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Trouble Ahead for Obama

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By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, April 24, 2008

When Pennsylvania exit polls came out late Tuesday afternoon showing a lead of 3.6 points for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama, Democratic leaders who desperately wanted her to end her candidacy were not cheered. They were sure that this puny lead overstated Obama's strength, as exit polls nearly always have in diverse states with large urban populations. How is it possible, then, that Clinton, given up for dead by her party's establishment, won Pennsylvania in a 10-point landslide? The answer is the dreaded "Bradley effect."

Prominent Democrats only whisper when they compare Obama's experience, the first African American with a serious chance to be president, with what happened to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley a quarter-century ago. In 1982, exit polls showed Bradley, who was black, ahead in the race for governor of California, but he ultimately lost to Republican George Deukmejian. Pollster John Zogby (who predicted Clinton's double-digit win Tuesday) said what practicing Democrats would not: "I think voters face to face are not willing to say they would oppose an African American candidate."

If there really is a Bradley effect in 2008, Zogby sees November peril for Obama in blue states. John McCain could win not only in Pennsylvania but also in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and he can retain Ohio for the Republicans. There seems to be no way Clinton can overtake Obama in delegates and the popular vote. For unelected superdelegates to deprive Obama of the nomination would so depress African American general election voting that the nomination would be worthless for her. In a year when all normal political indicators point to Republican defeat on all fronts, the Democratic Party faces deepening difficulties whether Obama is nominated or rejected.

The sudden emergence of Obama as an extraordinary candidate who could transcend race and ideology seemed to indicate an escape route from this dilemma. But Bill Clinton sought to label Obama as his wife's black opponent, and Obama -- who has lost every high-population state to Clinton except Georgia and his own state of Illinois -- has been increasingly identified as bearing the ideological burdens that brought down Democratic nominees George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

Obama hit a low in Pennsylvania, despite clouds over Clinton's credibility and her husband's dysfunctional campaigning. Popular freshman Sen. Bob Casey, a pro-life and pro-gun Catholic, was Obama's faithful surrogate but proved to be no help. Exit polls showed Obama losing 70 percent of Catholics, 58 percent of white Protestants and 62 percent of gun owners. Clinton carried union members, people who earn between $15,000 and $75,000 annually, and those without a college degree. Obama was saved from total disaster in Pennsylvania by winning 92 percent of the African American vote, but the reverse of the racial divide was Clinton's support from whites, especially white working women.

For the first time, Democratic loyalists not necessarily committed to Clinton are wondering whether the party's system for picking a nominee is the problem. If caucuses were eliminated and only primaries were used, Obama's 130-delegate lead would turn into an advantage of 45 delegates for Clinton. The bigger problem is proportional representation, which replaced the kind of winner-take-all system that enabled Republicans to get their nominee on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5. Without the reforms enacted by Democrats during the decade after the party's 1968 fiasco, Clinton might have clinched the nomination by now.

Such regret will not affect the 2008 election, and no significant procedural changes are likely. Democratic politicians today see no viable alternative to Obama as their nominee. Their hard assessment is that Clinton clawing her way to the nomination could mean 25 percent McCain support from a radically depleted African American turnout -- a prescription for disaster.

On the other hand, Pennsylvania exit polls project a massive defection by Clinton voters (with 32 percent of them saying they would be "satisfied" only if she is the nominee). Many of these disaffected Democrats surely will be reconciled to Obama. Indeed, McCain privately warns key supporters to be prepared for a massive, if temporary, falloff in the polls once these unhappy Democrats return after Obama is nominated. But not all will return, and that is Pennsylvania's warning to the Democratic Party.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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