Saturday, February 23, 2008


Latest Politico Column

For my latest Politico column, I throw out an idea for solving the Democrats' superdelegate dilemma: hold a super convention. You can find the full piece here.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Eight Questions for Super Tuesday

Dan Balz of the Washington Post has another smart "Eight Questions" story out today previewing Super Tuesday and helping readers divine the import of the results. I was asked again to share my thoughts/answers, so here they are (with as usual a few small grammatical fixes).

1) Will either race end on Tuesday?

No. For the Republicans, there’s a high likelihood that McCain will emerge in a commanding position, but I doubt he will be able to run up a big enough margin to knock Romney totally out of the race this week. On the Democratic side, I also agree with the conventional wisdom — based on the polling and the other indicators, it's hard to see one candidate coming out of Tuesday with anything close to a decisive advantage in terms of delegates or momentum. Assume we are going at least until Pennsylvania, and could well be a super-delegate free-for-all.

2) What constitutes victory?

For McCain, it’s winning enough delegates to make clear that Romney can’t win, and forcing the realist wing of the base to finally and fully coalesce around him.

For Clinton, it’s running up a big enough margin in key states, particularly in swing states that will play pivotal role in the general, that she regains her clear front-runner status -- and undecideds in the next several primaries see her as not just the likely nominee but the best chance to win in November.

For Obama, it’s battling Clinton to what is seen as effectively a draw, which will show his electoral viability, and coming into the next batch of primaries on a psychological playing field. That will enable him to play to his strength, touch more voters directly, and beat her on message and likeability.

3) What states bear watching?

California, New Mexico and Arizona — all three because they will help resolve this question about Obama’s ability to compete with Latino voters, and the second two because they will be indicators of how each candidate will play in swing states in a pivotal region for Democrats in the general.

Georgia — this will be a bigger and more revealing test of Obama’s crossover appeal than South Carolina, especially with supposedly New South surburbanites, and help show us how big a factor his race might be in the general.

4) Where will Edwards's voters go?

That's impossible to predict with any degree of certainty, because they are not monolithic. A big chunk of them are hard left and anybody-but-Hillary voters, and most of those will go with Obama (as we saw from the most recent Kos straw poll and the MoveOn endorsement). But a big chunk of them are white downscale voters who are not necessarily that ideological and were drawn to Edwards’ economic populism, and Hillary is clearly making a heavy play for these voters and showing some success. My bet is they break more in Obama’s favor, but not in significant enough numbers to tip the balance Obama’s way.

5) Can Obama win Latinos?

Yes, and I agree with the conventional wisdom that Kennedy is a significant help/validator here. But there is conflicting evidence about how many he can win, and we won’t know just how competitive he is until we get a chance to digest the exit polls from CA, NM, AZ and other states with a significant Latino presence.

6) Will women continue to be Clinton's secret weapon?

Hard to say at this point that women are Clinton’s secret weapon. In fact, you could just as easily argue that outside of NH, they are more here secret vulnerability. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that she is failing to sway a lot of white working women — particularly the post-Boomers -- who should by all rights be with her, and it’s this failure that has prevented her from turning her natural gender advantage into an electoral trump card and given Obama an opening to take this nomination away from her.

7) Can McCain win conservatives and pro-Bush Republicans?

Yes, to a point. He is gradually increasing his share, and that number is going to grow in many states Tuesday because he will likely have inevitability on his side, along with a bigger number of conservative validators. But the bigger question is not whether he can win them but can he turn them out in a general, and it seems now that will be determined largely by who his opponent his. Against Hillary, he won’t have to pander that much to engage and mobilize the base, which will give him the freedom to play to the center. But if it’s Obama, he’s got a much bigger challenge, and not sure how he pulls off that difficult and delicate balancing act.

8) Who is better positioned for a long campaign after Tuesday?

