The US media will this week cease to describe Senator Hillary Clinton as the frontrunner for the Democratic party's presidential nomination, following the thumping that she received in the February 12 'Potomac primary' at the hands of her rival, Senator Barack Obama. For by most statistical measures -- pledged delegate support, total popular votes won, and total delegates -- he will have nosed ahead of her for the first time. He may stay there, barring a major comeback by the Clinton campaign.
Watching the media pack circling the Clinton campaign is like observing a group of sharks trailing a wounded whale:
- Clinton spent years painstakingly building a powerful political organisation, burnishing her centrist credentials, and bolstering her national security experience -- to the point where she loomed massively over the 2008 Democratic nominating process.
- She so thoroughly dominated the 2007 political landscape and national polls that her defeat in Iowa struck many media observers as a sea change; they assumed that Obama would use the lightning he struck there to romp to the nomination, as John Kerry had four years earlier.
- Thus, Clinton's unexpected comeback in New Hampshire, checking the polling surge enjoyed by her rival, came as a complete shock; the whale had rolled over and delivered a stunning blow to her doubters.
Yet she has not been able to shake Obama, and now the sharks are circling again. Despite widespread predictions that her strength in the largest primary states that voted on ‘Super Tuesday’ would see her home, he held on -- and took advantage of a serious strategic mistake.
The Clinton campaign did not seem to have a contingency plan, in the event that she failed to knock out the opposition on Super Tuesday. Thus, it was ill prepared to compete in the raft of medium-sized states that held primaries and caucuses during the weekend of February 9-10, which led to lopsided losses in Washington state, Louisiana, Nebraska and Maine.
This flurry was followed on February 12 by another three defeats in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. The latter was an especially demoralising loss, as less than 20% of the Democratic electorate in the state is black, and Virginia features several key demographic groups that have previously favoured Clinton -- especially working class whites and older women. Clinton campaign strategists insisted that she would be very competitive there, but Obama captured almost two-thirds of the Virginia vote (64%).
Therefore, Clinton finds herself in an exceptionally unfavourable position. The Wisconsin primary and Hawaii caucuses on Tuesday are the only Democratic contests that remain on the calendar this month, and both are likely to go to Obama. Her campaign faces a drumbeat of media speculation about the viability of her bid, following up to eight consecutive losses and a fortnight of negative coverage, before a new round of primaries begins next month.
Clinton has seized on the Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4 as the ‘true test’ of Democratic voters’ sentiments, deliberately downplaying or ignoring her mounting losses. Both states have demographics that strongly favour her: Texas includes a large tranche of Hispanic voters, and Ohio is filled will blue-collar workers who gravitate towards her proposed national healthcare scheme. A recent poll shows Clinton ahead in Ohio 56% to 39%.
Hillary's 'Rudy problem'
Yet the New York senator finds herself involuntarily thrust into a position remarkably similar to that of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani -- whose eccentric campaign strategy ceded a huge national polling lead to his opponents in December and January. The Giuliani campaign decided that he could ignore all the early Republican primary contests in January, and bank on his massive polling advantage in Florida at the end of the month to propel him into 'Super Tuesday'. Yet as his rivals for the Republican nomination, especially Senator John McCain, racked up victory after victory, Giuliani’s once rock-solid Florida position evaporated.
The Clinton campaign denies that such 'momentum politics' will undermine her backing in Ohio and Texas. Yet this analysis appears dubious:
- Until now, the Democratic nomination campaign has been a seesaw battle in which the candidates have alternated victories. Prior to this week, neither candidate had achieved a series of clear wins, followed by a long delay before the commencement of further state contests.
- Candidate wins have impacted the polling in subsequent state contests. For example, Obama's victory in Iowa transformed Clinton’s nearly 20-point late December polling lead in New Hampshire into a deficit. Although she ultimately squeaked to a narrow three point victory in the state, this was still indicative of a major post-Iowa 'Obama bounce'.
- Obama has benefited from clear momentum in the national polls, surging approximately 15 points between late December and this month.
So the media sharks are circling. And the powerful Clinton campaign is looking less and less frightening, and more and more like lunch.