January 20, 2007

Democratic Race for Nomination in 2008.

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination for '08 heated up today with Hillary Clinton announcing her widely anticipated decision to run. Her main rival is expected to be the Illinois senator Barack Obama who is set to announce his own candidacy on February 10. Thus the two leading contenders for the Democratic nomination represent two electorates which had a long history of suppression and denial of voting rights. Indeed they had unimpeded voting rights for less than a century in America.

(Women were permitted vote only after the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Though black males enjoyed complete voting rights briefly at the end of the civil war, they were soon subjected to various forms of restrictions. Blacks began to exercise unhindered voting rights only after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.)

It will be amiss to rule out 2004 vice-presidential nominee John Edwards who is said to be making serious efforts for his nomination. It makes for a highly interesting three-way campaign over the next 18 months or so, though it is fair to say at this point that Clinton and Obama hold the aces.

Hillary Clinton definitely starts ahead with her name recognition and long public career. Obama is a novice and does not have any experience in national campaigns. But he is highly charismatic and captured the imagination of Democratic base since he entered the Senate in 2004. The immediate task for Obama would be to lure many major donors away from Clinton. There are a number of people who are unable to decide between them or having second thoughts about Clinton. George Soros seems to be moving toward Obama, according to this article in New York Times. So are influential Hollywood producers such as Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

It is debatable whether money wins elections. However the first clues as to who is leading will come when we know who is leading the money stakes. The donors are shrewd and their decisions are based on well-informed assessments on who is more likely to win. So if Obama or Clinton is receiving more money it must mean that he or she is perceived to be more likely to win. Whether money is a cause of winning or not, it surely is a fairly reliable indicator. Though Clinton has the edge (with already $14 million in bank), it is only because Obama started much later than her.

With the contest for nomination likely to be confined largely to Democrats (most of the primaries are closed, meaning open to registered Democrats only), it is not clear if there is much to choose between the two. Obama's freshness could be an advantage: he did not vote for Iraq war (he wasn't in the Senate then) and he has been consistently against the war. Clinton voted for the war and has a tortuous record on it. On the other hand, the same freshness could work against Obama: he is inexperienced and could fall behind Clinton in convincing the voters of his caliber. Quite possibly his freshness will have a mixed effect and it is not easy to predict how these things turn out.

A major factor on the minds of Democrats will be who is more electable. Democrats are fed up more than usual with the Republican White House of eight years and there is bound to be a passionate desire to have their man/woman back there. This will be the unifying theme for the next year or so. Most Democrats will be happy to throw their support behind anyone who can take the White House back. Behind all the rhetoric about who is better for the country will be calculations as to who is more likely to win. Consequently the candidate who more successfully prove his/her electability will win the nomination.

It may be a stretch to read too much into this emergence of woman and black candidates for Democratic nomination. Surely this represents a sea change from the electoral scene of only 40 years ago when blacks suffered discrimination via literacy tests and gerrymandering to minimize effects of black voting. And election of Nancy Pelosi as the first female speaker of the House of Representatives confirms that Clinton's rise is not an isolated event. However, I am more inclined to attribute this to instances of individual charisma and favorable circumstances than to any deep-rooted transformations in the electoral scene. That's what makes me pessimistic about the ultimate odds of success of either of these candidates against charismatic and mainstream candidates like John McCain or Rudolph Giuliani.

Of course there is still a long long way to go, and nothing is more fraught with danger and uncertainty than guessing which way elections can go, particularly elections which are almost two years away! Let us wait and see.


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