, seating the delegates while cutting their voting strength, was always a natural one, and in and of itself will cause little problem.

But the Michigan decision is a jaw dropper. By setting aside election results to Hillary’s disadvantage, the DNC has saddled its likely nominee with an enraged opponent who now has every incentive to carry the fight through the summertime. Simultaneously, it has told Michigan voters that the DNC – and by extension, its nominee, Obama – is willing to set aside election results it does not like. That cannot have a positive effect on Michigan swing voters – and Obama needs to carry Michigan in the fall to have any shot at victory.

The Clintons’ unwillingness to accept defeat is legendary. Yet the DNC has thrown sand in the face of a candidate who is already claiming sexism underlies the opposition to her campaign. Never underestimate the fury of a woman scorned, the adage goes.

Now she can stay in the race with yet another rationale for her candidacy – she is fighting for democratic principles. And her working class voters in Michigan will hear that message.

This decision violates a cardinal rule of warfare first promulgated by the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu in his classic The Art of War – always give your enemy the opportunity to retreat. The corollary to a political campaign is that one must always give one’s opponent the opportunity to bow out gracefully. Manipulating the rules to ensure Hillary cannot possibly win does not give her that opportunity, and given the psychology of the individual in question, virtually ensures a continued battle.

In Obama’s favorite game, basketball, trash talk and demonstrating your dominance by dunking the ball over your opponent is expected. Employing these tactics in politics, particularly intra-party politics, is not very good sense.

It is particularly poor sense given that Obama was going to win the nomination anyway because the clear sense of the superdelegates is to back Obama and end the fight. This decision was as unnecessary as it is inflammatory.

It is exhibits even poorer sense because Obama is unlikely to win a close general election without Michigan.

Look at the map. If McCain keeps the Bush states, he wins. Florida looks like a lock for McCain for many reasons, which make Ohio, Virginia, Missouri, and the Rocky Mountain states the keys for Obama. Of those, even now McCain generally leads in the first three (he is behind in the Real Clear Politics Ohio poll average only on the strength of one poll which frankly I don’t believe – Obama cannot be ahead by 9 in Ohio, a GOP leaning swing state, and by only 1-2 nationwide) and the demographics of those states suggest he is likely to win them so long as McCain keeps his national popular vote percentage in the 48-49 range, which the polls suggest he can. Obama then wins if he can take the Rocky Mountain states (Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico) where the polls now show him ahead, plus hold New Hampshire and take Iowa. This is all plausible – here the demographics or state effects all favor Obama (except New Hampshire, which seems even or slightly favors McCain). But note this assumes he holds the swing states of Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Recent polls show Obama leading in three of those four. But McCain leads in all three of the most recent Michigan polls. Any guess what might be the reason? Any guess as to whether the swing working class whites Obama needs to carry Michigan will be more likely to back him after yesterday’s vote?

The depth of Obama’s Michigan problem becomes even clearer when one looks at electoral history. Michigan and Pennsylvania are the Bobbsie twins of American politics. Both states were between 1.5 and 2 points less Republican in each of the last three presidential elections. They are demographically similar, with large working class populations who provide the crucial margins for Democratic Presidential candidates. In fact, the last time these states voted for different Presidential candidates when there was not a Michigan native (Ford in 1976) on the ticket was 1940.

Yet today, Obama leads in PA by an average of 5.8 percent while trailing in Michigan. One does not need to look far to ascertain why.

This ill-advised decision should hearten McCain backers everywhere. Come November, they might look to May 31 as the day their candidate locked up the election.

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One comment

  1. The real issue is not how well Clinton, Obama, or McCain might do in the closely divided battleground states, but that we shouldn’t have battleground states and spectator states in the first place. Every vote in every state should be politically relevant in a presidential election. And, every vote should be equal. We should have a national popular vote for President in which the White House goes to the candidate who gets the most popular votes in all 50 states.

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC). The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes—that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The major shortcoming of the current system of electing the President is that presidential candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or worry about the voter concerns in states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. The reason for this is the winner-take-all rule which awards all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state. Because of this rule, candidates concentrate their attention on a handful of closely divided “battleground” states. Two-thirds of the visits and money are focused in just six states; 88% on 9 states, and 99% of the money goes to just 16 states. Two-thirds of the states and people are merely spectators to the presidential election.

    Another shortcoming of the current system is that a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide.

    The National Popular Vote bill has been approved by 18 legislative chambers (one house in Colorado, Arkansas, Maine, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Washington, and two houses in Maryland, Illinois, Hawaii, California, and Vermont). It has been enacted into law in Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland. These states have 50 (19%) of the 270 electoral votes needed to bring the law into effect.

    See http://www.NationalPopularVote.com

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