Barack Obama’s narrow victory in the nation’s longest-ever presidential primary campaign has given Democrats a nominee scarred from battle, a campaign sapped of much of its momentum and an electorate deeply divided by demographics.
Even while celebrating his improbable achievement Tuesday night, Obama faced stinging reminders of challenges he has yet to overcome.
He lost the primary election in South Dakota, as senior citizens and working-class white voters defiantly stuck with a fading Hillary Rodham Clinton, exit polls showed. Both voter groups are considered crucial to victory in November.
After controversies over his former pastor and other issues, Obama has lost ground among the independent voters who are important in any presidential election. In February, 63% of independents said they had a favorable impression of the Illinois senator; last month, that number was down to 49%, the Pew Research Center said.
Still, as Obama emerges as his party’s standard-bearer, he enters the general election campaign standing roughly equal with his Republican opponent, John McCain. That is not a bad place to start, Democratic strategists assert.
“He’s got some weaknesses, but he’s got tremendous strengths,” said Tad Devine, who was a top campaign strategist for the Democrats’ 2004 nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). “He’s got advantages we didn’t have four years ago. . . . He’s got plenty of time to do this, as long as the Democratic Party comes together, and I think it will.”
The crises and controversies that Obama navigated during the long primary season could prove to have been good preparation for the clashes to come. His campaign sputtered in the final run of primaries, winning only four of the last 10 contests, but it is still raising more money than any previous presidential effort. The Democratic electorate is divided, but that’s not unusual by historical standards -- and nothing a strong endorsement from Clinton won’t fix.
What Obama needs to do now, Devine and other strategists said, is to unify Democrats by reaching out to Clinton and her supporters. He must define the election as a choice between continuing the policies of an unpopular president, George W. Bush, or changing course. Perhaps most important, he must act quickly to neutralize his own potential weaknesses in the eyes of the electorate -- his youth and relative inexperience, especially on national security.
“He’s going to have to refine his message for the general election,” Devine said. “It’s still going to be a message of change, but it’s going to have to be more detailed about the specifics. He’s going to be facing a more skeptical audience.”
Moreover, Devine said, “he needs to give them a fundamental reassurance that he has the capacity to be president -- to defend the nation, to serve as commander in chief.”
“He has some demystifying to do,” agreed Jim Jordan, another longtime Democratic strategist who, like Devine, worked for neither Obama nor Clinton this year. “Republican attacks on him will be largely based on experience and ideology. . . . He needs to show that he’s tough enough and strong enough to guide the country in a dangerous world.”
Polls show that most voters prefer Obama’s positions to McCain’s on a wide range of major issues: the war in Iraq, the economy and healthcare, for example. But they rate McCain more highly on his experience in foreign policy and his ability to confront international terrorism.
Obama may tackle those issues as early as today, when he is scheduled to speak before the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the nation’s largest pro-Israel lobbying group. McCain ridiculed Obama before the group Monday for his offer to meet with Iran’s president without preconditions.
The Jewish voters who support AIPAC are only one of several traditionally Democratic constituencies that have been hesitant to support Obama. In most Democratic primaries, Obama won among young voters, college-educated voters and African American voters, but he lost to Clinton among white voters without college degrees and among Latinos.
“One of the things he has to do is to turn very clearly to those working-class voters, identify with their economic pain, and . . . show that he is focused on the economic issues that concern them,” Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said.
“And he has to pass a cultural identification test. He’s never going to be a member of the white working class, and a candidate should never fake that,” Mellman said, in a reference to Obama’s embarrassing effort to go bowling in Pennsylvania. “But he’s got to show that he is relating to people in some way, by talking with people.”
In some recent polls, as many as one-third of the Democrats who voted for Clinton in the primaries said they would vote for McCain, not Obama, in the general election. But Mellman said that although voters sometimes expressed those intentions in the heat of a bitter primary fight, in most presidential elections few members of either party actually switched sides.
“People are not very accurate predictors of their own future political behavior,” he said. “In 2000, about half of McCain’s supporters said they were never going to vote for George W. Bush, but in the end most of them did. The overwhelming majority of Clinton supporters will end up voting for Obama after they see Sen. Clinton endorse him.”
Democratic strategists argued that Obama benefited from the bitter primary battle with Clinton in at least two ways: The contest forced him to contend with tough challenges from a tenacious opponent, and it aired controversial issues well before the November election. Those included the fact that he sometimes didn’t wear an American flag lapel pin, and his long relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who had declared in a sermon: “God damn America for treating our people as less than human.”
Obama has since denounced Wright, left his church and begun wearing a flag pin regularly.
“I don’t know what kind of factor race will be in this campaign,” Jordan said, “but it’s a good thing that the Rev. Wright issue required Obama to deal with it forthrightly. . . . It is possible that [the controversy] lanced the boil.”