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January 07, 2008

Observations From NH
Posted by Michael Cohen

Today I sort of saw both sides of the political coin here in New Hampshire and it was an interesting experience.

On the one hand when you talk to politicos and those "in the know" there is a palpable sense that Hillary is dead in the water. Not a single person I spoke with seems to think she can come back from this. Part of what is driving this is the creeping air of desperation around her campaign.

Over at TPM, Josh Marshall had an interesting observation that bears repeating:

Through the day I got pitched, formally and informally, by various Clintonites on Obama stories, most of which were almost embarrassing to hear. I don't use these words and phrases lightly or indiscriminately. I find it difficult to conceive of how unprepared her team was for this not-that-hard-to-predict turn of events. What it tells me is that they never really planned for this. And they literally have no idea what to do at the clutch moment. For the now they are grasping for anything and everything.

Just to give an example of this I saw a release sent out by the Clinton campaign that accused Obama of violating NH law because he was calling people on Don't Call lists as well as other picayune campaign violations. For lack of a better word, it was laughable and hardly the type of campaign attack that one could realistically have any hope of swaying an undecided voter. When I saw it, my first response was "desperation" and I wasn't alone.

To be honest, this was hardly the most desperate or even despicable attack I heard about coming from the Clinton folks, but it should give a good flavor of what's going on. To all those people who argue that the press hates Hillary, I think that's too simplistic; one gets the sense that more than a few reporters are a little tired of the unceasing Clinton spin machine. How many years have some of these folks been listening to Ann Lewis, Howard Wolfson, Mark Penn and other Clintonites try to convince them that the sky is indeed, green? I imagine it becomes grating after a while. Back in the 90s spinning about Ken Starr was acceptable, but against a guy like Obama it just seems more ruthless. I'm not a reporter and I could be wrong about this, but that's been my sense.

Now for the contrast. This sort of inside baseball back and forth doesn't seem to be trickling down to the electorate. I was very struck today, talking to Democratic voters, how many of them seemed genuinely to be agonizing about having to choose not only between Hillary and Obama, but also Edwards and Richardson. These aren't voters who are trying to choose between the lesser of two evils. They like several of the candidates; they just can't decide which one they want to support.

Kevin Drum wrote with a slight tinge of bitterness earlier today:

In related news, apparently the flinty-eyed independents of New Hampshire aren't quite as flinty-eyed as they'd like you to believe. After a solid year of town halls, coffee klatsches, and early morning doorbell ringing — because, you know, New Hampshirites take their electoral responsibilities so much more seriously than the rest of us — all it took was a few thousand Iowans to flip them from one side to the other in less than 24 hours. Feh.

But again I think that's a but unfair. Let's face it, supporting someone like Obama means taking a bit of a leap of faith. The guy does not have a ton of experience. So I think for a lot of voters who are deciding between her and Hillary, the Iowa results were sort of the impetus to take that leap. Heck if Iowans think he's a safe bet, maybe we should get on the bandwagon. Moreover, if you look at past results, Iowa doesn't always translate into a New Hampshire victory. Keep in mind, in 1988 George Bush finished third in Iowa (18 points behind Dole) and won New Hampshire. In 1996, Dole won Iowa and lost NH to Buchanan. In 2000 W won Iowa and got hammered in NH. On the Dem side, we had different winner of Iowa and NH in 84, 88 and 92. In defense of New Hampshire voters, I think they take their responsibility, for the most part, pretty seriously. But this year, the choices are not easy, esp for Dems, and I think Obama's win in Iowa has served as sort of confirmation for genuinely agonizing voters in the Granite State. At least that's the sense I've gotten from the admittedly small sample of voters that I've spoken to.

Tomorrow I hope to attend some Huckabee, McCain and Romney events so an update on the GOP side of things is coming soon. However, I'll offer a quick observation - the dislike of Mitt Romney among both voters and politicos alike is just palpable. Now I have met a few Republicans who indicated they are voting for Romney, but for everyone else . . . well the only word that comes to mind is loathing. Apparently the other GOP candidates are not alone!



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There was also a large bandwagoning effect here in New Hampshire for Kerry immediately after his Iowa win, so Drum shouldn't be too surprised. Part of the choice in 2004 and again this year has hinged on the "electability" issue. Rather than a leap of faith, what has happened is much more a rational calculation. What the Iowa results seemed to show his year was that Obama could get a whole bunch of white, middle American independents to vote for him, and also had the organizational skills needed to raise turnout dramatically and turn those new voters out for him. For people in New Hampshire who were on the fence because of the electability issue, or only weakly leaning to Clinton out of Clinton loyalty or a dissatisfied sense that she was the best positioned to win in the fall, those Iowa results cinched the electability argument in Obama's favor.

The New Hampshire primary now falls much too close to the Iowa caucuses. In past years, there was more time between Iowa and New Hampshire for the Iowa bounce to wear off and for candidates to strategize a bit more calmly and re-start their race. But all of the jockeying this year over primary dates ended up pushing the New Hampshire primary so close to Iowa that the vote is taking place in the immediate aftermath of Iowa.

I think one thing that has changed is that the internet has made people all across the country, including in New Hampshire, feel connected to, and engaged in the entire process, including Iowa. Rather than the Iowa campaign being an affair of Iowans alone, people now feel like they are remote participants in those caucuses, and as a result they have more influence on the rest of the country.

To be fair to the Clinton campaign, I'm not sure there is anything a campaign could have done to prepare for what has happened. How do you fight back against the rising perception that people are witnessing an historic movement and historic figure?

If I'm advising the Clinton campaign, I'm telling them to do what any boxer does when he's taking punishment: get out of the corner, give yourself some space, don't think that the next punch has to decide the fight. And try doing something you haven't done before.

Ground truth about Hillary Clinton is that she is only a Senator and Presidential candidate because she is Bill Clinton's wife. On her own she is just not that attractive a person. In fairness, she would be much less unattractive without the overpowering sense of personal entitlement she carries around with her (and her campaign carries around with it) -- but that sense of entitlement comes mostly from all those years of being Bill Clinton's wife, without which she would not be a Senator or Presidential candidate. So there is a limit to how much she can change voters' perceptions of her. She is who she is.

The compressed primary schedule makes the tactic I would suggest much more difficult to execute, but what Sen. Clinton really ought to do is stop talking so much about herself. I'd put the comparisons of Obama's record with hers on the back burner also, since her own record is pretty small potatoes. No, her best tack is first to acknowledge that Obama ran a better campaign than she did in the first two states; admit he is a talented campaigner and a nice guy, and that she may have underestimated him. Say some nice things about Edwards as well, since at this point it is better for Clinton for Edwards to be in the race and for her to be able to reach out to the people now supporting him.

Those people, and a lot of other Democrats, are worried about one thing above all: the prospect of recession. Clinton herself was quick enough to mention this issue in the debates over the weekend. It's something she should build on, betting that voters worried about a recession that could cost them their jobs or homes are going to listen more closely to a candidate zeroed in on this issue than on one talking in general terms about hope and change.

Would this work? Well, I'm not The Amazing Kreskin, and as I've noted Clinton starts off with some serious weaknesses as a candidate. Ideally a Presidential candidacy proceeds with undermining voters' trust in other candidates, but also in building its own candidates appeal. Clinton can't really do that. For what it is worth, though, my own political sense tells me that nothing is more likely to spook voters this year than the idea that the growing but not uniformly prosperous economy could start contracting in a serious way. In Clinton's position I'd be talking primarily about that, and betting that voters in the February primaries will start to doubt Obama's ability to face a real threat of recession as well as Clinton could.

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