Speech to PA School Boards’ Association, 5/18/08, 8PM
Good evening everyone. Let’s first talk about the status of the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama from a national perspective. Even with Hillary Clinton’s huge win in West Virginia this past week, her expected win in Kentucky this coming week, and her 9-point win in PA a month ago, it’s still unlikely she can legitimately claim the rights to the nomination unless she convinces an overwhelming majority of the remaining uncommitted super delegates to vote for her. Obama is winning with pledged delegates, approximately by 153 at last count, leads with the total number of states won (32 of the 49 contests so far), and leads with the popular vote by slightly less than 600,000 nationwide not counting Florida or Michigan, both of which have been contested because they moved their primaries ahead against the rules of the Democratic Party. Obama is now even winning with super delegates by approximately 13 at last count, a group that early on Hillary had a significant lead with. If you have been following the super delegate race, there really has been three break points when super delegates have committed to the candidates – the first phase was early in the primary season before Super Tuesday when the Clinton forces were able to capitalize on her perceived status as the “inevitable” nominee, calling in chits with party leaders and using her husband’s good name to secure what quickly became a formidable, 120-super delegate lead over Obama. So Hillary clearly won the first wave. Then, after super-Tuesday in February Obama went on a winning streak of 10 states practically in a row amassing up leads with both pledged delegates and the popular vote and the second wave of super delegates lined up mostly behind him, narrowing Clinton’s lead considerably to less than 50. Now, what we are seeing is probably the beginning of the third wave of super delegates breaking for Obama almost on a daily basis since it’s become clear from the handwriting on the wall that Obama will probably be the nominee given his margins with both pledged delegates and the popular vote. Presently, there are less than 250 remaining super delegates who have yet to commit to either candidate, many of which have said they will make a decision after all the states have voted by June 3 and most of these are not expected to vote against the winner of the pledged delegate race, although the party rules do say they are free to make their own decisions which is why they are called “super” delegates after all. Of course neither candidate will probably win the vote from Steven Ybarra, an uncommitted super delegate from Sacramento, California…Does anyone know who Steve Ybarra is…?
Clinton’s main strategy has been to convince super delegates that she is the only candidate that has and will continue to win the big, “delegate-rich” states the Democrats need to win in November to beat John McCain. She points to her wins in California, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, even Michigan and Florida, and of course PA. It’s an argument she’s hoping that the super delegates will still respond to, assuming you still believe she is in this race to still get the nomination. So the key is: can the results of the remaining contests in Kentucky, Oregon, Montana, South Dakota and Puerto Rico really make that much of a difference? Since the candidates will probably split the remaining states with Clinton favored in Kentucky and Puerto Rico and Obama favored in South Dakota, Oregon and Montana, it’s probably unlikely all that much will change since neither candidate is likely to emerge with a decisive lead in pledged delegates from these final states. However, the real game changer in our opinion were the recent contests held in North Carolina and Indiana, where Obama won North Carolina by a huge 14-point margin when the polls showed the race closing to single digits. This win was significant not only because it added substantially to Obama’s lead with pledged delegates and the popular vote, both of which had narrowed after Pennsylvania, but also because North Carolina is considered a key battleground state that the Obama campaign has now been able to use to undermine Clinton’s argument that she is the only candidate who can win big, delegate-rich states in November. Clinton of course won Indiana, which was important because Obama held leads in that state in early polls, but her narrow 2-point victory seemed to be a nonstarter with the super delegates who may have started to take Hillary’s argument to heart that she might have actually been the best candidate to beat McCain in November. And perhaps the real audience for what happened in North Carolina and Indiana may be a small group of people who make up the rules committee of the Democratic National Committee, who are scheduled to meet May 31st to decide the fate of the 338 delegates still hanging in the balance from primaries in Michigan and Florida. This is important because the pledged delegates from these two states could have cut deeply into Obama’s delegate lead given that Clinton won the popular vote in both states; and if you count her popular vote lead from both states its actually enough to overtake Obama in total popular votes. However, the perception by some committee members that Clinton has failed to derail Obama’s candidacy, particularly after what most have called one of the worst months of his campaign, could have strengthened Obama’s hand with this committee to the point where one of the more likelier outcomes of this committee hearing is that there will be a decision to seat just enough delegates from these two states at the convention in Denver to confirm Obama’s nomination, but not enough to actually swing the nomination to Clinton. The theory is that what this does is also avoid a huge backlash from voters in these two states if they don’t find some way of making sure their votes were counted in some ways, which according to some could even risk turning a state like Michigan into a red state in November. So the end result of all of this is that by the time all the states have voted, Obama will probably have enough pledged and super delegates to hit the magic 2,025 he needs to secure the nomination. If you’ve noticed, both Obama and Clinton have virtually stopped attacking each other, and Clinton is sounding more conciliatory in her speeches in terms of stressing that whoever the nominee is will go on to win in November. Plus, Clinton’s revelation that her campaign is $20 million in debt has really given people the sense that her campaign is all but over, although Obama has been very careful to not ask her to drop out of the race and to simply let the remaining states play out with the understanding that as long as he doesn’t make any more public blunders, the math won’t change enough to deny him the nomination.