That’s difficult to say, because both Clinton and Obama will have enough money and muscle to run straight through to the convention, which are the traditional measures. I tend to think it’s going to come down to two intangible factors. If Obama stays close tomorrow, and then finds a way to change the conversation and the dynamic of the campaign, he has a much higher vote ceiling and potential for growth. But if we stay on the same track we have been on, Hillary seems best positioned to squeeze out a tight win because of her experience — not her experience as a leader, but her and her team’s experience in winning tough, close political streetfights. As with sports, having been there can make a big difference. But as we saw with the Giants last night, it's far from a guarantee of victory.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Latest Politico Column

After taking a break for the holiday season, I have resumed writing my regular column for the Politico. You can find my first piece of the new year, which looks at the mirage of Democratic unity in the presidential campaign, here.

Thursday, January 03, 2008


Forecasting Iowa

Washington Post crack political reporter Dan Balz has an enlightening piece out today forecasting the Iowa caucuses, in which he asked several political strategists from both parties (including yours truly) to answer eight critical questions about today's big vote. You can find the article (and a quote from me) here.

The last time Balz asked me to contribute to a Q&A story like this, I decided to post my full responses here. So I thought I would do the same with my Iowa answers (with some very minor editing for style). Here we go. . .

1. Will either race end in Iowa?

Extremely doubtful.

On the Democratic side, the only way I could see Iowa being determinative is for Hillary to win big, which would suck all the oxygen out of Edwards balloon, and then leverage the momentum from that to steamroll Obama in NH and SC. But that is just not a realistic scenario at this point — the race is too close and too unsettled with too many X factors. Plus, Hillary and Obama both have enough money and organization and determination to survive at least until SC, and if they split NH and SC, probably all the way through to February 5th.

On the Republican side, either Huckabee or Romney is most likely going to win, but neither is strong enough to win by knockout. Like everyone on the GOP side they both have major flaws that have been documented ad nauseam, and they both need help in other places (and possibly from other candidates) in order to find a path to the nomination. Huckabee won’t be able to win New Hampshire and will have trouble competing nationally money-wise and organizationally afterward. Romney is not a lock in NH even if he squeaks out a win in IA, and if he loses, he will have a much harder time fending off McCain’s surge. This field is so weak and the Republican electorate so uninspired/unimpressive, I think it’s more likely there will be a brokered convention than a clear front-runner after Iowa.

2. How big will the Iowa bounce be this year?

It’s too hard to predict at this point — my sense is that we won’t really know until after New Hampshire. But I suspect it’s going to be somewhat less than expected — more Pat Robertson than Jimmy Carter -- based on the complex dynamics in both races. Which is to say, it will probably have a clarifying effect, not a catalyzing one.

On the Democratic side, it’s unlikely anyone will win by a margin big enough to qualify for a “big mo” acquisition. Edwards and Obama will get a nice little free media bump if they come in first, but Hillary is strong enough in NH that it won’t be enough to make the difference — they’re still going to have to beat her on message and mobilization. If Hillary wins a close race, she will be strengthened going into NH, and she will be the prohibitive favorite, but you can’t count Obama and his money out — especially given the wildcard of the independent vote and the lack of intensity of Hillary’s vote. And while most people disagree, I tend to think Obama can survive close losses in IA and NH if he can lock down the black vote in SC and get a win there.

On the Republican side, Huckabee will get a huge temporary boost, but much like his showing in the Iowa straw poll, there is a good chance he won’t be able to really milk it for what it’s worth because of his limited organization and money. And unless Romney really defies expectations and wins by 5-10 points, I don’t think his winning a close race is going to be a deck-scrambler in NH — he’s still going to have take out McCain and pray that Paul can cut into McCain’s cantakerous Yankee vote.

3. Will women prove to be Hillary secret weapon?

Possibly, though based on how close the polls have been, if she wins, I suspect her secret weapon will be her teams ability to win over the Biden, Dodd, and Richardson voters who are attracted by their experience after those second-tier candidates fail to meet the 15 percent threshold in most precincts.

