Obama and the Grassroots
03-31-2008
Two weeks ago, I argued that the criticism that Barack Obama’s crucial speech on race was not sufficiently focused on winning over blue-collar Democrats was misplaced. My sense at the time was (and still is) that the speech was designed primarily to stabilize support among two key Obama constituencies, white-collar progressives and African-Americans. While the Rev. Wright controversy will likely see a return engagement in the general election, recent polling data suggests that Obama has indeed, at least for now, shored up his base of support and weathered the initial political firestorm.
 
So, how does Obama appeal to the significant group of working-class Democrats with whom he has underperformed in the primaries, and who are sometimes depicted as harboring underlying racial resentments? My suggestion two weeks ago was that he would have to win over those voters one state at a time, through traditional retail politics at the grassroots. It now appears that the Obama campaign has adopted precisely this strategy in PennsylvaniaAn early tip-off came last week, when the campaign announced that Obama’s Iowa state director, Paul Tewes, was being brought in to run the Pennsylvania effort, no doubt with the hope of replicating the campaign’s grassroots success in the Iowa Caucus. Whether this new approach will pay sufficient dividends by the April 22nd primary remains to be seen, and the campaign is hedging its bet by also going up with lots of television advertising in the state.
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Party On
03-28-2008
Yesterday, I commented on the concern expressed by some Democratic political elites that the contentious primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is hurting the party’s chances for victory in November by pitting core partisans against each other, and by reducing the potential for candidate crossover appeal in the general election. Well, both Clinton and Obama also touched on this rather hot issue yesterday, each placing renewed emphasis on the need to bring the party together, once a nominee is chosen. And today, President Clinton had his own special take on whether it’s time to bring the Democratic race to a conclusion.
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Crossing the Partisan Divide
03-27-2008
One result from the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released yesterday is causing particular consternation among Democratic Party elites. It is the finding that over 20% of Clinton and Obama supporters surveyed said that they would vote for John McCain in the general election, if their preferred candidate is not the nominee. In addition, Politico posts a piece today, suggesting that McCain currently has stronger crossover potential with Democratic voters, than either Clinton or Obama does among Republicans. The combined effect of these two items is a heightened concern among some Democratic political elites that the party’s ability to compete in November is being slowly undermined by the extended primary contest.
 
While the Democrats certainly have some legitimate grounds for concern, my sense is that voter perceptions of the nominees will change (as they always do) by November, once the participants are firmly ensconced in the all-out partisan battle that will be the general election campaign. McCain’s crossover appeal will likely be reduced by an unrelenting onslaught of Democratic comparisons of his candidacy to a third term for President Bush. While both Clinton and Obama have already test-driven this argument, its impact has been significantly diluted thus far by media and campaign preoccupation with the intra-party bickering.
 
Also, you will notice that the Politico piece uses crossover appeal data for McCain, Clinton, and Obama now versus George Bush and John Kerry data from 2004 presidential election exit polls. This is the proverbial comparison of apples to oranges, as the lower crossover appeal of Bush and Kerry was certainly due, at least in part, to the bitter, partisan general election campaign that they had both just endured. My guess is that you will see evidence of the same phenomenon this time around (even with McCain and Obama as the nominees) by the time we get to the 2008 exit polls.
 
As for anxious Democrats, perhaps they will take solace in the likelihood that the bitterness between Clinton and Obama supporters will eventually subside, as the vote choice gets reframed in the general election campaign as a partisan decision about political control at all levels of government. For many voters (even disaffected Democrats), partisan attachments are strong, lifelong bonds that usually kick in with full force in November.
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Join the Party
03-26-2008
It is always a nice change of pace to talk about presidential candidates other than the big three. Today, Mike Gravel announced that he is leaving the Democratic Party, in order to pursue a ticket to the White House as the Libertarian Party’s nominee. Gravel has been a marginal character in the Democratic race from the start. We shall see whether he is substantially more competitive in the crowded field for the Libertarian nomination.
 
