Conventional wisdom suggests that these last two months have been bad news for Barack Obama. He hasn’t been able to close the door on Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton, who swept West Virginia on Tuesday. He’s been dogged by controversies over his words and associates. Meanwhile, Republican John McCain has been getting a jump-start on the fall campaign.
Although those things may be true, so is this: The last six weeks have been a great benefit to Obama -- and may emerge as the most important period of his quest for the presidency.
The poll evidence is unambiguous: He’s suffered no short-term damage. A recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll shows Obama leading McCain in a hypothetical matchup by six points; in February, he was trailing by two. The Rasmussen Reports’ estimate of electoral college strength has him leading McCain, 260 to 240. And a recent CBS/New York Times poll reveals that over the last few weeks, Obama’s favorability rating actually increased by five points.
So these controversies of early 2008 have strengthened, not weakened, Obama’s position for the general election in November. How’s that?
First, the speech that the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. gave at the National Press Club on April 28, which was initially seen as a serious blow to Obama, turned into a clear benefit. Wright’s outrageous performance allowed Obama to do what he had not done in March: completely disavow his former pastor. Even the most conservative commentators acknowledge that there has been an almost total repudiation.
Obama also now knows his other vulnerable spots: his ties to William Ayers, a member of the 1970s terrorist group the Weatherman; and his comments suggesting that working-class voters are bitter and cling to religion and guns as a palliative. But Obama will benefit by confronting these issues now. At the least, he can discount those arguments in the fall campaign as over and done. At best, he might frame a response as a positive message that enhances his appeal.
Overall, Democrats do better when their presidential candidates are fully vetted before the general election. In 1992, because of Gennifer Flowers and questions about how he avoided military service, Bill Clinton was seemingly mired in third place behind George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot after securing the Democratic nomination. However, that tough primary campaign allowed him to move past those issues. Indeed, when Bush revived Clinton’s draft status in the waning days of the general election, the attack fell on deaf ears. Meanwhile, Clinton was able to focus on his economic message during a downturn exactly like the one we face today.
In 1976 and 1988, the Democratic nominees started out as strong front-runners with large leads. But neither Jimmy Carter nor Michael Dukakis had been fully vetted by the electorate in the primaries, and they suffered for it. Carter nearly squandered the 33-point lead he held after the Democratic National Convention; in the end, he beat Gerald Ford by only two points. Dukakis lost a 17-point lead after unanticipated attacks, particularly the infamous ads about furloughed murderer Willie Horton.
The 1976 Carter campaign also holds lessons for Obama. Carter’s theme, “I’ll never lie to you,” was a compelling response to the corruption of Watergate and gave him a surprising win in the Iowa caucuses. But he didn’t turn that into a specific program for America in the general election. So when Ford started targeting Carter’s readiness for the job and his gubernatorial record, the darts stuck. The November results were much closer than anyone had expected.
So what does Obama do to ensure that these early controversies stay behind him?
The Illinois senator must recognize that his post-partisan appeal, although attractive in the same way Carter’s honesty was, is simply not enough to win over working-class voters worried about their homes, healthcare and jobs. Hillary Clinton’s grip on Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and West Virginia was evidence that this is still a weak point for him. But he can start to bridge this gap with an economic agenda like Bill Clinton’s in 1992 -- one that sharply contrasts with the Bush and McCain policies that have produced a deficit, a financial markets crisis and a recession.
But it’s not just about bowling versus basketball. He needs to exhibit empathy for these key constituents, traditionally the bedrock of Democratic support. Obama is a great talker, we all know that. He needs to become a great listener and demonstrate that he understands their values and concerns.
Obama is starting in a good position: Democrats hold the edge in party identification, and voters want any Democrat over any Republican in the White House by a margin of more than 10 percentage points. If the springtime controversies and these final tough primaries push him to refine his message, he’ll find they were the best things that could have happened to his candidacy.