4. Which candidate will turn out the most first-time caucus attendees?

Most likely Obama, but I tend to agree with the conventional wisdom that he will not be able to turn out a whole new critical mass of voters.

5. Can evangelical Christians carry a candidate to victory in the caucuses?

Yes, especially in this Republican race, which is filled with deeply-flawed, uninspiring candidates, and given how attuned Huckabee is to the evolving sensibility of political evangelicals, which is much less wedded to laissez faire economics and much more concerned about global warming than economic conservatives.

6. If Edwards or Huckabee win, what is their second act?

Huckabee’s got to do something serious to show he’s not just a one-trick non-phony -- that he is ready to be commander-in-chief and lead the richest economy in the world, and that he can rebuild the Republican coalition. I’d go right at Romney’s supposed greatest strength, the economy, and come out with an aggressive, semi-populist jobs plan that will appeal to blue collar voters and small business owners that are a big segment of the Republican electorate in NH and who don’t see more Bush-o-nomics as the solution to their insecurities.

Edwards has to do something to address his two biggest vulnerabilities, which is that he strikes a lot of voters as being a phony and that he just does not look or sound presidential. Not sure there is anything he can do about the former; on the latter, he would be wise to come out with a strategy for winning the war on terror and/or lining up some major military/foreign policy endorsements.

7. Will a white, rural state support an African American candidate?

Polls are pretty useless here, you have to go by actual voting results, and there is some reason to be optimistic. Obama outperformed expectations in southern Illinois in his U.S. Senate race, though he was running against weak candidates. And if you look at the vote breakdown of Harold Ford in Tennessee, he ran pretty competitively in white-dominated areas of the state — my southern friends tell me his undoing was in the Memphis suburbs, where his family’s corruptions problems were well-known and turned out to be a pretty big burden for him.

Of course, it matters who the African-American candidate is. What makes me particularly optimistic about Obama’s cross-over appeal is that he is not Al Sharpton; that he is not driven by or premised upon identity, grievance-fueled politics, but just the opposite — an inclusive, inspiring figure who can make a lot of whites (particularly younger whites in the new south) feel good about supporting a candidate of color.

8. Will big money carry the day?

Maybe I am showing my bias here, but I think message (and to a lesser extent muscle) will ultimately be more determinative than money in this race. McCain — both the 2000 and 2008 versions — is exhibit A for that argument.

9. Who is the super surrogate? Bill Clinton? Oprah Winfrey? Chuck Norris?

Depends on who wins :)

My sleeper surrogates of this race are Hillary’s mother and daughter. My bet is they are helping to humanize her in Iowa, and could well do the same in NH and SC. Whether it’s enough to tangible effect on a sizeable portion of skeptical voters remains to be seen.

10. Why are there so few Republicans competing in Iowa?

Bad investment to payoff ratio. Both McCain and Giuliani concluded early on that their vote ceiling was pretty low, and McCain in particular could not afford to blow his limited war chest just to show there, while he could afford — because of his name recognition and strength in NH — to pass up the relevance points you get for campaigning hard in Iowa. I have no explanation for the mystery that is Fred Thompson.

11. Is the caucus process defensible?

I have much less of a problem with Iowa’s system of choosing their delegates than with the disproportionate influence this one small and unrepresentative state plays in choosing our president. I am a big supporter of the Lieberman-Alexander-Klobuchar rotating primary bill’s approach, which seems much more sensible, fair, and democratic to me.

Monday, December 03, 2007


The Oprah Factor

The Wall Street Journal asked me to write an op-ed on the Democratic presidential primary contest, through the lens of the celebrity surrogate showdown between Oprah Winfrey (Team Obama) and Barbra Streisand (Team Clinton). My take, which was published in today's edition, follows below.

The Oprah Factor
December 3, 2007; Page A21

It's tempting to write off the celebrity-endorsement bout between the Obama and Clinton campaigns -- with Oprah Winfrey in Barack Obama's corner and Barbra Streisand in Hillary Clinton's -- as just another episode of the Democratic Party's long-running series of superstar superficiality.

