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Why Obama Faces an Uphill Battle

By Steven Stark

With the news that Florida and Michigan are unlikely to redo their primaries, it's become even more probable that Barack Obama will be the Democratic presidential nominee. And, as we've been reminded endlessly (and often needlessly), if elected, he'll make history as our first African-American president.

But putting race aside, if Obama makes it to the White House, he'll also have to surpass a number of other historical milestones.

No candidate in the modern primary era has ever been elected in November after failing to win more than one of the nation's seven largest states in either its pre-convention primary or, if the state didn't hold a primary, its caucuses. That will be the case if Obama loses Pennsylvania in April. (Admittedly, no one who lost six out of seven has ever been nominated either, so perhaps Obama can make history twice.)

No Democrat who hails from north of the Mason-Dixon Line has been elected president since John Kennedy in 1960.

No candidate in the modern era has ever been elected president with a voting record that could be identified as his party's most liberal or conservative, yet the National Journal found Obama to be the most liberal senator this past year after computing his Senate voting record. (The previous closest attempts by candidates on the comparable extreme were made by the Right's Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the Left's George McGovern in 1972, and we know what happened to them.)

Except for arguably Abraham Lincoln (admittedly an auspicious exception), no candidate has ever been elected to the presidency with as little significant state or national political experience as Obama's. (Jimmy Carter, in 1976, came the closest.)

There's one other worrisome, though not ironclad, precedent possibly standing in Obama's way. Though the polls are all over the lot at this point, according to the Real Clear Politics average, Obama currently trails John McCain by only a point or two. That's a margin that easily could be eliminated, and, unto itself, would seem to be no great cause for concern. But history suggests otherwise.

At this point in the election cycle -- before any fear of the unknown has set in -- challengers are often running much better against their incumbent-party opponents. In 1988, Michael Dukakis had about a 10-point lead over George Bush (the senior and then-vice-president), only to lose by around eight -- an 18-point swing.

Ditto in 2000. George Bush (the younger) had about a similar 10-point lead over Al Gore at this stage, only to see the lead shrink to nothing by Election Day.

In fact, that's been the usual pattern. In 1976, Carter led Gerald Ford by 10 points in the spring, and even McGovern in the spring of 1972 found himself running roughly even with Richard Nixon (albeit with a potential George Wallace third-party candidacy in the mix). By November, the incumbent had surged considerably in both cases.

Even in 2004, John Kerry ended up doing worse in November than he had in the spring, at least according to the CNN/Gallup poll that gave him a five-point lead in April.

The only modern exceptions to this involved Bill Clinton, in 1992, and Ronald Reagan, in 1980. In both elections, the insurgents came from behind. But both faced notably different circumstances than Obama does.

First, Clinton and Reagan got to run against unpopular incumbents. McCain is not George Bush -- no matter how much Obama may try to tie the two together.

Second, in both 1992 and 1980, there were significant third-party candidacies (H. Ross Perot and John Anderson, respectively). Like most Independent candidacies, their ire was aimed primarily at the status quo (and thus the incumbent), changing the dynamic of the race. These third-party candidacies also made it easier for the insurgent to win without having to concentrate on getting 50 percent of the vote in every state. That pattern seems unlikely to be replicated this year.

Democrats have been reassuring themselves that, so far, their poor showing in the national match-ups against McCain is because their party is currently divided in a bitter primary struggle that will be resolved by the time the fall campaign begins. And, by then, the electorate will know Obama better.

But all these precedents add up to suggest that if Obama becomes our 44th president, the 2008 campaign will define a new American electoral era, with a new set of patterns. Obama's supporters have been promising that their movement will revolutionize our politics. If they're going to win, they'd better be right.

Boston Phoenix


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