Now, let’s turn to a quick recap of the race in PA which I really think is important to understand so you can get a better sense of what Obama is faced with to win a state like PA in November. Clinton’s win in PA last month was projected for weeks, with the real debate more focused on whether it would be a narrow victory or a 10-point win like in Ohio and New Jersey. Her 10-point margin in the state proved once again she has a much broader base of support than Obama in these key battleground states. She won 60 of the 67 counties, and exit polling showed big margins for her with Catholics, females, blue collar “Reagan Democrats”, super voters and senior citizens. She even won narrowly among white males, which have tended to be up for grabs in the past. Undecided voters broke for Clinton by a near 60/40 margin in the remaining 7 days of the race, a clear indication she had stopped his momentum in early April stemming from both self-inflicted wounds about his comments about how people in small towns in PA “cling to guns, religion, etc.” when they are bitter about their economic anxieties, as well as a poor debate performance on 4/16 in Philadelphia when tough questioning from the media kept him on the defensive.
For Obama, exit polls showed his strengths primarily among voters 45 years and under, affluent and white collar voters and black Democrats. Among those who registered to vote for the first time, exit polls showed they voted for Obama by a 62/38 margin. Obama needed a big win in the Southeast counties of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery, where polls showed he was neck-and-neck with Clinton; he ended up narrowly losing these counties collectively by a 52/48 margin. The other key region for Obama was the Mid State/Harrisburg region (Adams, Dauphin, Cumberland, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Berks and Perry), where Democrats tend to be more affluent, white collar and up-and-coming professionals, and therefore more like Southeastern PA Democrats and less like the blue collar, culturally-conservative Democrats you get in the Northeast and the West. Obama only split these counties 50/50 with Clinton. As expected, he won Philadelphia by a 2:1 margin, and also carried Chester, Delaware, Lancaster, Dauphin, Centre and Union Counties, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Clinton’s home-grown advantages and institutional support in the state, even with the unprecedented turnout of more than 2 million votes cast, up from 1.2 million in 2002 which was the last time the Democrats had a contested statewide election between Rendell and Casey for governor.
So, the significance of a Clinton win in Pennsylvania really brings to light Obama’s potential problems in key industrial states like PA, Ohio and Indiana as the Democratic nominee in the fall and that’s important because many insiders believe that the candidate who wins two out of the three states of PA, Florida and Ohio, usually wins the White House which has been the traditon the last several presidential elections. Obama’s problems attracting support from white, working-class voters may not go away easily, and national polling showed that following Clinton’s win in PA, favorable impressions for Obama dropped 5 points, while the percentage of Americans who viewed him as unfavorable jumped 9 points, a 14 point swing, with the highest negative ratings coming from Independents, seniors, blue collar workers, rural and small town voters and even suburban women, the last of which have given Obama some of his strongest support in past contests. In PA, our poll just released this past week shows the state is much more of a lock for the Democrats with Hillary as the Democratic nominee because if the election were held today she would beat McCain by a 49/38 margin, which is an 11-point lead. However, with Obama against McCain the race is tighter, with Obama winning by a 7-point, 46/39 margin. Even though Obama is winning with 46% of the vote, what does it say about a guy who just spend a record amount of money in the state – upwards of 9 million dollars – which we think is the most in the state’s history and compared to McCain who hasn’t spent a dime here yet, even after all this, he still can’t crack fifty percent in the polls here?
