The Democratic presidential campaign is in many ways a more compelling drama than most reality shows on television, with its fascinating characters, endless plot twists, and more than its share of tragedy and comedy. Trouble is, it has become a miniseries with no finale, and it isn't likely to deliver one for a long time. In fact, the race has created a potential narrative for not only a rancorous nominating convention in August but also a divided party just as the general election contest is about to begin.
After last week's Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses, Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois remain in an amazingly tight race for delegates. Clinton was ahead at the end of last week with 1,045 to Obama's 960, according to a tally by the Associated Press, with 2,025 needed for the nomination. Clinton also appears to lead among an estimated 800 "superdelegates''—elected officials and other members of the party establishment who can vote however they want, independent of primaries and caucuses. Most have not declared their intentions.
The race goes next to Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia this week, and Hawaii, Washington, and Wisconsin next week—all fertile territory for Obama because of the many African-Americans, affluent voters, students, and independents who live in those states. Then the race shifts to Rhode Island, Vermont, and the big, delegate-rich states of Ohio and Texas, all four on March 4. Clinton probably has the advantage in that round because of the large populations of working-class voters, traditional Democrats, and Hispanics in Texas and Ohio. "At that point, Ohio and Texas would be Armageddon," says political scientist Bill Galston, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton who supports Hillary.
Super Tuesday didn't change the contours of the Democratic race. Both candidates are unique, with Clinton the first woman to have a realistic chance to win the presidency, and Obama the first African-American. Both have taken roughly similar stands on issues ranging from more federal spending on social programs to increasing taxes on the rich, gradually withdrawing from Iraq, emphasizing more diplomacy in foreign affairs, and overhauling the healthcare system to include more people at affordable costs.
But they are appealing to different constituencies with entirely different leadership styles. Clinton has developed a strong appeal to white women who, as a matter of gender pride, want to see a female in the Oval Office. She is also popular with noncollege-educated Democrats, longtime party members, and Latinos, who turned out for her in California and other states in huge numbers. This was partly because of the support they received during Bill Clinton's administration. Obama has been attracting African-Americans, young people, affluent voters, those with college degrees, men, and people who don't usually participate in politics but are drawn to his message of hope and change.
In fact, one of the most intriguing aspects of the race is that Obama is trying to create a social movement based on his promise to bring a spirit of conciliation to the nation and to overcome partisan rancor in Washington. In a speech to cheering supporters in Chicago on Super Tuesday, Obama said, "Our time has come. Our movement is real. And change is coming to America." Says Cornell Belcher, Obama's pollster: "What we're seeing in the results is Obama's ability to really energize the base of the party and pull new voters into the process."
But Clinton is underscoring her experience as first lady for eight years and a senator for seven years. "I look forward to continuing our campaign and our debate about how to leave this country better off for the next generation," she told cheering supporters in New York last week. Mark Penn, her chief strategist, says she practices "the politics of solutions" while Obama is full of empty if lofty rhetoric. Penn said one of Clinton's goals in the coming weeks will be comparing her proposals to overhaul the healthcare system with Obama's. Her plans would provide universal coverage, while Obama's would not, and Penn argues that her plans would also be more affordable. Obama's advocates say his plan would cover roughly the same number of people and dispute that his plan would cost more. Polls indicate healthcare is one of the main concerns of Democratic voters.
A debate challenge. Over the long haul, Clinton's strategists hope that her experience in national politics will carry them over the top. Bill and Hillary Clinton have, after all, run successful presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996, and they have shown themselves to be tough, creative, and very disciplined—all valuable skills in a presidential campaign.
Clinton advisers also have concluded that she performs substantially better than Obama in debates. And before the polls had closed on Super Tuesday, they announced that she would participate in four more debates and challenged Obama to do the same. It's best for voters to evaluate the two candidates "face to face," says Penn, in a forum where Clinton can challenge Obama if he misstates facts, in the view of her campaign, or gives wrong impressions.
Obama's strategists say they won't play Clinton's game. They promise to participate in debates only according to their own timetable, pointing out that Obama has participated in 18 such encounters so far.
Show of strength. On Super Tuesday, the results amounted to a split decision, with each candidate showing strength in every region of the country. Clinton, with strong support among women, seniors, and Hispanics, won eight states. They included New York, which she represents in the Senate, Arkansas, where she was first lady, as well as Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Clinton solidly won California, the biggest prize of all in popular votes and delegates, with the support of white women, seniors, Asians, and in particular Latinos, who went for her over Obama 66 percent to 33 percent.
Obama, riding strong support from black voters and young people, won his home state of Illinois, as well as Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota, and North Dakota, part of his total of 13 states.
Obama's strategists argue that they also have a financial advantage over Clinton, having raised $32 million in January compared with only $13.5 million for Clinton in the same period. Another indication of Clinton's fund-raising trouble is that she loaned her campaign an additional $5 million last month so she could remain competitive in buying TV ads and conducting other campaign activities.
All this guarantees a state-by-state duel for the next several weeks and raises the possibility of the race being decided at the Democratic National Convention in Denver this August.
With that in mind, Clinton's strategists have come up with a surprise gambit. They are arguing that the results of January primaries in Florida and Michigan should count toward delegate totals, even though the DNC banned those delegates because the contests were held too early, in violation of party rules. Now the Clinton team, which agreed to the ban, is arguing against "disenfranchising" those primary voters as a matter of basic democracy. The Obama campaign, apparently thrown off guard, is considering its options.
The reason for Clinton's move is clear. She won the popular vote in both states, partly because no other candidate seriously contested them in deference to the DNC rules. "We took a pledge, just like Hillary did," to abide by the DNC penalties, says Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "The delegates will not count."