As I recall, the term “perfect storm” was coined in New England in October 1991, when several storm fronts merged to spectacularly clobber the coastline.
Now, the American political system this year has a confluence of factors that have made this election cycle the most volatile in recent memory.
For the sake of clarity, here are what I believe to be the main issues (or storm fronts) at play this year:
1. For the first time since 1952 no sitting president or vice president operates as a presumptive nominee.
2. We have the first viable female candidate in the race in Hillary Clinton, whose First Husband would be the indefatigable Bill Clinton, and the first viable black candidate in the race in Barak Obama, who represents a new generation entering politics.
3. We have a compressed primary process manufactured to minimize the impact of first-in-the-nation strongholds Iowa and New Hampshire, creating a semi-national primary last night of 22 of our 50 states holding primary elections at once.
4. As a nation we’re antsy, worrying about the economy, the Iraq War, and the general partisan bickering that has kept our national leaders in the gutter for the better part of sixteen years. In 1994, we booted out seventy three incumbent Democrats, bringing in a freshman class of Republicans called the “Gang of 73.” These people deluded themselves into believing the vote was in favor of “them” rather than a repudiation of the incumbents. Republicans did not get the message, and now we’re ticked off about it.
5. The Hispanic community, soon to become the largest minority, is seriously flexing its political muscle.
OK, so the facts are out on the table, but what the hell does all of this mean? And what happened just now, on Super Tuesday?
Republicans seem to be coalescing early around John McCain. This causing heart palpitations with true conservatives who do not like his “Maverick” image. Conservative talk radio show hosts have been crucifying the man, with Republican leaders pleading with them (Rush Limbaugh in particular) to tone it down.
Ann Coulter, the Paris Hilton wannabee of the punditocracy, has said she’ll campaign for Hillary Clinton if McCain gets the nomination. All that said, McCain getting the nomination would not be strange at all, because the Republicans are likely to hand the nomination to the prior election cycle’s runner-up. This seems to be a general rule with Republicans; the exception happens to be George W Bush, and look where he got the country!
The big story in the Republican camp now seems to be Mike Huckabee, who has eclipsed Mitt Romney as the second place finisher. He energizes the evangelical base and scares the hell out of secularists. McCain needs Huckabee’s support to keep the “true believers” content. Huckabee is also very affable, and after sixteen years of back-biting, we need affable.
Democrats are another story. They’re pulling out way more new voters into the primary voting process, but the race is not at all decided. Hillary Clinton is a lightning rod. You either love her or despise her. Her disapproval rating runs in the 40s based largely on engendering an animosity among Republicans that defies credulity. Clinton also plays well with lower-income voters and as, we just saw, with Hispanic voters. All of this is wreaking havoc with poll prognosticators who did not expect such a strong turn-out.
Obama plays to anti-Hillaries in the Democratic party: middle and upper income black voters, high income/high educated whites (derided by the right as “limousine liberals”), and young voters. Young voters in particular are a tough bet, as they historically do not get motivated enough to actually get off their behinds and vote.
In Super Tuesday, Hillary just cleaned up in traditional Democrat strong holds. She beat Obama there by about ten percentage points.
Obama cleaned up in the middle part of the country, which is historically dominated by Republicans. His margin of victory was also considerably higher. Does this therefore mean he is the more electable candidate? Well, he pulls in independents that McCain needs to offset his tepid support among staunch conservatives. The traditional Democrat areas won’t cross over to vote for McCain instead of Obama, so it does seem that Obama is more electable.
If Clinton gets the nomination, the campaign will likely be a nasty battle. Republicans would rally around a box of donuts to beat Clinton. We ought to remember that they will likely have 40% of the electorate right out of the starting gates, if she is the nominee.
But the Democrat nomination remains up for grabs for several reason. First, more Democratic primaries awarded delegates to the convention on a proportional basis. Win a district, and you get those delegates. This contest is, therefore, more complicated. By contrast, Republicans have more winner-take-all primaries, meaning if you get 51% of the vote, you get all of that state’s convention delegates.
Of course, Democrats also have Super Delegates. These are elected democratic officials who get a vote alongside the votes provided by hoi polloi voters. For the party allegedly representing the little people against fat cat business moguls and crazed religious whackos, it’s an oddly elitist process the irony of which is lost on practically everyone.
Super Delegates do not have to reveal for whom they intend to vote. They can make the decision at the convention. Super Delegates number 840 and comprise about 20% of the number of delegates at the Democratic convention. So much for “letting the people decide,” huh?
Right now, Obama and Clinton are tied in convention delegates. Obama has about 1,078 and Clinton has 1,140 and they need about 2,100 to win the nomination. You can see how this battle is far from over.
This amateur political junkie thinks Michigan and Florida will play a huge role in all of this. Michigan and Florida moved their primary dates up before so-called Super Tuesday. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) punished these two states for voting early, by saying their delegates would not be recognized at the convention. But they did it anyway. The Democratic presidential candidates agreed to abide by the DNC’s rules and not campaign in those two states.
Clinton won both states and went so far as to touch down in Florida shortly after the polls closed (to comply with the DNC edict not to campaign there) to declare victory. She also pledged to fight to have those delegates recognized at the convention.
We could be repeating November 2000 in Florida all over again, only it won’t be a bipartisan fight. The Democrats will be forming a circular firing squad, turning on each other. Clinton will be saying that every vote should count, reminiscent of Al Gore in 2000. Obama will be arguing that rules are the rules, reminiscent of George Bush in 2000.
And they’ll tear hell out of one another.
As a Republican, I remain conflicted. Hillary is easier to run against, but she will engender a level of animosity that just is not good for the country. Obama will present a stark contrast to McCain who is old enough to be his father. And the differences on the Iraq War are far greater between Obama and McCain than between Clinton and McCain.
McCain is seventy one and has already outlived his father and grandfather (although his mother is in her 90s and still going strong). Obama has precious little political experience, with all of four years in the US Senate and some years as a state senator in Illinois. If McCain were ten years younger, if Obama had ten years more experience, they’d be far better candidates.
The volatility of the electorate so far suggests there are many more surprises to come. The lack of clarity keeps generating interest and pulling more and more citizens into the process. Provided that race doesn’t denigrate into the nastiness that seems to follow the Clintons around like the dust cloud around Pig Pen from Peanuts, then it cannot help but benefit the country.
Perfect Storms are fascinating to watch provided you do not get washed away in them.