Tuesday, June 03, 2008
Some thoughts on Obama's victory
The buzz on cable news is that today will be the day that Obama crosses the threshold of pledged delegates needed to make him the undisputed winner of the Democratic nomination. That is not an interesting matter. If not today, then tomorrow. If not tomorrow, then the day after. In any event Obama has long been the de facto nominee in the minds of everyone except the most die-hard Clinton supporters, and I can only feel relief that the primaries are finally over.
But looking back at the process in which the Democrats have somehow managed to select a black man as their candidate, I feel almost dazed. Hillary's efforts to soldier on seem to have diverted us from the wonder of it all.
Like everyone else at the beginning of the campaign I expected that Clinton would be the Democratic nominee in 2008. That is not to say that I desired it. I have been opposing Hillary's nomination in these pages since 2004—and for reasons having nothing to do with gender. If she had won the nomination it would of course have been a victory for women. But passing a milestone is not the same as getting where you want to go. And I do not believe that Clinton was by any stretch of the imagination poised to take the majority where they now hope to go.
But still we are left with the miracle of Obama's success. Yes, Obama can be a masterful orator. Yes, many people want someone as different from George Bush as our political system can produce. And yes, Hillary was wildly overconfident. But something else had to be at work behind the scenes.
Stephen Ohlemacher offers the most coherent explanation that I've found. And like most miracles, it turns out that there's a perfectly rational explanation based in old-fashioned political science, the Obama campaign's mastery of Democratic party rules and—though Ohlemacher avoids saying it explicitly—black identity politics.
For background Ohlemacher writes—
What made it especially hard for Clinton to catch up was that Obama understood and took advantage of a nominating system that emerged from the 1970s and '80s, when the party struggled to find a balance between party insiders and its rank-and-file voters.
The fiasco of the 1968 convention in Chicago, where police battled anti-war protesters in the streets, led to calls for a more inclusive process.
One big change was awarding delegates proportionally, meaning you can finish second or third in a primary and still win delegates to the party's national convention. As long candidates get at least 15 percent of the vote, they are eligible for delegates.
The system enables strong second-place candidates to stay competitive and extend the race — as long as they don't run out of campaign money.
"For people who want a campaign to end quickly, proportional allocation is a bad system," Devine said. "For people who want a system that is fair and reflective of the voters, it's a much better system."
Another change was the addition of "superdelegates" to the nomination process. But here's the rule change that made all the difference—
A more subtle change was the distribution of delegates within each state. As part of the proportional system, Democrats award delegates based on statewide vote totals as well as results in individual congressional districts. The delegates, however, are not distributed evenly within a state, like they are in the Republican system.
Under Democratic rules, congressional districts with a history of strong support for Democratic candidates are rewarded with more delegates than districts that are more Republican. Some districts packed with Democratic voters can have as many as eight or nine delegates up for grabs, while more Republican districts in the same state have three or four.
The system is designed to benefit candidates who do well among loyal Democratic constituencies, and none is more loyal than black voters. Obama, who would be the first black candidate nominated by a major political party, has been winning 80 percent to 90 percent of the black vote in most primaries, according to exit polls.
The implication is rather startling: Thanks to the de facto segregation of blacks into separate residential areas and thanks to the gerrymandering of congressional districts that has corralled blacks into solid voting blocks and thanks to the loyalty of blacks to the Democratic Party, one of their own has managed to elevate himself to the apex of the Democratic Party. To put it another way, if Americans were as segregated by gender as they are by race and if women were as faithful to the Democratic Party as blacks are, Hillary would easily be the nominee.
The outcome is a bit ironic when we consider the underlying social and political conditions that led to the victory and—when we consider the prospects for the general election—a little frightening. Now that identity politics has carried the day, can it be set aside?
Obama's Vice-Presidential running mate
I believe the answer to that question may very much depend upon Obama's choice of a running mate.
I'm sure the Obama campaign is polling for the public's view on the matter, as well they should. The conventional wisdom is that the selection of a Vice Presidential nominee has little to do with Presidential election outcomes. But in Obama's "peculiar situation"—and after the public's experience of an 8-year bout of Dick Cheney—I suspect that conventional wisdom is wrong.
It seems to me that the ideal candidate would be a white hermaphrodite from a swing state, preferably Southern, who speaks fluent Spanish, loves latkes, has served as a general and opposes the war. No names leap to mind.
One thing's for sure—whoever Obama picks had better be one helluva campaigner.