But there's actually a meaningful and telling metaphor wrapped up in this fleeting game of dueling divas, one that helps explain why Sen. Obama's much-hyped yet largely unfulfilling candidacy is finally breaking through, and why the Clinton juggernaut appears (at least for the moment) to be breaking down.

Indeed, after spending much of this year struggling to escape the experience box that the Clinton campaign had so adroitly stuffed him into, Sen. Obama could not have asked for a better, more striking contrast of surrogate symbols to draw out his major differences with the front-runner, and to drive home his increasingly trenchant argument that Mrs. Clinton is the candidate of the status quo.

Let's start with the "O-factor." Oprah is the Swiss Army knife of political validators, a spectacularly accomplished black woman who is admired by Americans across every demographic, and would thus be a boon to any candidate. But her particular potency for Sen. Obama in this contest is not her race or gender or even the sum of her many parts, but what she is perceived to be lacking -- a political agenda.

More than anything, Oprah is a uniquely transcendent figure in our public life: engaged in serious debates and willing to put her money where her mouth is, yet unsullied by the ugly political and culture wars of the past two decades, and independent in her thinking and affiliations. In this, she personifies the new post-Bush, post-partisan, post-boomer politics Sen. Obama is preaching. She is the way we want things to be (at least those of us outside the narrow margins of the ideological extremes): genuine, unifying, trustworthy, aspirational.

So how did the Clinton campaign respond to the news that Oprah would be stumping for Sen. Obama this coming weekend? Instead of sticking to their core message, and showing the confidence of a true front-runner, they fell into the tit-for-tat trap of countering with the endorsement of the polarizing, '60s-studded Streisand -- in essence, the anti-Oprah. In doing so, the Clinton camp did not just fail to blunt or dilute the O-factor, they managed to accentuate it by unwittingly suggesting Mrs. Clinton stands for -- like the Streisand anthem -- the way we were.

To many Democrats, that brings back broadly positive feelings of peace and prosperity. But for hard-core activists, that could also mean the misty, waffle-colored memories of triangulation, corporate friendliness and job-killing trade pacts (among other liberal gripes about Bill Clinton). And for less partisan primary voters, it could be the scattered pictures of equivocation, Whitewater, Lewinsky, and a continuation of the petty, divisive politics that have come to define the Bush-Clinton years for voters across the political spectrum.

This points to one of the least-discussed wildcards in this most unusual of races -- and arguably the most dangerous for Mrs. Clinton in the primaries. How will Democratic primary voters weigh the relative benefits and baggage of a Clinton restoration? Will they see Hillary as the best way to fix the awful mess President Bush has created? Or will they conclude that she is more part of the problem than the solution, incapable of delivering the fresh start Democrats are desperately seeking for the country. Not least of all, how many Democrats will pull back from Mrs. Clinton simply because they are afraid that her problematic past could doom the party in the general election?

For the first 10 months of the year, the Clinton team did a brilliant job of taking this variable out of play and avoiding reminders of those memories that, as the Streisand song suggests, would be too painful to remember. They resisted the temptation to shove the Clinton administration's record of results in voters' faces, and instead subtly used it (and him) to credential Hillary and buttress her argument that she has the strength and experience to make change happen. Just as importantly, Bill stayed on message on the stump, fully leveraging his undeniable popularity and charm, and made it easy for voters to latch onto what they liked best about the '90s.

Then something changed. Over the last month, Team Hillary moved from dominating the conversation and diminishing her rivals to a defensive crouch. The strong and clear statements gave way to fuzzy and evasive, starting with Mrs. Clinton's famously fudgy answer to a debate question on drivers licenses for illegal immigrants. She went from making a substantive, presidential-sounding case for her experience advantage, to taking what many viewed as a petty potshot at Sen. Obama's childhood years overseas. And her husband slipped from world leader to weasel-wording this past week, when he claimed he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, dredging up the worst impressions of the way they were.