Speculation about this sort of move has swirled around Republican candidate Ron Paul for most of this election cycle. Paul ran on the Libertarian ticket in 1988, but was adamant as far back as last November that he had no intention of leaving the Republican Party. And judging by his recent ballot qualification for the remaining Republican contests, it sounds like he’s more interested in having a little something to say in Minneapolis this September.
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Where We Stand on Iraq
03-25-2008
Last week’s commemoration of the Iraq War’s fifth anniversary got me thinking about the conflict’s evolving status as a campaign issue in the presidential race. In recent months, increasing voter concerns over the economy and decreasing American casualties in Iraq seemed to hold out the possibility that the issue would not be the political flash point in November 2008 that it was during midterm elections in November 2006.
 
Public opinion on the conflict continues to be mixed. While a majority of Americans think that the decision to use military force in Iraq was wrong, almost as many citizens believe that the security situation on the ground there is improving. Still, as the U.S. military records its 4000th casualty, and plans for a post-surge troop withdrawal appear increasingly imperiled, it is by no means certain that the conflict’s most volatile moment as a campaign issue has passed.
 
Yet, the evolving nature of the military conflict seems almost secondary to the way in which the candidates are set in their respective policy positions on issue. I wrote back in January that with regard to Iraq, voters in November would likely face one of the starkest foreign policy choices in recent memory. That still seems to be the case today, and I do not anticipate the policy gap between parties closing anytime soon. John McCain continues to stake his campaign on a successful surge in Iraq, while both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama pin theirs on a willingness to begin the process of troop withdrawal shortly after entering office. I would be stunned to see that change in the next eight months, which suggests that the Iraq War will be a focal point of political conflict for the remainder of the presidential race, even if other issues like the economy compete for voter attention.
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Nice to Meet You
03-24-2008
I am always amused when presidential campaigns announce their intention to reintroduce their candidate to the American public. In today’s New York Times, John Harwood reports that the McCain campaign plans to launch just such a tour on March 31st, even though one could argue that other than President Bush, John McCain has been the most visible Republican politician in the country over the past 10 years.
 
Still, I am not surprised to read that the McCain campaign has a biographical tour in the works. I have written on several occasions about how voters are much more likely to focus on personal characteristics, rather than issue positions, when making their vote choice. So, while McCain is scheduled to talk a bit about the economy on this trip, you can bet that the tour will place a heavy emphasis on McCain's familiar backstory, focusing on those aspects which the campaign believes will highlight his character and capacity for leadership.
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Sorry, No Peeking
03-21-2008
Last night, when I first heard the news that Barack Obama’s passport file had been breached, I couldn’t help but spin a few juicy opposition research scenarios in my head. But now that we have learned that all three of the major candidates' files were accessed without authorization at various times, the workers’ idle curiosity explanation seems a bit more plausible. Still, it will be fascinating to see where the investigation leads, and, at a minimum, the State Department will have some explaining to do about why none of these violations (going back several months) made it up the chain of command, until yesterday.
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Scheduling Error
03-20-2008
As expected, there have been a number of stories in the past 24 hours that characterize the media’s initial vetting of the thousands of just-released pages detailing Hillary Clinton’s schedule as First Lady. Based on my prior experience with White House archival material (and redaction), I suggested in an earlier post that much of what is contained in those files would not be especially useful.
 
I also noted, however, that what keeps a researcher digging page after page is the possibility that some small, yet intriguing, morsel will eventually grab his or her attention. With the media, such a discovery would likely send the news cycle quickly spinning off in some unexpected direction. That appears to be the case with several schedule entries suggesting Hillary Clinton’s active support for the passage of NAFTA, during President Clinton’s first term. Clinton has downplayed her support of the treaty to some advantage in recent weeks, and has also used it to put Obama on the defensive. So, this may be the first story to come out of these White House documents with any real tactical implications for the presidential race. I’m guessing that the Clinton campaign was primarily focused on getting past the obligatory stories on the First Lady’s whereabouts during the Lewinsky scandal.
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The Obama Speech
03-19-2008
I have spent much of the past twenty-four hours absorbing reaction to Barack Obama’s speech on race and politics yesterday. Whatever his personal reasons for delivering the speech, politically Obama needed to win over the mainstream media (and associated political observers), in order to put a stop to the endless looping of Rev. Wright video on television. My sense is that the media was looking for a reason to move this story forward, with some sort of new angle or fresh information, and a strong speech by Obama would provide impetus for more positive reportage.
 
