I tried to bolt the door, batten the windows, turn off the Internet and cover my ears to the siren call of another U.S. presidential contest. Even down here in my south-of-the-border paradise, there's no place to run. The traditional refrain of 'If you don't like the United States, why don't you move to another country' is moot here in Mexico, now that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is in full swing. As the social humorist Barry Crimmins answers those taunts: 'Because I don't want to be victimized by its foreign policy.' (I used to laugh every time Barry said it. Now I just quietly weep.)
For a while, the Democrats were making it easy to for me huddle by my cozy fireside of alienation. They took back Congress in 2006 and have capitulated ever since as the war in Iraq escalated and the Constitution continued its slide through the paper shredder. The polls and pundits scream that Sen. Hillary Clinton has a lock on the nomination and that nostalgia for the mediocre 1990s shall define our inevitable future.
Will the Democrats really nominate another Clinton and inadvertently cede to a Republican D.C.-outsider like Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney the moniker of the 'change candidate'? Not since 1928 has there been a presidential contest in which a sitting president or vice-president did not seek his party's nomination. That makes Clinton, due to her association in voters' minds with the Clinton White House (an image the candidate herself promotes), the de facto 'incumbent' of the 2008 election at the precise moment that the electorate wants 'change.'
Clinton has surrounded herself with the same tired White House gang. Corporate America's über-consultant and pollster Mark Penn calls the daily shots in the Clinton '08 campaign. (It was Penn who told ABC News this month that, in 2000, Al Gore 'thought there was Clinton fatigue. I thought there was Clinton nostalgia but not fatigue.') Mandy Grunwald pulls down a $360,000 salary running the media show for her second client named Clinton. Terry McAuliffe is the senator's chief fundraiser, and the rest of the campaign staff is similarly dominated by old Clinton hands, most of whom sat out the past two presidential elections and are still wandering around in an Olympus of their own creation, seeking to relive the end of the past century.
The first Clinton administration turned out to be eight years of dashed hopes with its largest 'accomplishments' enduring as dubious zombie policies that continued to haunt us long after the Clintons had moved to Chappaqua. (Remember welfare reform and the squandering of the peace dividend?) NAFTA chased millions of Mexican farmers off their lands and northward across the border (providing grist for the xenophobes and radio talkers to persecute the migrant workers once they arrived) and has turned too many beautiful rivers and coasts down here into industrial cesspools during the past decade.
And so the senator's rivals for the Democratic nomination deserve a look-see. U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich has been a three-decade stalwart on behalf of real issues. In our hearts we know he's right but also that he hasn't the muscle to stop the return of the Clinton regime or its GOP counterpart. How about old Senate warriors Chris Dodd and Joe Biden? Should we rally behind the gaffe-prone Gov. Bill Richardson? The questions kind of answer themselves, don't they?
Some of us like John Edwards' populist tongue and position papers, his wonderful family, his Southern charm, and the brickbats he tosses at corporate power, while acknowledging that Edwards has a cubic centimeter of a chance (unlike Kucinich, who has none) to crack through the first-in-the-nation caucus next January in Iowa (where in '04 he placed a surprise second to John Kerry) and become a contendah.
But we've seen that movie (and its formulaic sequels) before. It's the quadrennial blockbuster where a big-money Democratic front-runner tramples the more attractive but under-funded alternative. When, in 1988, Jesse Jackson emerged as the last candidate standing between Michael Dukakis and his doomed nomination, Jackson, among other disadvantages, didn't have the millions of dollars it would have taken to ride an insurgent candidacy through to winning the Democratic National Convention.
Even if Edwards does crack through in Iowa, he won't have the resources to finish the race, and the coronation of Clinton as nominee will go according to script. I'm very sorry to say that, because the primacy of money is one of the main reasons why previous presidential campaigns made many of us want to ignore this one.
Edwards recently had to pull campaign staff out of the early caucus state of Nevada to shore up his operations in Iowa and New Hampshire. And even if those early contests go well for him, he'll have depleted his limited campaign war chest and the Clinton steamroller will flatten him in the rapid-fire march of expensive larger states that follow. And though Edwards, a successful trial lawyer, is a millionaire (his campaign estimates Edwards' net worth at $29.5 million), not even by dropping his every last silver dollar into the kitty would he break the $32-million-and-growing gap that Clinton has opened up on him this early in the game. Even if he were to open that checkbook, the Clintons' net worth is in the same league: between $10 million and $50 million, according to financial disclosure forms. And so, for this cycle, fundraising really does matter.
