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I’m Not Totally Sure We Can

Ten November scenarios to give an Obama supporter agita.


Illustration by Ward Sutton  

This is not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but it is, finally, the end of the beginning. And what a relief. Even though Hillary Clinton refused to let everyone exhale until she said we could, Obama won. Period.

So why am I not utterly elated? It’s partly the weird slow-motion victory, a slog punctuated by a few thrilling nights (Iowa in January, the Potomac and Wisconsin primaries in February, North Carolina a month ago) but no knockout punch, no definitive high-five moment. Mainly, however, it’s because now, without any imminent do-or-die threat to Obama’s candidacy, my suppressed anxieties about him are bubbling to the surface. That is: I fear that he will lose to John McCain…and I wonder, if he does win, whether he can be nearly as good a president as some of us have had the audacity to hope.

I’m amazed at how many people I know are surprised by my reckoning of the rough road ahead. Their blitheness about November only increases my gnawing dread. And it’s not just people here in the New York Democratic echo chamber who think Obama’s a cinch: Last week the Internet politics bettors were giving him better than 3-to-2 odds. But to me right now a hundred bucks wagered on McCain ($286 back if he wins), sad to say, looks like a smarter bet than Obama ($100 gets you $164).

Sorry to be a buzz kill. It’s as painful for me as it is for you. How do I worry? Let me count the ways.

1. I pick losers. Two of the three presidential candidates I’ve enthusiastically supported during the primary process—Gary Hart in 1984 and Bill Bradley in 2000—were whacked early. The only one who reached the convention was, like Obama, a decent, antiwar, moderately anti-Establishment Midwesterner who improbably came out of left field in 1972 to win the nomination, thanks to the support of young people (like me) and adults of the kind I would become. George McGovern, of course, lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide. Ever since, I’ve felt culpable for my bit part (McGovern’s Nebraska youth coordinator!) in rebranding Democrats as the party of naïve softies, and wary of assuming that one’s own political enthusiasms are scalable. I had the excuse of being only 17, but for Hillary and Bill Clinton, who both worked in the McGovern campaign as twentysomethings, it’s clear that 1972 was profoundly chastening. Maybe her depressing selling proposition these last six months—that being a successful presidential candidate requires being much more like Nixon than McGovern—will turn out to be correct.

2. Hillary wants him to lose. Her speech Tuesday night was certainly Nixonian—grim, grudging, disingenuous, self-pitying—and she made no move to stop her throng from chanting “Denver! Denver! Denver!” Indeed, she has knowingly exacerbated and extended her diehards’ ferocity and resentment. She long ago lost the nomination, but her reluctance to concede (not a month ago, not last Tuesday night, not until the weekend) has already sucked some general-election votes away from Obama, and I believe she will keep doing so, pro forma endorsement notwithstanding. The central premise of her campaign was that unless she became the nominee, McCain would win in November; therefore, her credibility depends on Obama’s losing. It’s like the psychopathology of the Sunni insurgents in Iraq: They have no chance of returning to power any time soon, but they can make life hell for their victorious sectarian opponents.

3. His national polling’s not as bad as the Clintons say… Hillary’s people were still arguing last week that the polling data on Obama versus McCain and Clinton versus McCain should convince superdelegates to nominate Hillary. Naturally, they considerably overstated the case. In fact, according to three-dozen nationwide polls this year by a dozen organizations—including the Pew Research Center, Reuters/Zogby, ABC News/Washington Post, CBS News/New York Times, USA Today/Gallup, and NPR—Obama runs on average a little stronger against McCain than Clinton.

Yet there are three important national polls suggesting that Obama is a slightly weaker general-election candidate than Clinton would have been. The latest Newsweek and the L.A. Times/Bloomberg surveys show Obama tying and beating McCain, respectively, but the win is by a smaller margin than Clinton’s would have been. And although Gallup’s daily tracking polls for the past three months show both Democrats neck-and-neck with McCain, she averages a couple of points stronger.

So it’s six of one, a half-dozen of the other—in any case not a show-stopping argument that the delegates must reverse course and nominate Hillary Clinton. But not very reassuring about Obama’s strength, either.

4. …But he may have real problems with independents and women. The deeper I dive into the data, the more anxious I become. Back in February, Mark Penn, then Clinton’s chief strategist, declared that Obama’s support among independents “would evaporate relatively quickly once he faced the Republicans.” Or even, as it happened, once he faced the Clintons for several more months. Between February and May, according to Pew polling, the percentage of independents with a favorable view of Obama shrank from 62 to 49 percent.


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