Judging by the tenor of subsequent media coverage, Obama appears to have cleared this threshold, at least initially. I am intentionally a bit tentative here, as it will be some time before we can accurately assess the true impact of the speech on the Rev. Wright controversy. Also, I know from years of watching politics that with these kinds of political firestorms, you just never know what new development might suddenly pop up to set things off again. Still, initial response to the speech has generally been positive, even among some conservatives. That does not mean that critics will stop using the issue as a political bludgeon anytime soon. But yesterday’s speech was not really about placating conservative critics, or about preempting their ability to use the issue tactically in the general election. It will surely be used, irrespective of the actual content of Obama’s speech.
 
The main political objective of the speech (other than reshaping the stagnant news cycle) was instead two-fold. Obama needed to reassure African-American voters that even under extreme political pressure, he would not abandon Rev. Wright and the African-American community (while repudiating the words). And, it was essential that Obama also shore up support among white collar progressive voters, who might be concerned that their confidence in his vision is misplaced. On these two counts, the speech will be judged a success. Without these two core groups of voters firmly behind him, Obama can pretty much forget about building any sort of broader electoral coalition in November.
 
I have heard some commentators express concern that the speech was not pitched in a way that could win over blue collar Democrats, a group of voters with whom Obama has underperformed in the primaries, and who are also sometimes depicted as harboring underlying racial resentments. In the end, while it may open a dialogue, I don’t think that the speech was designed primarily to win over these voters. Obama will have to do that by other means, through retail politics and a strong economic message, in places like Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Indiana.  It will take a sustained grassroots effort by Obama to reduce any racial antipathy to an African-American candidate that might exist among these working class Democrats.
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On Schedule
03-18-2008
I have written a couple of posts recently noting that the Obama campaign continues to press a transparency in government argument against the Clinton campaign, over Hillary Clinton’s failure to release her list of federal budget earmark requests, tax returns, and White House schedules. Well, the strategy appears to be having some success. It is being reported today that all of Clinton’s schedules as First Lady will be released tomorrow, some 11,000 pages worth.
 
Having spent several weeks pouring over these kinds of White House records for my book, Vicious Cycle, I can tell you with certainty that much of what is contained in those documents will seem quite mundane. But you just never know what intriguing nugget might eventually drop, and that’s what drives you to keep going, page after page, folder after folder. It will no doubt be quite a treasure hunt for the media, opposition researchers, and political junkies of all stripes.
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Dream Ticket, or Nightmare Scenario?
03-17-2008
The recent speculation about a potential Clinton/Obama, or Obama/Clinton, Democratic dream ticket continues to percolate, with two Washington heavyweights voicing their considered opinions to the negative. Both Washington Post journalist David Broder and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have argued in the past few days that the two candidates are not likely to share the presidential ticket in November. Broder has written that the idea is far-fetched, and Pelosi has stated publicly that the pairing is impossible. When asked again yesterday by George Stephanopoulos on This Week, Pelosi seemed even more certain that Clinton and Obama would not join forces.
 
You may be wondering where I come down on the relative merits of a presidential ticket comprised of some ordering of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Well, I actually made the case against such a pairing back in February, in this interview (I'm sorry I can’t help with a translation). The gist of my argument was that sometimes, in the alchemy of presidential ticket-balancing, the political whole actually turns out to be less than the sum of its exciting candidate parts.
 