The primary landscape
Here is the early caucus and primary calendar. (Never mind the whining by Florida and Michigan Democrats over Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean's recent smackdown of their attempts to leapfrog the early states. The top Democratic candidates have now signed a pledge not to campaign in any states that attempt to cut in line. Michigan and Florida, if they persist, will become mere footnotes to the narrative-beauty contests that draw no actual campaigning, yield no guarantee of delegates and provide only marginal positive bounce to their winners. There's actually the possibility of a negative bounce in feisty New Hampshire if Michigan's slated Jan. 15 beauty contest really is held before the Granite State primary.)And so, the early schedule (still subject to maneuvers) will go something like this:
Jan. 14: Iowa CaucusesJan. 19: Nevada CaucusesJan. 22: New Hampshire PrimaryJan. 29: South Carolina PrimaryFeb. 5: Tsunami Tuesday
On Tsunami Tuesday, there will be primaries in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah, plus caucuses in Alaska, Colorado, New Mexico and North Dakota.
At that point, 1,242 of 4,363 Democratic National Convention delegates will have been chosen, but a nominee will need 2,182 delegates to win the nomination. And the front-runner Clinton, assuming she's still standing, will likely face just one viable rival in the expensive media war to come in the states that follow. It was in this round when Dukakis bested Jackson in '88; it's also when Walter Mondale dispatched Gary Hart in '84, Bill Clinton raced past Jerry Brown in '92, Al Gore beat Bill Bradley in '00 and Kerry stopped Edwards in '04. The last front-runner standing with the most money has always won in the recent Democratic nomination battles. (Bradley began with a slight money advantage over Gore, but by March, Gore had raced significantly ahead in terms of available campaign funds.)Following that pattern, Hillary Clinton, who, in the first half of 2007, raised $53 million and emptied her U.S. Senate campaign chest to add another cool $10 million, would easily best Edwards (who raised $23 million during those same six months) in the second wave of primaries and caucuses.
Today, Clinton has $45 million in the bank versus Edwards' $13 million. That gap will likely increase significantly by January. All the major candidates have sufficient funds for parity on the airwaves and on the ground in early Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina. But by the time Tsunami Tuesday comes along, on Feb. 5, the wealthier campaign-presuming its candidate did not stumble badly in one or more of the first four states-will likely begin to pile up delegates and trampoline through the February and March contests toward the nomination. Game over.
We could have ignored the entire campaign, comfortable in our distanced discomfort, casting a pox on all their houses-except for the emergence of that pain-in-the-ass Sen. Barack Obama, who has crafted the irresistible narrative that now emerges.
The ‘change' election
Barack Obama sought to turn the 2008 vote into a referendum on 'change.' Now Clinton has said 'me, too,' so they'll be boxing the rest of the prizefight in a ring Obama built. On Labor Day weekend, the candidates went to New Hampshire to unveil their reloaded messages and begin the final laps toward the actual voting in January.
Their speeches were aired on C-Span and appear on the candidate websites, but let's focus on a few key passages that give the game away. Clinton spoke at rallies in Concord and Portsmouth on Sunday, Sept. 3, flanked by placards that brandished her new campaign slogan: 'Change + Experience.'
Clinton used the C-word more than two dozen times during her 31-minute stump speech.
'‘Change' is just a word without the strength and experience to make it happen.... I know some people think you have to choose between change and experience. Well, with me, you don't have to choose.... I have spent my whole life fighting for change.... I will bring my experience to the White House and begin to change our country starting on day one.'
All well and good, until Clinton hedged her change argument to tell us what she was really thinking and promised to capitulate if elected president:'From my time in the White House and in the Senate, I have learned that you bring change by working in the system established in our Constitution. You cannot pretend that the system doesn't exist.'
Clinton's pledge: 'You need to know when to stick to principles and fight, and know when to make principled compromises.'
Can I please go back to ignoring this campaign now? Ahem. Change + Experience. Change + the System. Change + Compromises. All those plus signs add up to a big minus, erasing the 'Change' from the equation. (One of the funnier comments I heard after that speech was that Clinton's general-election message will likely be: 'Democrat + Republican: With me you don't have to choose!')After all, everybody who lived through the first Clinton administration has the experience to remember what capitulation after the promise of change looks like.
