Could Obama get more votes but lose?

by on June 17th, 2008

Now that Senator Barack Obama has clinched the Democratic nomination, the pundits and political professionals are looking backward, explaining the inexplicable as best they can. We need to look back at what happened but then we should consider one aspect of the November voting that has the Obama team concerned but preparing.

We also can examine which states might be in play so we can follow the polls in those states to get a better idea of who might win. The national polls have difficulty discounting for the fact that Democratic presidential candidates run up lopsided majorities in some big states while Republican candidates win narrowly in other states. In effect, the Democrats waste votes while the Republicans are more efficient in securing electoral college votes.

What does a quick look back show? So far, the analyses seem to concentrate on three areas:

Clinton and the women’s vote

What caused Senator Hillary Clinton’s demise? What does that mean for women?

I wrote last year that Clinton was her own worst enemy (except for her husband, perhaps). She gathered a “who’s who” team of Democratic luminaries. Luminaries do not work precincts in caucus states. They do not knock on doors. They do lunch.

Too many leaders and too few followers doomed Clinton. Her top advisors feuded. In fact, they had time to nurture intense rivalries, which they discussed in detail with the press – often over lunch.

As Obama became a more viable candidate, more African American women began to support him. As the Clintons were perceived to play the “race card,” still more African American women deserted Clinton. So did upscale white women in suburban areas. As one suburban white woman remarked in a focus group, “there’s just more cachet in Obama.” That kind of comment had to bring groans to the Clinton camp.

Inexperienced Obama versus seasoned Clinton

How could an African American newcomer (and one with baggage, it seems) prevail against the most powerful political team in the country?

First, the Obama team was not so inexperienced as they wanted people to believe. The team had roots in the rough and tumble politics of Chicago and Boston, with a little of New York City tossed in. These are cities where elections are a blood sport and not a civic exercise.

Next, the media took a liking to Obama and did not probe him for details when he used platitudes to build toward rock star status. They let him set the rules for what was fair and what was unfair coverage. Then they imposed those rules on the other candidates. To criticize Obama was to engage in “old style” politics while Obama was conjuring up a whole new experience in public life and governing.

Finally, the Obama team simply out-organized Clinton in smaller, caucus states. Clinton practiced macro-politics, Washington style; Obama was micro all the way.

Little dissension roiled the Obama team. Everyone was out working. Few four-star restaurants are found in small state/small town America. But plenty of volunteers are out there, waiting to be organized behind a mission.

The new volunteers and voters recruited by Obama

Within the past several days, the Obama campaign has taken over the Democratic National Committee’s grassroots organization and moved it to Chicago. Obama loyalists are starting to replace Clinton cronies in other posts that, together, control the Democratic party. More than losing the nomination, losing key positions at the Democratic National Committee foreshadows the end of Clinton dominance in Democratic politics.

Will the changes at the DNC give Obama a better chance to keep the active support of all the new voters that he brought into the primaries and caucuses? Will these new voters remain engaged and change electoral politics this year and into the future?

Perhaps, but the legions of earnest young voters may not make as much difference in the general election. The electoral college makes some voters and some states less meaningful. As in 2000, that fact may be the big story this November.

Another inconclusive election day?

The possibility that Obama could lose the November election while receiving more popular votes is worrying the folks at Obama headquarters. Some of them think that it makes their search for a vice presidential running mate all the more critical. A replay of 2000, when Democrat Al Gore got more popular votes but still lost to Republican George W. Bush, has insiders preparing for various contingencies.

The lawyers are preparing for battle. They are examining Gore’s failed strategy. The Obama team will not try to limit the recount to only areas where Obama runs well ahead of Republican John McCain. The Gore people adopted that strategy in the belief that “hanging chads” would break for Gore in the same percentage as valid ballots in areas that went heavily for Gore. Therefore, concentrating on only Gore strongholds would yield enough new votes to turn around the Florida result. But there were simply not enough chads. Perhaps, if the Gore braintrust had expanded, not constricted, the recount, there might have been some chads in places outside the heavily Democratic Atlantic coast stretching from Miami to Palm Beach.

Gore had fewer options

Gore was forced to make a last stand in Florida because he could not afford to have the election thrown into the House of Representatives. That can happen when a state’s electoral college votes are in dispute and cannot be cast and the electoral college cannot give one candidate 50 percent plus one. When the electoral college cannot decide, the House of Representatives must decide.

No matter how large or small, each state gets one vote in the House of Representatives if the electoral college cannot reach a decision. Huge California gets one vote; tiny Wyoming gets one vote, too. In 2000, that meant states controlled by Republicans would have more votes than those controlled by Democrats. So Gore had to keep the election from going to the House. Therefore, he had to win Florida, and with it enough electoral college votes to win the presidency. A no-decision in Florida was the same as a loss.

