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Heartbreak Hill: will it be Clinton or Obama?

Posted on Thursday, March 13th, 2008 at 5:53 am

Author: Feature Writer

Gc contributor: Geoff Woollacott

Around mile 20 of the 26 mile Boston Marathon, runners come upon an incline called Heartbreak Hill. They hit a fatigue point at a time when the course calls for some tough slogging before the stretch run to the finish line. Rookie runners are known to pull out in agony at this point in the race.

Has our presidential election cycle reached a Heartbreak Hill of sorts? We have about six weeks before the Pennsylvania primary with nothing major on the horizon after a flurry of primaries in a tightly compressed calendar cycle of about the same duration that was forecasted to settle the issue in both parties.

Instead, the Democratic primary remains very much in doubt, seemingly teetering on the brink of a knock-down, drag-out brawl. Prior to this, there has been commentary talking about all the excitement the Democratic race engendered with the first black man and first female as two viable candidates. It brought a slew of new voters into the process and has been heralded for giving our democracy a badly needed boost of participation after years of declining voter turnouts.

But now these rookie participants have to endure the kind of long, protracted campaign battle that galvanizes voters into opposing camps and disillusions the less zealous among us.

One of the two camps is going to lose.

Either the older women, described by acid-tongued Maureen Dowd as part of the “shoulder pad feminists” (in reference to a fashion disaster prevalent in the late 70s and 80s, when the battle for gender equality was at its fiercest) will be disillusioned and angry at a lesser qualified male shoving aside the more qualified, older female candidate.

Or the younger, better educated, and more idealistic Obama supporters will be let down by the campaign regressing into to the hard-hitting rhetoric associated with the Bush/Clinton dynastic wars.

The fall-out in this scenario suggests that older women might cross over for McCain in the belief that, if it has to be a man, let it be the more qualified one rather the upstart who stole it from the better-qualified female. Or, the scenario suggests younger voters repudiate the Bush/Clinton Dynastic War plan and go for McCain based on his reputation for candor and bipartisan cooperation.

The fact that McCain garners incredible sympathy for being smeared by the Bush operation in South Carolina in 2000 doesn’t hurt, either. Tactically, having the Republican standard-bearer be the candidate who was screwed over by the current, highly unpopular president of the same party, is likely the only chance Republicans have to forestall being on the wrong side of a landslide this year.

The energized electorate is experiencing a campaign the likes of which we have not seen since 1952, when the two parties last had open primary elections without an incumbent president or vice president running in one party, and we are getting ready to experience our first real disappointments. It’s truly a Heartbreak Hill for the hearts and minds of the voters.

Added to the dreaded nastiness poised to erupt on the Democratic side of the road are the battles over Super Delegates and Michigan and Florida delegates. Posturing, claims, and counter-claims about fairness will be sprinkled in amongst the attacks and counterattacks about candidate readiness and civility.

One candidate is going to pull up lame on this heartbreak hill. Unfortunately, so too, it appears, will many first time entrants into the process, when they realize just what it takes to get to the finish line under the arcane rules established by the Democratic National Committee.

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  1. Quick response to your post about Clinton/Obama versus McCain:

    Outside the South, especially the Deep South, support by white voters for the two Democratic candidates is divided more along generational/economic lines than along cultural lines (i.e., formal education). Hillary Clinton appeals to Democratic voters who are more risk-averse during times of economic and foreign-policy uncertainty. That would include not only older voters generally but older Caucasian working-class voters. Barack Obama appeals to white Democratic voters who are less risk-averse even in times of uncertainty, which would include younger college graduates and the affluent Democratic voters generally. At least as I see it, Democratic voters will vote according to how much risk they can tolerate under the present circumstances. Educational differences between voters affects voters’ risk tolerance but not much more than that.

    As to disgruntled Democratic voters crossing over to vote for McCain: Despite the rumors of that, it’s unlikely that any Democratic-leaning voter will try to keep the GOP in office after 2008, given the Republican record of the past eight years. McCain is popular among whites in the South, both for his military record and possibly even for his appearance of integrity in comparison to current GOP officeholders. Outside the South, it is uncertain how much sympathy McCain garners for the smears against him in South Carolina. For younger voters, who did not live through the Vietnam War, McCain’s war record is an abstraction, and they may not even be aware of the Republican slogging match during the primaries of 2000. Judging from what I read on the blogs, I would say McCain suffers the same generational handicap as Hillary in attracting younger voters, at least outside the South.

    McCain’s real handicap, besides the Bush record, is that McCain has no compelling domestic platform with which to challenge Hillary or Obama. The GOP generally seems unaware that most voters are currently suffering or expect to suffer under the continuing economic decline, and such voters demand, at the very least, some sort of expanded Federal assistance with healthcare costs. McCain will try to make the election a referendum on national security, but if the economy continues to worsen, voters will elect whoever promises to bail them out (i.e., a Democrat). Keep in mind that Jimmy Carter lost in 1980 due to stagflation and the Iranian hostage crisis, and George H. W. Bush lost in 1992 due to a mild recession. If voters are financially hurting in November 2008, they will vote for change, and that would be a Democrat. McCain needs to tailor his campaign accordingly.

  2. James,

    Regarding cross over votes, I think you might be a little off, at least on the Hillary side of this. There’s a pretty strong sentiment, it appears with 50+ women that Maureen Dowd described as “Shoulder Pad Feminists.” This theory goes that they see Obama who is the younger, lesser qualified male shoving a woman aside for the spot. Really delve into the pyscho babble of the theory and it is posited they are projecting past slights they endured as feminist pioneers.

    In this context, the theory is they will cross-over to vote for McCain to at least see a qualified male get it over the unqualified male who knocked their candidate off.

    As for Obama cross-overs, the theory goes that it will be those who are character voters over issues voters and will be enamored of McCain’s “straight talk/Maverick” status.

    Last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal had an interesting recap of that week’s NBC/WSJ poll data showing that

    1) 52% of Republicans wish they had a different candidate (which is steady over the past couple of weeks)

    2) The blind party preference for president runs, as you suggest, heavily in favor of democrats around 55/37. But here’s the disconnect:

    3) McCain remains behind, albeit in statistical ties with both Obama and Clinton.

    It’s how you square item 2 with item 3 that gets interesting to try to figure out. Is it the increasing galvanizing of the two camps within the Dems? Is it McCain’s Cross-over appeal? The more the dems shoot at one another, the more the camps can engender animosity towards one another and the less time they will have trying to negatively define McCain.

    You’re also correct about the economy. But this year is so volatile in so many ways it is hard to say conclusively that will do it. Some Terror eruption could flip the national focus around 180 degrees over to international. Who Knows?

    That’s why it’s been fun to watch, frankly.

    Let’s be honest, though. Based on Bush’s low popularity, this should have started out as a near landslide election for democrats. They have messed up the primary process to a fare thee well. McCain has got to be pinching himself. From dead in the water, carrying his bags to coach flights and borrowing against his donor list, to being the presumptive nominee resting up with “presidential” trips and fund raising while his opposition bangs hell out of one another before he has to take them on rested and recharged?

    Only gating item for him right now as they market test opposition research effectiveness for him is to dual track his VP search pending the outcome. Hillary comes in, he doesn’t need to energize the base. Obama gets it and he has a tougher dance in pandering right while not alienating the middle. He needs a younger individual with sound economic credentials, preferably with identity politics appeal. Mitt Romney fits that bill if only he’d cross dress or come out in black face. :)

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