A day later, at a campaign rally in Manchester, Obama rolled out his upgraded message with a direct challenge to Clinton's technocratic doctrine of system management:'[A]s bad as George Bush has been, it's going to take more than a change of parties in the White House to truly turn this country around. George Bush and Dick Cheney may have turned divisive, special-interest politics into an art form, but they didn't invent it. It was there before they got to Washington, and if you and I don't stand up and challenge it, it will be there long after they leave.'Citing 'the conventional Washington thinking on foreign policy that led us to this tragic war in Iraq' (and reminding us again that his chief rival, Clinton, voted to authorize that war), Obama hammered:'We need to turn the page. There are those who tout their experience working the system in Washington-but the problem is that the system in Washington isn't working for us and hasn't for a long time. Think about it. We've been talking about the health-care crisis in this country for decades....'I believe this election cannot be about who can play this game better. It has to be about who can put an end to the game-playing.'
Obama's open contempt for 'the problem,' 'the system,' 'this game' and 'the game playing' and his call for 'more than a change' places him squarely in the camp of the alienated American everywhere. But, as with challengers such as Hart, Jackson, Brown, Bradley and Edwards before him, the Clinton juggernaut will roll over Obama, too, by outspending him.
Stop the presses: Obama will have more money to fight through the entire primary process?Oh my. That sure makes for a different narrative than has ever occurred before-especially because most of Obama's record-breaking campaign war chest comes from small donors. That fact presages a very different Democratic nomination process for 2008 than has ever been seen. And that's why even many of us who would like to ignore it can't turn our heads away.
Obama's buying power
Obama is raising campaign money faster than even the Clinton machine is. So the real surprise of the 2008 Democratic nomination contest is that, for the first time since Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 campaign, the upstart rival will be able to outspend the anointed Democratic front-runner.
He's a senator from Illinois, a big-money state, and powerbrokers from Warren Buffett to David Geffen to Oprah Winfrey are on board the Obama fundraising train. But Obama's gotten the bulk of the $58 million he's raised in the first half of 2007 from small donations (averaging $224) and without accepting money from D.C. lobbyists or political-action committees (PACs).
A close look at the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) filings by the Clinton and Obama campaigns suggests that when the next filing is due, on Oct. 15, Obama is likely to emerge ahead of Clinton, in terms of cash-on-hand, heading into January's caucuses and primaries. Here's why:Most of Obama's money ($34 million of his $58 million) comes from more than 200,000 small donors, who, because they're not even close to having given the maximum $2,300 allowed by law, he can tap again and again.
By contrast, a whopping 70 percent of Clinton's funds have come from donors who have already maxed out and cannot give again. Of the money Clinton has reported to date, only $19 million of her $63 million comes from donors who remain beneath the $2,300 ceiling.
Obama has the upper hand.
Let's look a little closer. More than 110,000 of those Obama donors gave $17 million via the Internet. Many other Obama contributors are folks who shelled out $10 or $25 to attend one of his speeches. (Obama continues drawing the largest and most enthusiastic crowds across the country.) Only 45,000 of Obama's 258,000-plus donors gave more than $200. That leaves more than 213,000 very small contributors who have effectively rewritten the history of political-campaign funding.
It's as if, after waiting for decades for reformers in Washington to get serious about public financing of electoral campaigns, a significant chunk of the public has moved out in front of the policy-makers and taken matters into its own hands.
Obama has not only out-raised the Clinton machine but also each of the Republican candidates. The era of supremacy by the well-heeled max-out donor is finally being chipped down to size, one small donation at a time. (For those wishing to do the math themselves, Opensecrets.org provides a wonderful online guide to following the money trail.) Win or lose, Obama-or, better said, his grassroots supporters-may have already brought a revolution in campaign financing that finally weans the process from it previous dependence on influence money.
Of course, more (and mostly cleaner) money alone won't seal the deal for Obama. It merely means that if he does reasonably well in early 2008, he'll have the staying power-even the dominant position-to drive the roller-coaster successfully without falling off the tracks that lead to the Democratic National Convention next summer in Denver.
In the 2004 cycle, albeit to a lesser extent, Dean had out-raised all rivals for the Democratic nomination and was leading in national polls, but he choked early in the primary process when Kerry loaned his own campaign enough millions to close the gap. Dean was unable to convert the enthusiasm for his candidacy into organization on the ground in Iowa and early primary states. And while he had raised more money than the others, it wasn't enough to compete with Kerry's war chest. Dean raised $52 million during the entire campaign, much of it also from small donors. As of the second quarter of 2003, he had raised $10 million, compared with the $58 million Obama raised at the same benchmark in this cycle. So the Dean candidacy went the way of 'change candidates' before him-Hart, Jackson, Brown and Bradley-while Obama's fundraising success puts him in a league of his own. He's the first Democratic challenger-to-a-front-runner in memory with enough cash to go the entire distance of the nomination fight.
