The Magazine

Go for the Bitter Bloc

Hillary shows McCain the path to victory over Obama.

May 5, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 32 • By REIHAN SALAM
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Last week's Pennsylvania primary demonstrated that Barack Obama is not unbeatable. This might sound a strange way to put it. Hasn't it always been true that Obama is beatable?

Well, consider an alternate reality in which Obama had won Pennsylvania. His people certainly thought long and deeply about this alternate reality--why else spend a staggering $12 million on one state's primary? Hillary Clinton would have dropped out. Obama would have shown that he can win white working-class votes in a big, diverse, populous state. Way back after the Iowa caucuses, he playfully observed that everywhere he goes becomes Obama country. What if, amid a deluge of ads, after spending the better part of six weeks crisscrossing Pennsylvania's white ethnic inner suburbs and rural counties, he had managed to turn them into Obama country? There'd be no denying that he had the political Midas touch.

The Obama campaign, a far shrewder, more effective, more creative operation than any we've seen in Democratic politics in years, didn't spend that extraordinary sum for laughs. One has to assume Obama's rapid-fire responses to Clinton's attacks on guns and security were a dry run for the general election. Yet he didn't win in Pennsylvania, even against Hillary Clinton's near-penniless campaign, full of mutinous senior advisers eager to jump ship, even with a media cheering section to urge him on.

Not only did Obama not expand beyond his core constituencies--as always, he was crushed among Catholics, an atypically big slice of Pennsylvania's Democratic electorate, and white working-class voters--he lost ground with affluent professionals, the group that has powered his historic fundraising success, with weekly churchgoers, and with the moderates who have until recently seen him as one of their own. He lost Greater Pittsburgh and the Philadelphia suburbs by wide margins, and he also lost the northeastern part of the state by a whopping 66 to 34 percent. In a new Brookings study of Pennsylvania's political demographics, William Frey and Ruy Teixeira identify this region, centered on Allentown, as key to the state's political future. If Pennsylvania's Northeast keeps trending Democratic, the state will become solidly blue. But if a Republican candidate can hold the line or make some modest gains with the region's white working class voters, the picture looks very different. And as it turns out, the GOP may have a candidate who can do just that in John McCain. As Hillary Clinton's campaign slow-marches to its unhappy end, she is offering lessons not only for how McCain can defeat Obama--she is pointing towards a possible bright future for the Republican brand. She's probably not thrilled about that. But before we get ahead of ourselves, it's worth considering the scale of the obstacles Republicans face.

Right now, head-to-head match-ups between McCain and Obama look encouraging for the Republican. Pollsters find the two are running neck-and-neck. This picture couldn't be more misleading, as the McCain camp has been reminding anyone who'll listen. Once the Democratic nomination is settled, there is every reason to believe McCain will fall behind. The vast majority of Clinton Democrats will rally round the flag, Obama will be able to train his fire on McCain, and a massive independent expenditure campaign designed to tie McCain to the Bush White House will get under way. Given that President Bush now has the highest disapproval ratings in the history of presidential approval ratings, and that much of McCain's strength derives from independent voters who now believe he'll take the country in a different direction, those matchup numbers could get ugly fast.

Meanwhile, the public mood is near toxic for the incumbent party. According to a new Pew Research Center survey on the middle class, 31 percent of Americans believe they are worse off than they were five years ago. Compare this with 25 percent in 1979, shortly before Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter with a campaign promise of hope and change. Only 41 percent feel better off. Among self-identified middle class voters, 79 percent are convinced it is tougher now than five years ago for middle class families to maintain their standard of living.