Probably the most important region in the poll is the Southwest region or the Pittsburgh media market, where if Clinton was the nominee she would lead McCain by a 17-point margin there, but with Obama as the nominee it actually flips to McCain by a 11-point margin, or a swing of 28 points. This is important because we’re talking about those same types of voters we mentioned earlier that proved critical to Clinton’s margin in the PA primary as well as in Ohio and more recently in West Virginia – namely Catholics, blue collar “Reagan Democrats” and white, working class voters, most of whom are culturally conservative on social issues like guns, abortion and gay marriage and who in past elections have given Republicans key victories at the statewide level. All other areas of the state showed both Clinton and Obama’s leads against McCain virtually the same, so the real battleground in PA, and we would argue maybe even the entire nation if you believe the notion that the whoever wins PA helps elect the next president, comes down to the fluidness of the vote in the Southwestern part of the state. It is precisely these types of voters Obama will need to appeal to if he is going to win the presidency and at the current time, he still has a lot of work to do.
Let’s shift to the general election between McCain and either Obama or Clinton. For tons of reasons, this should be the Democrats’ year to capture the White House. Approximately 75% of Americans say the country is on the wrong track, a sentiment which historically works against the party occupying the White House. A majority of Americans believe the war in Iraq was a mistake and not worth the sacrifices we have made, and most Americans and most Pennsylvanians for that matter, think we are currently in a recession, or headed for one in the next several months. And with record gasoline and food prices, mortgage foreclosures through the roof and problems in the credit market, people are simply looking for change. The president’s approval rating has been flat lined at 30% for literally almost two years now, which is near Nixon levels, and all these factors have contributed to such a black mark on the Republican Party that according to polls, when you ask Americans which party they want to win the White House, by a 10-point margin they say the Democrats. When you ask Americans which party they belong to, fewer and fewer Americans identify as being Republican, which is near historic lows. And according to a Wall Street Journal poll released last week, only 27% of voters nationwide now have favorable views of the Republican Party, the lowest level for either party in the survey’s near two-decade history. And if this doesn’t convince you, just look at the last three special elections for Congress that have been held in recent months in Illinois, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The Democrats won all three of them in districts that were largely considered safe seats for the Republicans for decades, and this clearly shows that the negative political environment against the GOP is coming home to roost. And you don’t have to look at statistics or these special elections to feel the energy the Democrats have had this year with record turnouts in the primaries, huge advantages in fundraising where the Clinton and Obama campaigns have raised twice and three times as much money as McCain or the Republicans have, and hundreds of thousands of new voters registering to vote for the first time. Just in PA alone, the Democrats have increased their voters by 8% recently, giving them more than 4 million voters on the rolls which is unprecedented – and even flipped 5 counties from Republican to Democrat in registration (Centre, Clinton, Bucks, Montgomery and Clearfield). Even here in Dauphin County, the increase in Democrat registration was the highest of the state, a 38% increase adding 20,000 new Democrats to the rolls, giving the Republicans now a less than 2,000 voter registration advantage in a county that Republican candidates have carried in the past by huge margins.