Anytime you take two campaigns that have spent the better part of two years attacking each other with every weapon available, and attempt to meld them into a seamless general election juggernaut, you are bound to run into all sorts of operational problems that can seriously undercut the ticket. Every issue imaginable must be negotiated between the two mutually-suspicious, alpha campaign staffs. This often results in the candidates adopting a watered-down, compromise message, or in their articulating conflicting positions that undercut each other on the stump. Mix in the turf battles, thinly-veiled hatreds, and anonymous finger-pointing, which are par for the course with these types of arrangements, and what seemed like a good idea in August, turns out to be a nightmare of recriminations in November.
 
Since the candidates can’t effectively run as co-presidential nominees, the vice presidential candidate in this situation may find it difficult to subordinate his or her political will and staff to the judgment of the top of the ticket. The merging of campaigns works much more efficiently, when the presidential candidate can pick someone for the second slot to whom he or she is genuinely drawn, and for whom the inherent asymmetry in staff operational power is more likely to be acceptable.
 
Also, having already spent months slamming each other’s experience, judgment, leadership capabilities and ethics, Clinton and Obama may simply be loath to link their political futures, preferring instead to regroup individually for gubernatorial runs in 2010, or eventual movement into Senate leadership. The vice presidential candidate on a winning Democratic ticket would also face the prospect of having to run for president eight years hence, largely on the record of his or her chief rival in the primaries. So, while it is true that these marriages of political convenience result in victory on occasion (Reagan/Bush or JFK/LBJ), my sense is that they are rarely synergistic (Kerry/Edwards) in a way that lives up to all of their promise.
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Barbecued Pork
03-14-2008
Here’s an update on my post yesterday, regarding the presidential candidates and their positions on fiscal responsibility and the earmarking of dollars in the federal budget. Today, The New York Times provides some useful additional context for Barack Obama’s list of earmark requests. As I predicted yesterday, the Obama campaign is now using their disclosure as an opportunity to press Hillary Clinton to release her own earmark requests (and tax returns and White House records), while making a broader argument about the need for transparency in government.
 
Meanwhile, John McCain continues his crusade against pork, singling out the Senate for criticism, after its unwillingness to pass a one-year moratorium on earmarks last night. While all three presidential candidates voted in favor of the proposed ban, the rest of the Senate was unable to muster any real enthusiasm for the idea.
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Show Me the Money
03-13-2008
With personal bickering between the Clinton and Obama campaigns now at a level sufficient to make even the most jaded political observer beg for a renewed focus on the issues, I was relieved to come across something today that could actually have substantive implications for the presidential race, in the area of fiscal policy. Barack Obama has now released his list of federal earmark requests for 2005 and 2006, having already done so for 2007. Today’s move provides the Obama campaign with a legitimate opportunity to renew its call for greater transparency in government, particularly since Hillary Clinton, a top-10 recipient last year of earmarked dollars in the Senate, has yet to disclose any of her own requests.
 
Anyone who regularly follows presidential politics is undoubtedly familiar with John McCain’s crusade against the earmarking of federal dollars. It has been a central component of both his 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns. McCain has long viewed the practice as an invitation to wasteful “pork barrel” spending and influence peddling, and he prides himself on having submitted no earmark requests of his own.
 
Hillary Clinton has also talked about the importance of fiscal responsibility. She often promotes it on the campaign trail, as a means of ensuring the financial viability of her domestic policy agenda. So, while all three candidates appear to be in agreement on the need to curtail earmarking in the future, Clinton may find herself as the odd candidate out on the issue of full disclosure in this critical policy domain. That would certainly put her at a disadvantage against John McCain in November.
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About That Wrestling Match
03-12-2008
Following up on my post yesterday about a possible McCain-Romney ticket, it certainly sounds like Mitt Romney is hoping for a reserved seat on the Straight Talk Express (transcript and video, here). It has also been suggested recently that Romney is being pushed for the slot by various Bush loyalists. That could provide an impetus for John McCain to mend fences with Romney, especially if he is eager to have President Bush provide him with some additional fundraising muscle for the general election.
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Not So Strange Bedfellows?
03-11-2008
Today, I came across one of those interesting juxtapositions that occasionally jump out at me on the web. Over at Politico, Jonathan Martin has a piece on John McCain’s need for better mastery of economic policy on the campaign trail, given that the economy will likely rival Iraq as the issue of most concern to voters in November.  And, The Weekly Standard recently posted an article by Fred Barnes suggesting that, among those who might be included on John McCain’s shortlist for vice president, Mitt Romney may actually be his best option.
 
