Barack Obama widens the gap

A new Gallup Poll shows the Illinois senator is increasingly preferred by Democratic voters nationwide over Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York. But as we've said before, don't expect Clinton to withdraw any time soon.
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A new Gallup Poll shows the Illinois senator is increasingly preferred by Democratic voters nationwide over Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York. But as we've said before, don't expect Clinton to withdraw any time soon.

According to late-in-the-day exit polls, Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York were trading one-sided Democratic presidential primary victories Tuesday, May 20, with Obama carrying Oregon and Clinton winning big in Kentucky, as she did the previous week in West Virginia.

Analysts were pointing to the fact that many Kentucky Clinton voters, as those in West Virginia, were telling exit pollsters that they would have difficulty supporting Obama in a general election. But contrary data, received earlier in the day, lead one to believe that some Democrats might feel that way but that most do not.

Only three more primaries to go before they end June 3. Meantime, the party's rules committee will meet at the end of this month to take a first shot at resolving the ongoing dispute about seating at the party's August Denver convention of presently unaccredited delegations from Michigan and Florida.

The most important development Tuesday had little to do with the two primaries' results or the upcoming try at Michigan/Florida dispute resolution. It was the release of a Gallup Poll — by far the most reliable of all national polls — showing Obama opening an ever-widening gap among Democratic voters. Obama led Clinton by four percentage points at the beginning of May. Tuesday's poll results showed him leading by 16 points. (The polling was done over a three-day period last weekend.)

Even more significant, the Gallup showed Obama not only maintaining his lead among African-American, better-educated, and young voters but Clinton, for the first time, falling behind Obama among women, less-educated voters, Latinos, and East Coast residents. The only demographic group still giving Clinton better than 50 percent support: women 50 or older.

Thus, contrary to dire predictions of many party leaders and media — and contrary to West Virginia and Kentucky results which, it seems to me, reflect an isolated regional pattern — the two candidates' supporters are not polarizing as the contest proceeds. Instead, following a normal pattern, Democrats across the board are rallying to the side of the apparent nominee, Obama, as we enter the primary-season homestretch. Obama, accordingly, has shifted his campaign focus from Clinton to Sen. John McCain, the putative Republican presidential nominee.

A nasty finish?

Clinton prides herself on being realistic. She is, morever, an avid student of polling data. The Obama surge in national polls — heightened as non-elected "super-delegates" rally daily to his cause — combined with her relatively empty campaign treasury are almost certain to cause her to end her candidacy on a positive, unifying note. The end might come right after June 3. It might come a bit later, as the Michigan/Florida outcome becomes clear. Or it might not come until the August convention itself.

Whenever it comes, it is unlikely to be accompanied by Book of Revelations, destructive tactics which would harm Democrats' chances in the fall.

As noted in my election-night piece last week, it is possible that Clinton may sustain her candidacy simply as insurance against the possibility that some event or disclosure, between now and the August convention, might cause Obama to self destruct. But she could protect herself by simply declaring her campaign "inactive," rather than dropping out altogether, until the eve of the convention. If Obama still was strong and on his feet then, she could exit gracefully just before Denver with a formal withdrawal.

Clinton wants a future both in the Senate and in national politics. She is not so stupid as to jeopardize it with scorched-earth tactics over the coming weeks.

Vice presidential nominees could be important

Another incumbent Republican member of Congress withdrew his candidacy Monday, May 19. That makes 30 Republican incumbents in the House who are not seeking re-election.

This reinforces my belief that Democrats are going to begin 2009 with strengthened majorities in both the House and Senate. Unless rescued by positive international events or an immediately rebounding economy, McCain is going to face a real uphill climb in the general election. The "time for a change" tide is running strongly.

The identity of the two parties' vice presidential nominees could take on extra importance for both Obama and McCain.

You might be surprised to know that most candidates for No. 2 are a drag on the presidential nominee rather than a plus — especially if they are strong, well-known figures who over time have generated adversaries. Hillary Clinton is a perfect example of such a person. She began the nominating process this year with almost 50 percent of the electorate already viewing her negatively.

This explains why some presidential candidates have chosen nonentities as running mates — Richard Nixon choosing Spiro Agnew, for instance, or George H.W. Bush selecting Dan Quayle.

This will not happen in 2008. Obama, as a relative newcomer, will need a running mate with some grey hair, experience, and foreign-policy knowledge, in particular. McCain, as a septagenarian, will need a younger running mate and, in particular, one with knowledge of economics and finance. McCain can handle national-security debate, but he is woefully ignorant of the other big policy area that asorbs voters.

My own early instinct: Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California or former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, would be perfect fits for Obama if they were a few years younger. But they are not. Therefore, it seems to me, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson are the two most likely possibilities. Beyond their broad experience, Dodd and Richardson also have political pluses. Dodd is Catholic, a Northeasterner, and a skilled campaigner. Richardson is Latino. Many analysts have suggested that former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina might be Obama's running mate, as he was Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's in 2004. I think it unlikely. Edwards was a notably unsuccessful 2004 campaigner and got pushed to the sidelines before November.

On the Republican side, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney seems the most logical running mate. He withdrew from this year's presidential-nominating race gracefully and without causing harm to McCain. He is from the Northeast, governed a Democratic state successfully, and most importantly knows economics and finance thoroughly. He would reassure voters who properly see McCain as an economic illiterate. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty have strong credentials and come from states that McCain will want to carry in November. McCain could cause some drama by selecting Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee — thus sealing Lieberman's future as a latter-day trivia question: Who ran as vice-presidential nominee on both major parties' tickets in an eight-year period? I do not expect it.

Between now and the two party conventions, any number of additional No. 2 candidates will be publicly touted. Right now both Obama and McCain are vetting the backgrounds of several. One thing is certain: Neither wants a rerun of South Dakota Sen. George McGovern's disastrous 1972 choice, and then dumping, of Missouri Sen. Tom Eagleton as his running mate. That sank his chances before the fall campaign began.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of