Despite all this, McCain is still in a statistical dead heat with both Clinton and Obama in national polls and in Pennsylvania as we said earlier is trailing both candidates but still considered competitive enough to keep PA in play. McCain’s resilience can be attributed to many factors: as someone who has been willing to buck the Republican Party establishment, his maverick-style image has made him attractive to Independent voters, moderates and Hispanics. Plus, polls show he has strong appeal to senior citizens and veterans, and is fairly well liked by most voters, and the WSJ poll I referred to earlier showed that among all three presidential candidates, Americans gave the highest marks to McCain on “values and background”, which the survey identified as things like honor, trustworthiness and patriotism. In fact, McCain scored higher than Obama and Clinton among most key demographic groups on these issues including with men, seniors, independents, suburbanites, small town voters and rural voters. More recently, a key series of focus groups were conducted in the key battleground state of Virginia with Independent voters – and these were focus groups done by Democratic pollsters – it showed that these Independent voters actually leaned towards McCain in November and had serious reservations about Obama because they just aren’t sure they know enough about him, some thought he was a Muslim, and others wondered if more surprises are still to come. All this means McCain’s appeal is more based on personal traits and his maverick image more so than his positions on issues, which can work to his advantage given his controversial positions on the Iraq war, and the perception by many that he lacks the credentials to grasp economic issues and turn the economy around.
Also, with McCain as the GOP nominee the entire electoral map of which states are competitive in November gets turned upside down. For instance, because of his appeal to Reagan Democrats, the McCain campaign believes they put states like Michigan and PA in play for the general election, and his popularity with Independents may put Minnesota, New Hampshire and even Wisconsin in play. Also, the bitter primary between Obama and Clinton is giving Democratic Party leaders heartburn, since they are concerned about what impact this will have on the nominee in the fall, and if the Clinton voters will vote for Obama and vice versa in a general election. Polls show up to 1 in 4 Democrats may not vote for either Clinton or Obama if the other candidate wins the nomination.
Ultimately, I think the general election for president will be closely contested, and I think a lot of it has to do with how successful the GOP is defining Barack Obama if he is the nominee, something Clinton has really not had the luxury of doing since she can’t afford to alienate the same base she’ll need to rely on in November if she’s the nominee. For McCain, he can win if he’s able to continue to win traditional Red states, but also pick up a few blue states due to his appeal to moderates, Independents and Hispanics. He also needs to shore up his Republican base since the true conservatives in the party have despised his positions for years on positions like immigration, voting against the Bush tax cuts, his support of a campaign finance bill which many 2nd amendment groups found to be obscene because it violates their right to free speech, as well as his support for global warming and opposition to drilling for oil in ANWAR. And if you followed the recent primary in PA, even though McCain was virtually uncontested in the Republican primary, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul still were on the ballot and combined got 27% of the vote against McCain even though they weren’t actively campaigning, and turnout was very low on the GOP side because few races were contested so these were the party faithful that turned out, so it just shows that McCain still has work to do to get the GOP base energized for him in November. However, in a year when this should be a slam dunk for the Democrats given all the negative indicators, the only saving grace for the GOP, which is really the most ironic part, is that despite all the bitching, name calling and outright hostility that Republicans, yes Republicans have shown to John McCain over the years, he is probably the only nominee that could have given them a prayer this year because he’s the only candidate who has the potential to have any separation from the low GOP brand because he has built his entire reputation on his maverick, independent image as someone who has been willing to buck the party. All the other nominees, Huckabee, Romney, Thompson, even Rudy Giuliani, would probably have been sunk by now and been dragged down by the same political environment that is killing these Republican candidates in congressional races that are playing out across the country.
For Obama, he can’t win in November if he doesn’t win traditional blue states the Democrats have always relied on, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, so the first step for him is to some how get Democrats in these states, most of whom voted against him in the primary, to vote for him in the fall. In addition, because of Obama’s appeal to new types of voters, look for his campaign to try to win some reliably Republican states, like Virginia, which recently has elected two consecutive Democratic governors, or others in the Midwest like Colorado, New Mexico or Nevada which Bush carried by very close margins in 2004. Obama will probably even make a play for Southern states he’s done well in just recently in the primaries, states like North Carolina, Mississippi or Georgia – all of which he’s won due to high turnout from the black community. And Obama will need to again rely on a new paradigm of voter turnout – by increasing turnout among first time voters, young voters, college students and higher black turnout primarily in the state’s urban centers.
Now, turning to education issues for a few minutes…Thank you for your time