I will say that Romney was never more comfortable and animated on the stump (or in debates) than when talking about economic matters. So, perhaps there are some legitimate grounds for a pairing, despite their less than chummy relationship in the past.  Posting at The Atlantic, Marc Ambinder thinks probably not. You can read more vice presidential speculation here.
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A Different Kind of Republican Shortlist
03-10-2008
In today’s New York Times, Bill Kristol writes about the various political tasks now facing John McCain, as the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee.  While the piece traverses familiar terrain about the challenges on Iraq and the economy that McCain will face in selling a third Republican term to voters, what caught my attention was the list of potential vice presidential picks that Kristol floats at the end of the article. Kristol presses the need for a bold choice, like Senator Joe Lieberman, Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, for the number two slot on the Republican ticket. While any of these gentlemen would be an audacious (l’audace) pick by McCain, certainly outside the norm of the conservative governors usually suggested, the names also raise some intriguing questions.
 
Were Joe Lieberman to join the Republican ticket, it would complete his transformation from sweetheart Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, to persona non grata in the party. Lieberman’s strong support of the Iraq War (what Kristol means by principled), and his willingness to run as an independent in Connecticut, after losing to Ned Lamont in the 2006 Democratic primary there, have put him at odds with his party. Still, Lieberman officially identifies himself as an Independent Democrat (ID-CT), and continues to caucus with Democrats in the Senate, so it is not clear how enthusiastic already skeptical conservatives would be with such a choice. Also, since Lieberman has been a highly visible candidate for various national offices for most of the past eight years, it remains to be seen whether he could seriously reinvigorate his somewhat tired campaign persona, in order to regain the Joementum.
 
The choice of either Gen. David Petraeus or Gen. Raymond Odierno would raise a different set of issues for voters to consider in November. While generals have previously run national campaigns for elected office (Dwight Eisenhower and Wesley Clark, to name two), they have typically experienced at least some minimal break between their active duty service and their political campaigns. It would be fascinating to see how either of these two active duty generals, both so heavily involved with Iraq, would step out of their uniforms and immediately into a presidential campaign.
 
Finally, Clarence Thomas presents perhaps the most unlikely choice of the four. Joining the ticket would require Thomas to give up a prized lifetime gig on the Supreme Court for the political uncertainty of electoral politics. Given Thomas’ record on the Supreme Court, the choice might help McCain with the most socially conservative of Republican voters, but it would likely hurt him with virtually everyone else. Also, the exact nature of Thomas’ political skills is a big question mark. Thomas is legendary for his silence on the bench, and since campaigning requires near constant talking for 16-18 hours a day, it is anyone’s guess as to what political persona he would bring to the stump.
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And Now for Something Completely Different
03-07-2008
For those of you who are craving some political news about presidential candidates not named Clinton, Obama or McCain, you may have missed recent reports that both Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul won their respective state Congressional primaries on Tuesday, allowing them to run to keep their legislative seats in November. While there had been some earlier speculation that Kucinich might face a significant challenge from four other Democratic candidates in Cleveland, he defeated the competition by a fairly comfortable electoral margin.
 
Ron Paul also posted an intriguing new campaign video yesterday, in which he sort of drops out of the presidential race, yet talks about continuing the competition for delegates, while discussing the next phase of his grassroots movement. I will be interested to see if (and how) the iconoclastic politician makes his voice heard at the Republican convention in September.  You may recall this little exchange between Paul and John McCain, now the presumptive Republican nominee, at the CNN/YouTube debate last November.
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Super-Delegates in Your Rearview Mirror
03-06-2008
In a post earlier this week, I noted some irony in the Obama campaign's concern that appointed super-delegates not deprive Barack Obama of a chance to eventually claim the Democratic nomination, based on Obama having amassed more pledged (elected) delegates than Hillary Clinton. I suggested that these same super-delegates might instead help Obama, by pressuring Clinton to leave the race, should she have a weak showing in Tuesday’s four contests.
 
Well, my speculation was closer to the truth than I realized at the time. It turns out that there was indeed an organized group of uncommitted super-delegates poised to do just that. With her big wins on Tuesday, however, the group decided that such a call was no longer feasible. So, the battle for delegates, super or not, now goes on to Wyoming, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania.
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McCain Gets His Chance
03-05-2008
Since it now looks like we will have plenty of time to ponder the ongoing battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (my initial thoughts, here), let’s instead talk about John McCain securing the Republican nomination.
 
I watched McCain closely in the 2000 New Hampshire Primary, and I came away from that contest with a good sense of his substantial political skills and resiliency. This made it difficult for me to write him off as a potential nominee in 2008, even when he appeared to be down and almost out last summer. His triumph last night underscores the spirit he brought to both of his campaigns in the Granite State.
 
This time around, McCain benefited from the other Republican candidates’ preoccupation with eliminating Mitt Romney from the field. Written off by much of the national media, McCain was pretty much left alone here to rebuild his struggling campaign along more suitable organizational lines, with minimum conflict or distraction from the other candidates. Similarly, he may now benefit from a Democratic race that will continue to focus on its own complicated internal dynamics, rather than on his nomination.
 
Still, McCain’s general election campaign will face some significant challenges in the near future. We will see how well the happy warrior adjusts to the constraints of a large national presidential campaign infrastructure.  McCain will also confront a difficult fundraising challenge in the coming months, one which will require him to strike a delicate balance between using President Bush to raise big money from the party faithful, and distancing himself from the President on virtually everything else. The relative speed with which all of this comes together for McCain in the next few months will provide a telling preview of his potential strength as a general election candidate in November.
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When the Morning Comes
03-04-2008
If you are not rendered catatonic from watching hours of cable news coverage this evening, you can catch me talking politics tomorrow morning on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange. I will be participating in a wrap-up of tonight’s election results, and in some informed speculation about the future of both parties’ nomination contests. You can listen to the show live on the web at 9 a.m., here (lower left), or later at your leisure, here.
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Tuesdays with the Democrats
03-03-2008
It has been almost a month since conventional wisdom held that the many primaries and caucuses on February 5th would be decisive for picking the Democratic nominee. That turned out not to be the case, and we are once again facing a Tuesday showdown, comprised of multiple state contests (OH, RI, TX, and VT) that are said to be pivotal for the candidates, particularly Hillary Clinton. It is entirely reasonable to assume, however, that tomorrow’s results will once again be something less than decisive. With the most probable outcome being a small net gain of delegates for one candidate or the other, both will find sufficient reason in the results to continue on to subsequent states, regardless of any media narrative to the contrary. Clinton has already suggested that she will remain in the race, whatever the outcome in Texas and Ohio, at least until Pennsylvania votes on April 22nd.
 
Obama has often argued that the nomination should go to the candidate with the most pledged delegates (himself), rather than be determined by the party’s appointed super-delegates, who traditionally have been viewed as providing a delegate safety net for Clinton. But, slowly emerging from the Democratic contest’s electoral ambiguity is an intriguing political irony. It may very well be some of these same super-delegates, elected politicians and key figures in the party’s institutional machinery, who begin to pressure Clinton to drop out of the race, should she experience anything short of a stunning electoral turnaround tomorrow. So, in the days immediately following tomorrow’s primaries, I will be closely watching what these Democratic political elites say and do. They may provide the best indication of whether Obama really has the nomination locked up, or if Clinton will fight on into springtime.
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