Making sense of Super Tuesday

Two great candidates have fought to a draw so far. But could media adoration wind up hurting Obama?

Published February 7, 2008 11:55AM (EST)

My friends at MSNBC were getting ready for a big party Tuesday night when the first results came in, showing Barack Obama winning handily in Georgia. There was genuine news, and very good news, in the results: Obama carried more than 40 percent of white Georgia voters, showing he can break out of the "black candidate" box some observers (perhaps some in the Hillary Clinton camp) want to lock him in, and in the South, no less. No matter which candidate or which party you support, Obama's growing appeal with white voters is good news for America.

But it was really good news at MSNBC. You could see the expectations grow that finally they would be able to finish the dance on Clinton's grave they'd begun on Jan. 8, when she denied them the fun by winning New Hampshire. "Barack Obama is putting a smile on America's face," declared Mike Barnicle. The last time I talked to Barnicle was the morning of Jan. 8, when he was predicting Clinton would not only lose New Hampshire, she'd have to pull out of the presidential race before Feb. 5 to avoid a humiliating loss in her home state of New York. But being wrong doesn't get you kicked off television, as long as you're consistently wrong on behalf of the right candidate.

Barack Obama had a Super Tuesday. But how super it was depends on where you measure it from. If you look back at Clinton's huge lead in most Super Tuesday states at the end of 2007, you'd have to call it a disappointing night for the New York senator. But if you look at the way the race had tightened over the last two weeks -- the surge of momentum Obama got after winning South Carolina, the endorsements of Caroline, Ted and later Ethel Kennedy, SEIU and, the predictions that he'd take away Massachusetts and he might even win California -- then it looks like a pretty good night for Hillary Clinton.

The fact is, the race is essentially tied, between two strong candidates. Obama has real fundraising momentum; it's never good news when a candidate has to write her campaign a check, as Clinton did recently. There are also some worrying signs for Obama. I said on Monday that the battle for California might well turn on the symbolism of two events I attended last Friday: the Teddy Kennedy and Barbara Lee Obama rally in Oakland, and the multiracial Hillary Clinton fundraiser in San Francisco. It's not as simple as what we saw on the two stages, of course, but there is no denying that Clinton's careful outreach to Latinos and Asians helped her win this crucial state.

Using Kennedy as your weapon to win the Latino vote, rather than real live Latinos (Obama did win some key Latino endorsements toward the end of the race) did not turn out to be a winning strategy in California. Obama lost big in this state with Latinos, (especially Latinas), Asians, women and working-class Democrats. He'll need to learn from what didn't work before going into other big multiracial states like Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

I made this point on "Hardball" today, and I immediately got two e-mails from Obama supporters angry I'd suggested their multiracial candidate hadn't understood this multiracial state. "What would Barack Obama know about a multiracial approach to the electorate?" asked one sarcastically. "What would a man with a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas know about that subject?" It crystallized for me another problem with the Obama campaign: Its supporters' reliance on their, and their candidate's, obvious moral and political superiority to win the election. I stated a fact: Obama lost California, despite his own multiracial heritage, because he didn't run a campaign that was up to the challenge of winning a majority of Democrats in this racially complex state. I'm not trying to smear him. But when analysts point to flaws in Obama's campaign, they're too often dismissed as Clinton shills, or worse. In Andrew Leonard's letters thread today, on a post about Clinton's support among Asian Americans, Asian Clinton supporters are denounced as racist. That will backfire on the campaign; it may already have begun to.

There's likewise reason to believe the pundit class's love for Obama might be hurting their chosen candidate. As Greg Sargent and Craig Crawford point out, Obama's media fluffers have time and again set expectations for him so high that when Clinton didn't simply self-destruct -- either on Jan. 8 or Feb. 5 -- it made Obama's electoral achievements seem less impressive than they actually are. Maybe they'll listen if we frame it that way: Be fairer to Hillary Clinton, guys, because it could wind up helping Obama!

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections