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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Democratic Primaries - Obama's January Strategy

Originally posted at Daily Kos on May 18, 2007

"Any American who is prepared to run for President should automatically,
by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so."
~ Gore Vidal.

The other day I posted a diary outlining a possible scenario as to how John Edwards might navigate a path toward the Democratic nomination. I focused on the critical first four states (IA, NV, NH and SC) leading up to Florida and then the Mega Primary scheduled for Feb 5th.

Today, I'm going to examine how Barack Obama's camp can find a path to the Feb 5th contests in a position with a legitimate shot at derailing Hillary.

The way I see it, Obama has proven his grassroots appeal (the polls, enthusiastic crowds & small $ donations) and has impressed - perhaps frightened - the political establishment with his fundraising prowess. But, historically, nominating battles are littered with early season rainmakers (Dean and Phil Gramm come to mind) who stumbled and failed when the actual voting started.

So, I pose the question: How can Obama rewrite the script in 2008?

As was the case with my Edwards-centric post, I'm going to examine current polls and trends to predict the number of delegates Obama can accumulate in the opening contests. This diary isn't going to be about messaging, positioning or strategy decisions. I'll leave that to the DC consultants. They get paid the big money, after all.

Most MSM stories focus on the NATIONAL polling, which consistently show Hillary atop the candidates preferred by Democratic primary voters. But, lurking in the same polls is the specter of Hillary being the weakest in hypothetical general election matchups.

The presidential nomination (and general) elections are NOT national elections. They are a series of state contests. So, it's more useful to look at polling on a state level. Unfortunately, there is a scarcity of public data to determine the voters true feelings in the critical early states (especially NV and SC). But, I'll use what's available to build my scenario.

In addition to the polls in the previous link, American Research Group (ARG) reports presidential preferences as fo April 30, 2007 as follows:

Democrats IA NH SC
Biden 6% 2% 3%
Clinton 23% 37% 36%
Edwards 27% 26% 18%
Obama 19% 14% 24%
Richardson 5% 3% 1%
Undecided 16% 15% 13%

any candidate not listed did not receive more than 3% in any of the states lists

Two significant caveats are necessary:

1. The reality is that the campaign ahead will hold many "Macaca", "YouTube", "Dean Scream" and other similarly unpredictable moments that will alter the dynamic of the campaign.

2. Reading polls this far out is notoriously unreliable. One only has to remember the 2004 Democratic battle. As Stuart Rothenberg wrote in early April:
Iowa voters have only now started to meet and consider the candidates, and it will be many months before they start evaluating the presidential hopefuls with an eye to their caucus participation.


History, after all, is replete with summer boomlets for presidential candidates who, when Iowa activists finally attend the state’s caucuses on a cold and often snowy night in January, do surprisingly poorly. (emphasis mine)

In November 2003, few reporters or political insiders figured that Howard Dean would finish a weak third (with 18 percent) or Richard Gephardt a stunning fourth (11 percent) in Iowa, far behind winner John Kerry (38 percent) or runner-up John Edwards (32 percent). In fact, all of the evidence was to the contrary, even just six weeks before the caucuses.

The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll, conducted by Selzer & Co., showed Gephardt (27 percent) and Dean (20 percent) leading in a Nov. 2-5, 2003, survey of 501 likely caucus attendees.

Having said that, I'd recommend a "robust grain of salt" as the reader digests the following analysis. One other point - this assumes Gore remains on the sidelines throughout the campaign. I'm only going to deal with the declared candidates. If he gets in, everything changes.

IOWA CAUCUSES - Monday, 1/14/08 (tentative)


Expectations are going to be the key to Obama's ability to gain the momentum to carry him to "Super Duper Mardi Gras Tuesday." Edwards has been ahead in almost every Iowa poll and if that remains the case throughout the year, all of the pressure will be on Edwards to win convincingly. The most recent IA numbers (from Zogby) show the race tightening in the state, with Edwards at 26, Clinton 24, and Obama 22 (with Richardson doubling his support to 6 pts).