America's community organizer
Dean, a centrist governor who morphed into a maverick during his 2004 presidential campaign, had no background fighting from the outside and below. Dean didn't wear it well. It is Obama's history as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago-and the application of that experience to organizing his campaign-that's making the 2008 cycle distinct from previous ones. Where Dean failed to convert his donor-activist base into effective organization, Obama is apparently writing the book on how to do it.
During a three-day training session of Obama volunteers-called Camp Obama-in New York this past month, the campaign's field director, Temo Figueroa, confronted the ghost of Dean's '04 crash head on.
'What's the difference,' he asked. 'What's the main distinction between the Howard Dean campaign and all that enthusiasm and all those big crowds and this campaign? What's the biggest distinction between the two? And I'll tell you. It's this. Howard Dean never did this. What is it? Training. Putting a large investment up front about the strategy, the tactics of how we win. We have now trained over 2,000 people in Chicago. Two thousand people have gone through three-day, four-day trainings like this and are going back to their home states and developing field structures, organizing structures, in their congressional districts.'
Camp Obama is partly the brainchild of Marshall Ganz, a veteran community organizer (now at Harvard) who worked in Mississippi in the civil-rights movement during the 1960s and later alongside United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez. Camp Obama expanded last month from its Chicago base to host organizer trainings in California, Arizona, Missouri, Georgia and New York. After all, when 258,000 people have invested in a campaign, there's no use leaving them to sit at home awaiting the next fundraising appeal-the Obama campaign is giving thousands of them the training and putting them to work.
Zack Exley, of the online citizen-journalism project Off the Bus, covering the 2008 campaign at ground level, wrote in The Huffington Post that Camp Obama had already trained more than 1,000 organizers for the delegate-heavy Tsunami Tuesday primaries on Feb. 5 and posits that it will have organization down to the precinct level in each of those states.
Exley concluded: 'These organizers could rewrite the rules of presidential politics, dramatically raise the profile of field organizing in the campaign world and help rebuild Democratic Party structure in states, such as California, that have been long forgotten to electoral field organizing.'
Beyond the traditional role of field organization in getting out the vote, Camp Obama seems equally fixated on making sure its precinct-level organization is involved on the message level of the campaign in order to beat back the kinds of media attacks known, since the 2004 TV ads of Swift Boat Veterans against Kerry, as the 'swift-boating' of the candidate.
Dukakis, the 1988 nominee who got 'Willie Horton-ed,' recently told The New York Observer that, from his experience, a ground-level precinct organization is what he lacked to be able to counter the advertising attacks from the air.
'There's a chemistry there, which is hard to describe unless you've done it,' Dukakis said about precinct-level campaign organization. 'Otherwise, it permits your opponent to paint you as something you aren't. It happened to me. It happened to Kerry. They tried to do it to Clinton. They'll try to do it to anybody.'
If the third-quarter FEC reports, due on Oct. 15, show that Obama's continued to raise money as he has thus far, his campaign's rhetoric about building precinct-level organization in the later primary states will likely become a reality. For the first time since the dawn of television, a maverick Democratic presidential challenger will be able to advertise in all the primary and caucus states between January and June. Plus, Obama will have converted significant swathes of his quarter-million donors into precinct-level organizers.
Massachusetts (along with Rhode Island and the delegate-rich prizes of Ohio and Texas) won't vote until March 4. In previous cycles, contests have all but been decided by that date. This time it's likely to be different: The March primaries will probably still matter-because of what Obama has accomplished in fundraising.
Obama's historic war chest upends the conventional wisdom that a challenger has to win in Iowa or New Hampshire-with the traditional bounce such victories give to an aspirant's fundraising-to be able to stay in the contest all the way to the finish line. Of course, if Obama were to win even just one of the first four states (he's competitive, according to the polls, in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina) such a victory would slingshot him into a commanding position.
He is the first Democrat who is not a front-runner who doesn't have to win one of the early states to emerge as the last candidate standing between the front-runner and the nomination. Obama's conquest of small-donor supremacy will keep him in the game until somebody-maybe him-wins 2,182 delegates.
The founder of Narco News, Al Giordano has lived in and reported from Latin America for the past decade. His opinions expressed in this column do not reflect those of Narco News nor of the Fund for Authentic Journalism, which supports his work. Al encourages commentary, critique, additional analysis and tips to be sent to his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.