This year, the Democrats should easily control more states so Obama’s strategy will be to protest the results in any close states, hoping to consume precious time in legal maneuvering to force a stalemate in the electoral college. He will not resort to the courts as Gore was forced to do but will try to head off all Republican court challenges. Then, in the confusion of an indecisive electoral college, the decision will go to the House in January, a few weeks before the inauguration on January 20. Of course, Obama or McCain could win a clear and outright victory on election night. But the thoroughness of the preparation, at this relatively early date, shows another reason Obama prevailed over Clinton. That Obama thoroughness should be a warning to McCain: Take nothing for granted.

Meanwhile, the Obama braintrust boasts about changing the electoral college map this year. They could do it. Remember, the Obama team cut its teeth on Chicago politics,folks! But the best way to forecast any U.S. presidential election is to look at recent presidential elections. The Obama team knows that. So they are less concerned about the highly publicized national polls, which show Obama with a narrow lead. They are fixated on places like Southeast Ohio and the Florida panhandle. Republicans know the same thing. There are no secrets, no surprises.

This election will come down to execution, not innovation. Republicans argue that Obama’s poor showing among some Democratic constituencies gives Sen. John McCain an opportunity to carry a couple of traditionally Democratic states in November. But the McCain inner-circle knows how hard that is. This battle will be fought on the same grounds as 2000 and 2004.

The unexpected usually happens

Barring an unanticipated implosion of the Obama campaign (which is less likely now that he has survived the Clinton attack machine), or a full-scale McCain meltdown or the public’s wholesale rejection of the GOP (wholesale rejection cannot be ruled out), only a handful of states are realistically competitive. Most of the states that went for Bush in 2000 are likely to end up in the Republican column again, while almost every state that Gore won eight years ago is likely to go for Obama. Increased turnout by African Americans and young voters could improve Obama’s showings in some states, as could his appeal among upscale whites. But those gains will deliver larger margins in states that are expected to go Democratic anyway.

The wave may not be big enough to flip states from Republican to Democratic. So far, for example, there is little evidence that red states in the Deep South will go for Obama because of their large black populations. There is evidence, however, that Clinton supporters are moving to Obama, including Clinton’s most loyal supporters: Older white women. That can help Obama in the industrial heartland and Florida.

We know all the macro factors that favor the Democrats this year: Fewer voters identify as Republicans, Iraq, fuel costs, President Bush’s unpopularity, and on and on and on. We know that the Democrats “waste” votes by concentrating them in a few large states that are firmly in Democratic hands. The Republicans eke out narrow wins, election after election, in several other states. What should we look for this year? Watch the two states that switched from Democratic in 2000 to Republican in 2004 – Iowa and New Mexico. If they give signs of switching back to Democratic this November, they could be enough to send Obama to the White House. New Hampshire switched from Republican in 2000 to Democratic four years ago. New Hampshire is currently rated as a toss up this year. If it, too, goes for Obama, we may be seeing a Democratic sweep.

Another six to ten states could change their “normal” pattern. Four of them were won twice by George W. Bush: Colorado, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia. All but Ohio have large numbers of upscale white voters who are attracted to Obama’s appeal. The closeness of the vote in Ohio four years ago, and the disintegration in scandal of the Ohio GOP, suggest that this may be the year that Ohio finally goes Democratic. If so, it will be very difficult for McCain to win the election. The Republican Party in Virginia seems to have destroyed itself. Obama expects to win Virginia; McCain knows it will be tough to hold Virginia.

Can Obama hold the rust belt?

Three normally Democratic states – Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – are Republican targets. All three have substantial numbers of “Reagan Democrats,” who are likely to be a tough sell for Obama. Currently, Obama is holding on in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, with Michigan a toss up. But McCain will target these three states and polling in September and October should tell us whether he can snatch one or more. If so, he can be on his way to the White House.

Other states have been presidential battlegrounds over the past 20 years. They are always in play: Florida, Missouri and Nevada. McCain must have Florida. If Obama takes Florida, a blowout may be on the way.

So far, nothing in the polling suggests that Obama can expect to win other states that have a history of reliably voting Republican for president. In fact, three states that were presumed to be competitive – Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia – seem to be solidifying for McCain.

Clinton’s victories in Kentucky and West Virginia confirmed that Obama has difficulty with downscale (lower income, less well educated) older white voters. How many will ultimately vote for Obama anyway? How many will stay home? How many will vote for McCain? The answer may depend on where they live. Disenchanted Democrats in the states of the old Confederacy have tended to switch to the GOP. But similar voters in Ohio and West Virginia have tended to drop out. That is another reason that Ohio is a likely blue state this year.

All of this creates the possibility of a split decision – with one nominee winning the popular vote and the other winning an electoral college or House majority. Obama may “waste” votes in California, Illinois and New York. He may come closer than Democrats in recent elections in some solidly GOP states. Those margins will skew the national polls.

But if Obama narrowly loses one or two larger, traditionally Democratic states – perhaps Michigan or Wisconsin – McCain could win the election while Obama gets more popular votes. The whole election could be thrown into the House or the courts. Will the country be prepared for that again?

Obama’s team will be prepared.

Radnor Inc.

Kenneth E. Feltman