News Analysis

Race tests morale, traditional wisdom

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter S. Canellos
Globe Staff / February 13, 2008

WASHINGTON - Hillary Clinton's supporters flipped on their televisions on Saturday night, Sunday night, and last night hoping to watch "The Amazing Race" and ended up with "The Biggest Loser."

Day after day, Clinton has endured the kind of defeats that President Bush calls "thumpings." Yesterday, Barack Obama added wins in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia to his sweep of four states and the US Virgin Islands over the weekend.

The Clintonites saw it coming. After last week's Super Tuesday results, they crunched the numbers for various voting blocs and decided that all the states until March 4 - when Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island go to the polls - would be tough sledding. And they quickly started talking about having a good March after a bruising February.

But the percussive effect of eight losses in a row, with two more potential blows next week in Wisconsin and Hawaii, could take a toll on the morale of the Clinton campaign team and her voters.

Traditional political analysis, especially in presidential primaries, is that momentum moves the numbers - that candidates who lose race after race eventually have even their fairly committed supporters taking a second look at their opponents.

But the question on the minds of many analysts yesterday was whether the traditional wisdom would hold in a race as untraditional as this one. Some debated whether Obama's victories were a sign of burgeoning support for him - a political star being born - or rather a lucky string of contests on very favorable terms: states with either caucus systems, which he dominates, or very large portions of black voters, who have rallied to his side in breathtaking numbers.

William Carrick, a leading Democratic political consultant who is not aligned in the Clinton-Obama race, is one who sees signs of expanding support for Obama.

"Anything over 60 percent is pretty dramatic, and that means he's picked up among some voting blocs," said Carrick. "We're seeing a lot of states coming in and the numbers looking alike. The voters may be close to rendering their judgment."

Or maybe not: Even Carrick pointed to the "unusual volatility" in the electorate this year and the possibility of a momentum-changing moment in a debate or campaign appearance.

Nonetheless, exit polls from Virginia suggested that Obama is making inroads into Clinton's base of support: He won the overall women's vote and lost the votes of white women by only 10 percent - down from 25 percent in last week's Super Tuesday contests.

In addition, his support among black voters continues to grow. After winning 82 percent of black votes in various Super Tuesday states, Obama scored 90 percent in Virginia, according to the CNN exit poll. With African-Americans making up 27 percent of the Virginia electorate, Obama's black support made the difference between a neck-and-neck race and a blowout.

Clinton's supporters insist they will make up for the recent string of losses with wins in some very large states ahead, including Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Each of those states has more of the type of voters who have supported Clinton in the past - lower- and middle-income Democrats in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Hispanics in Texas.

But most analysts - along with many in both the Clinton and Obama camps - can only wonder whether Obama's momentum will change the outlook.

Donald Kettl, director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania, said Obama's twin themes of change and leadership are now moving "beyond strategy, beyond polling, and into gut feelings" of voters.

"With each of these states he wins, he gets closer to front-runner status," Kettl said, adding that Obama's financial advantage will grow as donors begin to question whether Clinton will win.

Wayne Lesperance, a political scientist at New England College in New Hampshire, agrees with Kettl, but also sees some pitfalls for Obama, who will be facing the intense scrutiny of a front-runner while trying to maintain a slender lead in delegates.

"This is a new role for him," Lesperance said. "The campaign is talking about taking on some new advisers to prepare him for what's to come. I think they expect some real pushback now."

But the pressure on Obama will be more than matched by that on Clinton. Carrick said she needs to perform an "Indiana Jones routine" to right her listing campaign.

Still, her supporters would probably welcome "Indiana Jones" or any other adventure flick over the unpleasant reality shows that have been appearing on the nights of recent elections.

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