Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Obama Gaining In Early States, But Is It Enough?

Pollster Samuel Lubell, one of the few to predict Harry Truman's victory in the 1948 election, always used to ask voters in the early going not how they stood at the moment, but how they thought they would end up voting on election day. He often found there was quite a change as voters returned to old loyalties, or gave their choices more thought.

This strikes me as appropriate for consideration now as we ponder how the candidates will fare in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, the key earliest tests of the 2008 election, both of which are a little more than six weeks off.

There are signs of gains in both states by Sen. Barack Obama, and maybe some trouble in both for Sen. Hillary Clinton. A recent poll in New Hampshire showed Obama gaining five points and cutting Clinton's margin, formerly above 20 points, to 11. Obama has made narrower gains in polls in Iowa. But in both states, many observers have felt he prevailed in the most recent debates.

A nationwide CNN poll released Monday showed that in the last month, Clinton had gone down to a margin of 19 points over Obama, compared with 30 points the month before. The new figure was Clinton 44%, Obama 25%.

Obama is making a good impression, because, as Time magazine political columnist Joe Klein observed in an article last week, he speaks frankly to his audiences, even giving answers on such issues as social security and global warming that are not particularly welcome -- they contain some bad news -- and refusing entreaties by advisors that he lower the boom on Clinton with sharp criticism. Obama is usually restrained. He has let former Sen. John Edwards, a trial lawyer of no particularly savory stripe, carry the burden of sharply assailing Clinton. He has preferred to be more subtle.

It seems, Klein reported, that these habits are gaining Obama respect. Even so, he has been able to politely make the point that Clinton has a bad habit of waffling on questions asked her or even taking somewhat different positions just minutes apart. Then too, Clinton has recently been caught up in staff admissions that some of the questions asked her are "softballs" planted by her staff.

(There is a long, complimentary article about Obama's background and political organization by Peter Slevin in today's Washington Post).

Oftentimes, I found as a political writer for the L.A. Times, a good clue as to how a political race was going, was a sign of a preliminary rise in the polls by a particular candidate. If, say, a few weeks before the vote, a candidate had come up a few points, it meant that he or she was on an upward trend, and that trend would only grow before the election. This often meant ultimate victory.

Obama, on the stump, may be a better politician than Clinton. The Clinton supporters are always contending that she is more seasoned, more experienced. But Obama is newer and fresher, and it may be occurring to primary voters in the two states, both of which are unusually experienced with campaigns, that Clinton is something of a retread. Not only was her husband a two-term president, but her election next year would mean that America has not had a President other than a Clinton or a Bush since 1989.

Name identification, however, still must work in favor of Clinton in the primaries, because there is a crowded field and the vote against her is bound to be fractured, at least in the early contests, before the usual round of withdrawals by unsuccessful candidates. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, Edwards seems likely to take away mainly from the Obama vote. He may not prevail himself, but if he were not on the ballot, Obama would surely have a better chance to upset Clinton.

Another possible factor is that both Iowa and New Hampshire are solidly white states. Both have only small black populations, and, despite what is said sometimes that Obama is "too white" to be strongly accepted by black voters, I believe that when push comes to shove in most states most black voters will end up with Obama.

Of course, we do not know what kind of women's vote Clinton will get, as the first women with a major chance of being elected President. That might be a bigger factor than Obama's vote among African-Americans.

So, even if he rises, will 2008 be Obama's year? Maybe not. But he is rising, based solidly on both his own merits and some shortcomings that are becoming evident about Clinton.

--

Word comes in a Page 1 L.A. Times article this morning about the death of one of the most venerable and able California legislators, the retired Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins of South Los Angeles. Upon his retirement after six decades in both the state Legislature and Congress, I wrote a long article about his achievements, which are also reflected in today's obituary.

Hawkins was 100 when he died Saturday. He was one of the first black men to be elected to public office, he was a mentor to many who followed him, and he was honest, dignified and smart, the author of much landmark social legislation. The countless Californians who knew and respected him, are saddened by his passing.

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