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Can Obama Close?

By Arnon Mishkin

Barack Obama has generated enormous enthusiasm, unprecedented financial support, won all but one caucus, won eight primaries and half the delegates. But a closer look at the exit polls to date indicate weaknesses that he will need to overcome if he is to capture the Democratic presidential nomination and win in November.

Exit Polls in New Hampshire show that Sen. Obama lost there because last-minute deciders, roughly one fifth of the electorate, chose Hillary Clinton 39 to 36. They were conflicted by two candidates they liked...and opted for the safety of experience over the risk of change.

On Super Tuesday, the trend was more pronounced. Sen. Obama surged over the weekend, according to the exit polls, but Hillary got 60% of the people who decided in the last 24 hours. If Sen. Obama had gotten their support, his vote would have gone up by 6 points.

To a certain extent this is expected - both candidates are fundamentally acceptable to the Democratic electorate and so end game stratagems can cause significant shifts. In many elections, a last minute riptide tends to pull people back to the old. But this year, it seems more acute, as Democrats struggle to decide: should they turn the page on the Clintons or miss the Obama express?

That riptide has let Sen. Clinton capture virtually all of the very large states that are essential for Democrats in the Fall: California, Florida*, Michigan*, New York, New Jersey (the exceptions being Illinois and a squeaker in Missouri).

Why has Sen. Obama not been able to win these? Simply put, he has failed to close. He has not been able to overcome questions about risk and, frankly, questions about race.

• Risk: In 1992, Bill Clinton navigated the risk issue shrewdly. His line was always "we need to have the courage to change." Sen. Obama needs to figure out how to reassure them that the risk is acceptable.

• Race: According to the Super Tuesday exit polls, roughly 20% of Clinton voters admitted that race was either the only factor or one of many important factors in their vote. On Saturday in Louisiana, almost 25% of Clinton voters acknowledged that race was an important factor. That's the number that admitted to those thoughts in a questionnaire. The actual number is likely larger. Almost half the entire Hillary advantage among whites can be explained simply by race. It may have been ugly, but Bill Clinton helped her.

With regards to the racial issue, Sen. Obama needs to heed the lessons learned in the 1982 Tom Bradley campaign for governor of California. Like Sen. Obama, Mayor Bradley was a candidate who "happened to be black." He decided not to address the issue of his race head-on, fearing it would only call attention to it. In the last days of the campaign, his opponent figured out how to inject race into the campaign, and Bradley lost, despite leading in the polls for months. This year, Sen. Obama needs to figure out how to explicitly ventilate that issue, so that voters resolve it to his, and not an opponent's, advantage.

Similarly, he needs to address risk. Sen. Obama needs to convince Democrats that it is okay to "retire" the Clintons, something they are uncomfortable doing. Metaphorically, he must hand the Clintons a "gold watch" and appear sincere in doing so. This is important to Democratic primary voters, most of whom have no interest in "punishing" Senator Clinton or her husband. Finding a way to assure people that a vote for Obama is not a vote against Hillary will, to some degree, determine whether Sen. Obama can "close."

To date, she has been the better closer. And she has at her disposal the ultimate close -- "vote for both of us." If the conflicted voters were convinced that a vote for Sen. Clinton would guarantee a Clinton-Obama ticket, the last minute deciders would clearly break in full force her way.

In the coming weeks, despite a disadvantage in fundraising, Sen. Clinton can win in Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania. Despite all their enthusiasm and fundraising, does the Obama team really think that they will take the nomination away from someone who has won primaries in states commanding over 215 electoral votes, if they have only won primaries in states commanding roughly a third that number? They can't and they almost certainly won't. Sen. Obama must win at least two of the three remaining "big" states. To do that he must figure out how to address the silent issues of risk and race.

Arnon Mishkin is a management consultant and partner of the Mitchell Madison Group.

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