Informed political observers have realized since June that Hillary Rodham Clinton won’t be Barack Obama’s running mate. As Obama prepares to announce his vice-presidential choice, however, it will be worthwhile to watch the reaction of the ill-informed and unobservant — which is to say, the independent “swing” voters who will ultimately decide the election.
Especially for those swing voters who voted for Hillary in the Democratic primaries, it may come as a brutal shock to learn that the former First Lady won’t be on the ticket in November. The shock will be amplified when those voters learn that Obama’s choice was the result of an ABC (“Anybody But Clinton”) process that excluded Hillary from serious consideration months earlier.
While running mate choices rarely influence the ultimate outcome of elections — Gallup finds only a small “bounce” factor involved in such announcements — this year may prove to be one of those rare occasions.
The potential for a backlash from disgruntled Clinton voters has been consistently derogated by elite political commentators, who climbed aboard the Obama bandwagon early and by March were declaring Hillary’s nomination a mathematical impossibility. Her belated rally in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania annoyed these elites, but did not dissuade them from their belief that the Democrats’ downside risk of alienating Clinton voters would be a non-factor in November.
Yet Hillary’s voters were not, for the most part, members of the political elite. She drew key support from blue-collar voters and older women. Already, as a recent Pew Research poll indicates, some 18 percent of those who backed Clinton in the primaries — which translates to more than 3 million voters — are already supporting the Republican candidate, John McCain.
The potential for that number to grow is very real, because many of Clinton’s supporters in the primaries were independent voters who, as American University political scientist Candace Nelson has observed, “are the least likely to pay attention to politics, least likely to be engaged in the political process.”
While Pew found that 72 percent of Clinton’s supporters now back Obama, another 10 percent remain undecided. It is among these independents who voted for Hillary in the Democratic primaries that a backlash could develop when the Democrat names his Anybody But Clinton running mate.
Pro-Hillary blogger Big Tent Democrat first pointed to the possibility of such a backlash:
When Obama does not pick Hillary, he will lose support among women and white voters. … His stubborn refusal to pick Hillary Clinton, his insistence in causing political trouble for himself with the VP pick, will make this a closer election than it should be. The political obtuseness on this critical decision is amazing to me.
That prediction was made in late July in reaction to Quinnipiac polls showing the Democrat leading in the swing states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. At that time, Obama was enjoying a poll “bounce” caused by media enthusiasm for his foreign trip.
Big Tent Democrat didn’t see the damage from an ABC running mate being enough to cost Obama the election, but that was before polls showed a post-Berlin backlash — and before it became apparent that Democrats could be facing unexpected trouble in swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania.
John Kerry narrowly beat President Bush for Michigan’s 17 electoral votes in 2004, and the state should be considered safe for Democrats in a year when such poll indicators as the generic congressional ballot show Republicans in a slump.
Yet, proving Tip O’Neill’s adage that all politics is local, Michigan Democrats are hurting from reaction to Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s 2007 tax increase and from the scandal surrounding Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Recent polls have shown Obama’s lead as thin as 2 points in the state, and Karl Rove has named Michigan as one of the key “blue” states that McCain might switch to Republican red in November.
Polls show Obama has more breathing room in Pennsylvania — about 7 points in the Real Clear Politics average — yet he remains below the 50-percent mark in the state, and Quinnipiac found Obama’s margin shrinking from 12 points in June to 5 points in July.
McCain’s repeated campaign visits to Pennsylvania indicate the Republican isn’t ready to cede a state with 21 electoral votes that Kerry won by less than 200,000 votes four years ago. The fact that Hillary won Pennsylvania handily in April must be part of that calculation.
As Obama prepares to name his running mate, the situation in Michigan and Pennsylvania highlights how much the Democrat’s prospects have changed since late June, when Obama strategist David Plouffe delivered a Power Point presentation that wowed the political press corps.
Plouffe began by declaring that there was “very little opportunity for John McCain to play offense” by picking off states that Kerry had won in 2004, whereas there were “a lot of states where we’re playing offense.” Plouffe’s presentation touted a “50 state strategy” with Obama seeking to compete in several states that had voted Republican in the past two presidential elections.
So how’s that working out? Among the states named as red-to-blue targets by Plouffe, McCain now leads in Florida, Missouri, North Carolina and Georgia. While the Democrat appears competitive in Virginia and in western states like Colorado, Nevada and Montana, the early optimism that Obama could be a “map changer” — a candidate whose overwhelming strength transforms the electoral calculus — has not panned out so far.
A Democrat who hoped to compete in Georgia — where Bush crushed Kerry by 17 points in 2004 — could safely ignore the Hillary factor, and it appears that Clinton was crossed off the short list of potential running mates in June, when one national poll showed Obama leading by 15 points.
However, with 147 Electoral College votes now in the “toss up” category according to Real Clear Politics, and Team Obama still playing defense in blue states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, the fall campaign is shaping up as another close-fought affair that will boil down to a handful of swing states on Nov. 4.
This is precisely the kind of scenario where the disaffection of a few million Clinton supporters might make a crucial difference.
Readers of political tea leaves have long since concluded that Hillary Clinton would not be Obama’s running mate, and have evidently assumed that what was obvious to them was equally obvious to ordinary voters. Yet most voters — especially independents — don’t pay attention to political “inside baseball” talk this far in advance of an election.
While insider speculation about Obama’s No. 2 pick has centered on Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh (with Delaware Sen. Joe Biden a dark horse), it is certain that many voters still expect Democrats to nominate an Obama-Clinton ticket. That would seem the common-sense thing to do, given the closeness of the primary race. And many of those 18 million Clinton voters no doubt feel that the former first lady has earned a place on the ticket.
These voters will be shocked when, as now seems likely, Obama picks a white male running mate with little national name recognition. This week’s decision to allow Hillary a roll call vote in Denver is one indication that Team Obama may be anticipating a backlash.
Most political insiders see Hillary’s defeat in the Democratic primaries as the result of her own overconfidence and incompetence. Yet she still has millions of supporters who view Obama as an arrogant upstart who cheated Clinton out of the nomination.
For those voters, the news that she has been denied even the consolation prize of the No. 2 spot could prove the final insult that pushes them into outright opposition to Obama.