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I’m Not Totally Sure We Can

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So far he’s holding onto his base—among people under 30 and college graduates, his support has actually increased. Two of the unenthusiastic constituencies, old people and Catholics, don’t seem to be growing more antagonistic. But the two other relatively Obama-unfriendly blocs, female and working-class whites, appear to be turning against him—especially white women. In just one month, according to Pew, Obama (and Hillary Clinton) virtually erased the gender gap: In April, he was beating McCain among white women, but by May, McCain was running ahead of Obama by 8 percent.

5. Presidential elections are Civil War reenactments—in which the North can lose. Amazing but true: For those of us trying to predict electoral votes in this election, 1860s cartography—Union states and border states and Confederate states—remains salient. And the balance of sentiment concerning the Negro Question still powerfully determines which states may be red and which blue.

Obama will be elected president if he wins eighteen of the twenty Union states (that is, all but Indiana and Kansas—and he has a long shot at both of those), plus the two most “northern” of the five border states (Maryland and Delaware), plus Washington (which wasn’t a state during the Civil War). McCain, conversely, will probably win every Confederate state.

The problem for Obama is that three of the biggest northern states—Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan—sometimes swing southern these days. It’s practically impossible to see how he becomes president without winning two of them. All three, not to put too fine a point on it, contain blocs that bear a certain psychographic kinship with Civil War Southerners—that is, insular white traditionalists who are suspicious of the African-Americans in their midst and resent the ascendant economic and cultural power of self-righteous urban elites. Thus the Clintons’ argument that an Obama candidacy could founder in these key states happens, alas, to be true.

True humility is a disqualifier for winning the presidency, but the appearance of humility can be essential, and Obama’s surpassing self-confidence can come across as preening self-regard.

He is apparently strongest in Pennsylvania, between 2 and 9 percent ahead of McCain. In Ohio, the latest poll has Obama well ahead, but in the five previous surveys, going back to early April, he was behind. In the Michigan polls from May, he’s trailing McCain. And in all the inland border states—West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri—which Democrats sometimes win (and Clinton very well might’ve), he looks to have a chance only in Missouri, thanks to its big cities and 12 percent African-American population.

So if he wins two of the three big northern swing states but loses the whole Deep South, then he has to prevail in Colorado (where he’s ahead), or take Nevada and New Mexico (where the polls have him seesawing with McCain), or get lucky and win Virginia.

The paths to victory are there, and Obamaniacal turnout among blacks and the young may push him over. But by historical standards, it really would have been easier to piece together a winning electoral map with Hillary Clinton as the nominee. Politically, nominating Obama (as Bill Clinton said) is something of a roll of the dice.

6. Is he “elitist,” too condescending and glib and remote and full of himself? I don’t find him so—but then again, I myself am an elitist who can seem condescending and glib and remote and full of himself, so who am I to judge? I worry that more moments like his passive-aggressive put-down of Hillary at her cutesy-wounded debate moment—“You’re likable enough”—will continue to lose friends and alienate people. I also worry that his impolitic cosmopolitan shorthand—frustrated small-towners who cling to guns and religion and blame immigrants for their economic distress, energy-glutton Americans who expect developing countries to reduce their carbon emissions—will recur. True humility is a disqualifier for winning the nomination and certainly the presidency, but the appearance of humility, at least as a tactical posture, can be essential. It certainly worked for George W. Bush. Obama’s surpassing self-confidence can come across as preening self-regard. Thus, perhaps, his bungled outreach to Elizabeth Edwards, as reported by my colleague John Heilemann. Will he make the uncool, insecure middle-American majority feel even more so?

7. His instincts that attract me amount to weaknesses as a candidate. Too often, instead of deflecting inconvenient questions, Obama answers them directly and fully. And while the U.S. should, of course, be confident enough to have conversations with foreign enemies, any Democratic nominee carries the baggage of several decades of national-security wimpiness. Voters implicitly understand that any Democrat will be more reasonable and prudent and diplomatically engaged than Bush or McCain; it’s an impression of convincing toughness Obama has to sell, and I’m not sure he can do it.

8. The evil in men’s hearts. Every time I watch him work the crowds, I cringe a little, dreading the lurching nut and pop-pop. Any assassination is horrific; the murder of Obama could be a national trauma beyond reckoning. Similarly, beyond my own preference, I think an Obama loss in November would be particularly disheartening for the country. It would amount to a national statement concerning our racial divide: Nah, we can’t.


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