Democratic Nod in Barack Obama’s Reach

William A. Galston
Bill Galston
William A. Galston Ezra K. Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

May 7, 2008

In the wake of the Jeremiah Wright affair, “bittergate,” and Hillary Clinton’s solid win in the Pennsylvania primary, many Democrats had begun to wonder whether Barack Obama was a wounded and diminished candidate. By achieving a 14-point victory in North Carolina and holding Clinton to a 2-point victory in Indiana, Obama allayed those doubts. He took concrete steps toward the nomination as well, increasing his edge in pledged delegates and padding his popular vote margin by more than 200,000. With only 217 pledged delegates left to be awarded through the remaining primaries and caucuses, all in smaller states, it is virtually impossible for Clinton to catch Obama in either of those categories, and her chances of persuading a super-majority of superdelegates to come her way are diminished as well. And it is hard to see how the Clinton forces can use the Democratic party’s Rules Committee to force a resolution of the Michigan and Florida dilemmas over the objections of the Obama campaign.

In the weeks leading up to Indiana and North Carolina, Clinton focused heavily on the economy and emphasized populist policies such as a summer gas tax holiday. Her focus was not misplaced: 60 percent of Indiana voters and 67 percent of North Carolina regarded the condition of the economy as the single most important issue. But she failed to make her case convincingly, winning only 51 percent of the “economy first” voters in Indiana and actually losing them by an 8-point margin in North Carolina. And she may have incurred some self-inflicted damage in the process. In Indiana, only 53 percent of the electorate regarded her as honest and trustworthy, versus 68 percent for Obama; in North Carolina, Obama bested her in that category 71-27. And by huge margins in both states, voters were more likely to say that she had attacked her opponent unfairly.

There are some continuing warning signs for Obama, however. He does better among secular than religious voters and among those who regard themselves as liberal or very liberal rather than moderate or conservative. He lost to Clinton among white independents by 51 to 49 in Indiana and 58 to 38 in North Carolina. Only 34 percent of white voters without college degrees supported him in Indiana; only 26 percent did so in North Carolina. And looking ahead to the general election, only 48 percent of Clinton voters in Indiana said they would support Obama against John McCain; the figure in North Carolina was even worse–45 percent.

To some extent, no doubt, these numbers reflect the passions of the moment. American political history is replete with examples of bitterly divided parties coming together during the general election. Because the issues this year are so important and because the gap between the parties is so large, this process of party reunification is especially likely to take place. Still, Obama cannot afford to take it for granted. He must look honestly at the weak spots in his electoral appeal and do his best, within the limits of honesty and integrity, to address them. He must organize the 2008 Democratic Convention with an eye toward party unity. He should carefully consider the ultimate step—a unifying ticket—as John F. Kennedy did in 1960 with Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan did in 1980 with George H. W. Bush.

As he attends to intra-party divisions, Obama should also give more substance to his core argument that he can bring Americans together across party lines. He must demonstrate—not just assert—that his is a more inclusive brand of progressive politics. There is an obvious place to start. In 1992, in a gesture still remembered and resented among Catholics, the Clinton campaign denied the late Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey Sr., a well-known pro-life Democrat, a prime-time speaking role at the Democratic convention. Sixteen years later, another pro-life Democrat, Sen. Bob Casey Jr., became Obama’s most important supporter in Pennsylvania. Giving him a prominent role at the 2008 convention would be a gesture of reconciliation with genuine historical resonance.