To its credit, the Obama campaign moved quickly and deftly in the last few weeks to exploit this opening and recast the race, not just as choice between the past and the future, but zeroing in on the issue of trust and character and how that relates to change.

Like the O-factor, this argument played to Sen. Obama's strengths and reinforced his core message. And not surprisingly, it's gotten the kind of traction his attacks on Iraq and other issues could not. Most Democratic voters in Iowa, 55%, say they're more interested in a "new direction and new ideas." Indeed, the most recent Des Moines Register poll, out yesterday, shows Sen. Obama as the new front-runner in Iowa among likely caucusgoers.

While Mrs. Clinton still leads on more personal attributes than any of her competitors, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, just half of Iowa Democrats believe she's willing to say what she really thinks. Sen. Obama beats her by 2-1 as the most honest and trustworthy candidate. Moreover, her advantage on experience, while substantial, has softened since the summer. She has notably less support in Iowa than nationally in trust to handle a variety of specific issues -- on Iraq, for example, Sen. Obama now runs evenly with her.

The key to getting the Clinton machine back on track is, ironically enough, to go back to the way things were -- not for Bill in the '90s, but for Hillary earlier this year. She was in charge of the campaign when she was in charge of the campaign -- taking forceful stands on issues and even more importantly against the Bush administration, big-footing the other candidates with big ideas and policy proposals (on health care, for example) that forced them to react to her, and talking straight about votes that may be unpopular with elements of the base (something she failed to do on the Lieberman-Kyl resolution urging the State Department to designate Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization). That's how she thrived as a restoration candidate in a change election.

Going forward, one of the best moves Mrs. Clinton could make to refocus the conversation on her strengths is to give a major speech about her time as first lady and why that makes her more prepared to be leader of the free world than her rivals. Sen. Obama has given her a perfect opening to do so, by not just questioning but belittling her experience in her husband's administration. Now's the time to get past the health-care bugaboo of 1994 and spell out in detail what else she did (which few Americans actually know), how she learned from it, and why the gamut of her experiences in the White House will make her a more effective change agent than any of her competitors.

Which is to say, forget about Oprah and Barbra and the celebrity sideshows. If Hillary is, as her campaign once argued, the most famous woman you don't really know, her surest hope of holding her lead is taking the lead in showing voters just who she is.

Mr. Gerstein, a senior adviser on Sen. Joe Lieberman's vice presidential and presidential campaigns, is a Democratic strategist and political commentator based in New York.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


Latest Politico Column

My latest column, which looks at the Republicans' emerging strategy to tar Hillary Clinton as a big spender, is up on the Politico website this morning.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Reaction to today's column

One of the more insightful responses I got from Politico column today was this note from a progressive intellectual friend of mine who does not work in politics but follows it closely:
My sense is that this debate is roiling around because people have fundamental beliefs that they are not presenting honestly.

While there appears to be a majority of Americans who hate this war and recognize it as a mistake, either from the onset or from extremely poor execution, a large proportion of the anti-war movement is motivated by a fundamental pacifism or self-interest which doesn't appeal to swing voters who are more concerned with costs and long-term US strategic interests that are also imperiled by the adventure.

Meanwhile the very mistake we made obligates us to do something honorable to fix it, which could either aggravate the original mistake or ameliorate it to some extent. It's not clear which however so you have a debate that's starting to round out as people willing to put their lives and lucre on the line to make amends for a mistake against people who are selfish or naive, hence the resurgence of John McCain.

Democratss need to put forth a more noble reason to pull out than people are being killed and it was stupid. What diplomatic or aide packages that involve sacrifice could be offered as an alternative to surges and more of the same war policy?


Latest Politico Column

After taking a little late summer siesta from my Politico column, I have a new piece up today analyzing why the anti-war movement has failed to make any real progress in Congress.

This one is sure to raise some hackles, and I suspect I will be back here some time soon to respond to some of the counter arguments. So stay tuned.

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