If the headline coming out of Iowa has Hillary finishing behind BOTH Edwards and Obama, it opens the door for both candidates. I would argue that if Obama won Iowa, it would effectively eliminate Edwards from the race, making the race a two person choice between Hillary and Obama. And, if it becomes a two-person choice too early in the campaign, the party establishment is more likely to coalesce behind Clinton, IMO. (again, remember the 2004 Kerry-Dean battle).

assuming IA results: Edwards 27%, Obama 25%, Clinton 20%
45 pledged delegates at stake
Edwards - 25
Obama - 11
Clinton - 9

NEXT STOP - NEVADA CAUCUSES Tuesday, 1/19/08 (tentative)

Nevada is an unknown variable in the 2008 campaign. Without a long history of participating in the caucus experience, identifying and developing an effective and strong network of activists is likely to be difficult for all the campaigns. Edwards has been studiously courting union support and Richardson - a governor of another Interior West state - would appear to have the inside track to connect with the Nevada voters. For this reason, Obama's strategists would be wise to focus their energies on the NH and SC primaries.

Currently, the scarce polling shows (ARG - Dec 2006, Zogby -April 2007, and Mason-Dixon - May 2007) Hillary with a comfortable lead at this stage of the race. However, if Obama does get the headlines envisioned above, I'd say that NV is likely to be a wide-open contest, with any of four candidates having a chance to win. Again, if Obama's people are smart, they would downplay expectations here - and be happy with a second or third place finish - as long as it's a close race.

DELEGATE COUNT - assuming NV results Clinton 27%, Obama 25%, Edwards 22%, Richardson 15%
25 pledged delegates at stake

Candidate NV Prev Total
Edwards 5 25 30
Clinton 10 11 21
Obama 6 11 17
Richardson 4 0 4

So, how can I be making the argument that Obama could find himself with two second place finishes after IA & NV, be in third place in the pledged delegate count and still be in a good position to have the ability to seize momentum before Florida and Mardi Gras Primary Day?

It's all about the expectations game and I think that Obama's best opportunities to score significant victories are in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

NEW HAMPSHIRE - Tuesday, 1/22/08 (tentative)
The Independent Voters Shape Democratic Race

New Hampshire voters have a long history of sending a message to party establishments. (LBJ 68, Buchanan 92 & 96, McCain 2000) The open primary allows voters registered as independents to vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary and since they make up over 30% of NH voters, they're going to play a huge role in the 2008 primary.

By almost every measure, it's the Democrats who are generating the most excitement. It's a safe assumption that the NH independents will gravitate to the Democratic ballot next January. If Rasmussen's data is correct (showing indies going for Obama by a margin of 2:1 over Clinton) then, New Hampshire represents Obama's best opportunity to score a huge win.
Zogby's most recent numbers show Obama holding a steady quarter of New Hampshire's primary voters:

Democrats in New Hampshire – 2007

Candidate 5/17/20074/3/20071/17/2007
Clinton 28% 27% 19%
Obama 26% 23% 23%
Edwards 15% 23% 19%
Richardson 10% 2% 1%

Obama's forward-looking message of hope should resonate in this state that repudiated the GOP on every level in the 2006 midterms. Obama's anti-war positions, well-received across New England, are also likely to help him win support in the Granite State.

DELEGATE COUNT - assuming NH results Obama 34% Clinton 25%, Edwards 22%, Richardson 12%
22 pledged delegates at stake

NH Prev Total
Edwards 5 30 35
Obama 11 17 28
Clinton 6 21 27
Richardson 0 4 4

If each of the three top candidates win one of the first three contests, the biggest loser will be Hillary, who will have lost her aura of inevitability. As the campaign moves to the south in the last days of January, the Democratic voters of South Carolina and Florida will be key to determining the eventual nominee.


The African American Vote Rallies to Obama - SC Primary Tuesday, 1/29/08 (tentative)

The bare knuckle contest between Hillary and Obama for African-American support that was evident in the 40th Anniversary of the Selma marches will come to a head 10 months later in South Carolina. A majority of the voters who participated in the 2006 SC Democratic primarywere minority. While there is certainly no guarantee that Obama will automatically gain the black vote - and the Clinton team will fight for every vote here if the campaign does find itself in a three-way contests - Obama could ride the momentum of a win in New Hampshire into the front of the pack.

assuming SC results Obama 35% Clinton 30%, Edwards 25%, Richardson 8%
45 pledged delegates at stake

SC Prev Total
Obama 20 28 48
Edwards 11 35 46
Clinton 14 27 41
Richardson 0 4 4

Currently, both the South Carolina and Florida primaries are scheduled for 1/29, although the actual dates of the four earliest states are subject to change. The scenario outlined in this diary represents a very clear path for Obama to head into the Florida and Tsunami Tuesday on February 5th with the critical momentum.

The Super Rhetorical Question of the Day - if the three candidates find themselves in a tight race in early February, which of them would have the resources to buy adtime during the Super Bowl on Feb 3rd?

UP NEXT - FLORIDA - a bellwhether and kingmaker?

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