By Alec MacGillis and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 8, 2008
Even as Barack Obama's campaign celebrated Tuesday's primary results, aides charged yesterday that they would have had an even stronger showing were it not for meddling by an unlikely booster of Hillary Rodham Clinton: the popular conservative radio host and longtime Clinton family nemesis Rush Limbaugh.
The impact of Limbaugh's "Operation Chaos" emerged as an intriguing point of debate, particularly in Indiana, where registered voters could participate in either party's primary, and where Clinton won by a mere 14,000 votes. As he had before several recent primaries, Limbaugh encouraged listeners to vote for Clinton to "bloody up Obama politically" and prolong the Democratic fight.
Limbaugh crowed about the success of his ploy all day Tuesday, featuring on-air testimonials from voters in Indiana and North Carolina who recounted their illicit pleasure in casting a vote for Clinton. "Some of the people show up and they ask for a Democrat ballot, and the poll worker says, 'Why, what are you going to do?' He says, 'Operation Chaos,' and they just laugh," Limbaugh said Tuesday.
But Limbaugh called off the operation yesterday, saying he wants Obama to be the party's pick, because "I now believe he would be the weakest of the Democrat nominees."
He added: "He can get effete snobs, he can get wealthy academics, he can get the young, and he can get the black vote, but Democrats do not win with that."
The Obama campaign and many of its supporters condemned Limbaugh's intervention tactic yesterday, calling it a major factor in Clinton's narrow Hoosier State win.
"Rush Limbaugh was tampering with the primary, and the GOP has clearly declared that it wants Hillary Clinton as the candidate," Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), an Obama supporter, told reporters on a conference call. On the same call, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said Limbaugh "had a clear factor in the outcome."
Whether that is true remains in question. Even if Limbaugh's exhortations brought as many of his listeners to the polls as he says, his operation did not cripple Obama, who emerged stronger from the day's primaries after better-than-expected showings with some key groups of voters.
Those looking for evidence of Limbaugh's influence pointed to Clinton's edge among Republicans in Indiana and North Carolina. In Indiana, 10 percent of Democratic primary voters described themselves as Republicans, a higher rate than in any state but Mississippi, and they went for Clinton by eight percentage points, according to exit polls. In North Carolina, they were 5 percent of the electorate, and went for her by 29 points.
By contrast, Obama won Republican voters, often by very large margins, in seven of the eight states where exit polls were able to report the group before the Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4, when Limbaugh first coaxed listeners to vote for Clinton.
Also notable was that in Indiana, six in 10 Republicans who supported Clinton on Tuesday said they would vote for presumptive GOP nominee John McCain over Clinton in the fall, if that were the matchup. By contrast, most Republicans who voted for Obama said they would back him against McCain. And a slight majority of Republicans who voted for Clinton in Indiana told pollsters that she does not share their values, raising further questions about why they supported her.
But at least as much data suggested that many Republicans voted for Clinton because the Democratic primary was the more meaningful one and because they simply preferred her to Obama. In Indiana, about nine in 10 GOP Clinton voters said she would make a better commander in chief, and more than six in 10 said she would have a better shot at beating McCain.
And Clinton's edge among Indiana Republicans was relatively small, if set against the broader racial divisions in the contest. Her eight-point advantage among Republicans, nearly all of whom are white in the state, was much narrower than it was among white Democrats, whom she won by nearly 2 to 1 over Obama.
Edward Carmines, a political scientist at Indiana University, said that he concluded from the data that while Operation Chaos "existed to some extent, I don't think it was a major factor."
Indiana defied easy analysis from the start, having not held a competitive Democratic presidential primary in decades. Clinton had a demographic edge, with the state's low proportion of black voters and its mix of Rust Belt workers, farmers and Southern transplants. Obama's primary advantage was that he hailed from next door, and many voters were familiar with him.
The Clinton campaign credited its narrow win to the organization of Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) and the more than 100 campaign stops made by Clinton and her husband and daughter. Robby Mook, Clinton's Indiana director, said she did better than expected in Indianapolis and in northwestern Indiana, where Obama was expected to benefit from his exposure on Chicago television.
But he fared better than the final polls predicted by cutting into Clinton's huge margin among several key groups in Ohio and Pennsylvania, such as white women and white voters without college degrees. He racked up big totals in college towns and with African American voters in Gary and Indianapolis, as expected. But he also won by 22 points in Hamilton County, an affluent Republican-leaning suburb north of Indianapolis; by 12 points in the county that includes Fort Wayne, after losing similar Rust Belt cities elsewhere; and lost by only four points in Evansville, on the southern border.
The Obama campaign attributed these successes to having placed the candidate in smaller venues and more personal gatherings -- a horse barn, senior center, steel mill, a farmer's back yard -- where he sought to be seen less as a political star than a thoughtful listener. Mitch Stewart, Obama's Indiana director, pointed in particular to Elkhart County, a Republican-leaning community east of South Bend, where the candidate did some canvassing and ended up winning by 18 points.
It made the difference for Jim Ballard, 41, an Elkhart police officer who did not make up his mind until last week.
"Barack seems to be hitting the smaller towns and talking to the people. And he makes you feel like you're part of the process," he said as he climbed on his Harley-Davidson in Granger. "One of the things that was said was he looked people in the eye and Hillary didn't. That's big for me, as a police officer. "
Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.