Is Barack Obama getting cocky – or just ambitious? In the latest attempt at an anti-Obama message that might stick, the arch Republican strategist Karl Rove wrote last week: “Many candidates have measured the Oval Office drapes prematurely. But Barack Obama is the first to redesign the presidential seal before the election . . . Such arrogance – even self-centredness – has featured often in the Obama campaign.”
Arrogance – or the kind of realigning ambition Rove once admired in the young George W Bush? On the negative side, the Obama campaign has been increasingly remote from the press and it did indeed recently unveil a cringe-inducing version of the presidential seal for a campaign speech.
Obama, moreover, damaged his saintly image by renouncing public campaign financing – which no general election candidate has done since the 1970s – because he is (foolishly?) confident he can raise more money from his own base of supporters. However, his fundraising has dropped somewhat in the postClinton lull. And disappointment on the civil liberties left – after Obama backed a compromise bill for phone-tapping – has sapped enthusiasm in the liberal base.
The ambition is real, though. Obama’s campaign last week revealed a battle plan for contesting 14 states that George Bush won in 2004. Yes, 14. Previous Democratic strategists have focused on one or two – such as Ohio – to tip the race. That was John Kerry’s gamble, and part of the cautious, defensive crouch that Democrats have been used to since Ronald Reagan. Not this time. Obama has sig-nalled that he wants to run hard in conservative New Hampshire, and Bush-won Iowa, New Mexico and Nevada. Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin are next on the list. The Obama-ites are even hoping to pick up one electoral vote in Nebraska.
Ambitiously they also intend to assign 15 paid professionals to organise up to 10,000 volunteers in Texas – yes, Texas – for the general election.
“Texas is a great example where we might not be able to win the state, but we want to pay a lot of attention to it,” Obama strategist Steve Hildebrand told Politico.com last week. Congress, it turns out, is key to Obama’s expansive hopes. If he can help Democrats win races for the House and Senate, even if he does not win the state himself, he can be assured of a big congressional majority that would allow him, if elected, to become the transfor-mational president he wants to be.
A “new president alone isn’t enough”, Obama e-mailed to the Democrats’ Senate reelection committee last week. “I’ve served long enough in the US Senate to know that Washing-ton must change, and I also know that big changes don’t happen without big Senate majorities – and right now, Democrats occupy only 49 seats . . . This November, we have a chance to create a Democratic Senate majority like we haven’t seen in decades – but it won’t happen on its own.”
Some of this is what the pros know as a “head-fake”: forcing John McCain to spend money and resources in states he would like to take for granted but will now have to win the hard way. Perhaps the two most surprising ones are Georgia – where a heavy black turnout and a conservative split between McCain and Georgia Libertarian party candidate Bob Barr could make it much closer than it has been in years – and Alaska, where independent voters are leaning towards Obama. Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina are also close for similar reasons.
“We’re going in to win [these states],” Hildebrand insisted. And this may not be a total delusion. Two polls have just put Obama a hefty 15 points ahead of McCain (although Gallup shows a resiliently close contest). Plus a raft of new polls in key swing states show big Obama gains in recent weeks. In Minnesota his lead is now an impressive 17 points; in Wisconsin 13 points; in Michigan six points; and in Colorado five.
Moreover, Obama’s safe states appear much safer at this point in the election cycle than McCain’s – and if you factor in recent trends, all of which show steady movement towards Obama, you begin to hit landslide potential. One very reputable polling analyst, Nate Silver of the polling blog FiveThirtyEight, is now inferring a potential Obama win, on current trending data, of 358 electoral college votes to McCain’s 180. That’s a huge win.
Several big demographic factors help to explain this. One is the growing divide among evangelicals between younger, more liberal types and the traditional fire-and-brimstone set. Obama is the first Democrat since 1996 to be more comfortable talking about faith in public than the Republican – and that’s appealing to younger evangelicals who are disenchanted with too much proximity to the Republicans. And the growing Latino vote – which might be critical in the Mountain West – has moved behind Obama in unexpectedly strong fashion. Obama is winning Hispanics by a ratio of more than two to one. Not many expected that a few weeks ago.
Then there’s the self-reinforcing nature of the Obama phenomenon. If he can maintain the enthusiasm of his core support among blacks and the young it could snowball. One analysis shows that just a 10% increase in black or youth turnout, compared with 2004, could put Ohio, Florida, Colorado and Nevada easily within reach.
Currently Obama is ahead in Pennsylvania and Ohio, the two states that the Clintons insisted he could never win. To make matters worse for McCain, only 34% of Republicans have a “very favourable” view of him, compared with 56% of Democrats for Obama. That enthusiasm gap could prove critical in November.
It’s worth noting that no Democrat has shown this big a lead over his Republican rival in most polls in June since Michael Dukakis. At this point in 2004 Kerry was beating Bush by six, not 15, and Gore was even with Bush in 2000. The dose of cold water is of course the memory of Dukakis, who was beating the first George Bush by 18 points at this stage in 1988, but lost badly in the autumn.
However, Dukakis was up against an incumbent vice-president effectively running for Reagan’s third term. Obama is up against a Republican brand that is toxic and an incumbent president who has a 23% approval rating. Add the flattening economy to the mix and you can see why Obama is thinking big.
Maybe it is hubris. One of Obama’s weak spots is his considerable self-regard. A little too much confidence on his part also plays to McCain’s natural strength: as a scrappy, underappreciated, authentic underdog.
But the underdog may need a little more bite than McCain currently has. Sometimes candidates are cocky for a reason. And behind Obama’s cockiness is a steely ambition that has already upended the formidable Clintons. I wouldn’t bet against him.