After Super Tuesday

Election Expert James A. Thurber Explains The Final Round Of The Primaries in a Video Conference at the Amerikahaus

Senator Obama getting in touch with his supporters, literally | Photo: Ragesoss


Senator Obama getting in touch with his supporters, literally | Photo: Ragesoss

Feb. 5th 2008 was an essential day in the US election campaign: On this ”Super Tuesday,” 24 states held presidential primaries electing a candidate for the Republican and Democratic parties.

John McCain emerged as the leading potential candidate for the Republicans while Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama were waging a close war for the support of Democrats, as increasingly heated debates gave the candidates a chance to distinguish their positions, not without the occasional jab at the opponents’ political torso.

For the occasion, a live video conference with election insider James A. Thurber, Director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies was held at the Amerikahaus in Viennas’ 1st District – a rare enough chance to take the pulse of an election that is keeping the whole world in suspense.

A close follower and and regular interviewee at almost all major US news channels, Thurber has published 15 books on US elections and presidencies since 1991 and keeps close ties to former presidents, campaign leaders and senators.

There are very few who know and can get as close to campaign advisors, candidates and behind-the-scenes decision makers as Prof. Thurber. Thus it came as a surprise that his opening remarks were not directed at the results or even the candidates, but rather, “what they are getting themselves into.”

The current president leaves behind a $440 billion debt, he pointed out, in addition to $200 billion borrowed from other nations or banks. The situation in Iraq is “difficult” at best, vital institutions such as health care are in dire need of restructuring.  Pollution is at an all-time high, and Bush still keeps the blue prints for a wall between the USA and Mexico as a solution to the immigration debacle.

“Whoever the next president will be, he will have a disastrous and almost impossible task to fulfill,” Thurber sighed. A closer look at the two Democrats revealed that it was a battle of opposites, unlike any perhaps in a long time. The public view on Clinton is that of an experienced, relentless think tank who has been tried in the furnace. She has the female and the elderly vote, as well as some of the black votes who still long after her husbands presidency.

Facing her is Barack Obama, an African American of Kenyan descend with a white mother and an Ivy League education that could not be whiter, draws mostly the young, first-time voters and fellow African-Americans.

Regardless of his fortunate upbringing, Obama scores with his affection for the common people, putting a lot of effort in emphasizing his relation to the lower social layers.

While Senator Clinton relies on individual lobbyists to provide her almost $140 million campaign budget, Obama managed to raise a similar amount through Internet donations, making a case for denying contributions from any federal lobbyist.

According to political analysts, Obama received almost $1 million in voluntary contributions a day in January, forcing Clinton to fuel her campaign with $5 million from large private donors to keep up with Obamas media machinery.

Prof. Thurber referred to this phenomenon as “media momentum,” meaning that US media matches its pace of coverage so that the right kind of light shines on Obama. It’s a battle of generations, of gender and even race. Barrack Obama has youtube, Clinton the New York Times.

Super Tuesday MapTheir debates are spiked with references to their respective weaknesses; Obama’s inexperience, Clinton’s disconnectedness from the common “man.” Thurber remarks that while Clinton might lose some votes for her retiring persona, Obama has rarely ever managed a staff of more than 40 people.

But Obama’s lack of leadership skills does not show in speeches and debates. While campaigning might be one of his fortes, running the country after being elected just might not be. Clinton is undoubtedly better prepared to run a country, but according to Prof. Thurber, cannot generate the hype that accompanies Obama in this crucial period. As she is struggling to fight Obama and an increasingly biased media coverage, her husband and passionate supporter Bill Clinton slipped up at a public speech, criticizing her campaign staff for the way they addressed younger generations in Idaho. A youtube video shows an angry Bill Clinton exercising some reflexive criticism, which the media of course spun out of control.

That day, Prof. Thurber was in the Clinton campaign office, while a baffled staff of over 100 campaign workers gazed at the monitors in disbelief. They made no secret of their dissatisfaction with the speech and presented Hillary a petition advising her to tackle the next state alone.

Prof. Thurber remembered well how Bill took his wife by the hand, led her into the adjacent room to assess the situation. When they emerged an hour later the decision was made, Bill remained onboard.

As miniscule as this anecdote might appear, it leaked to the press; the obvious question was whether a potential presidency would be Hillary’s alone, or whether the American people would have to bear with a joint presidency of Hillary and Bill. When we listen to the democratic debates ever since, Obama can’t resist pointing this out.

“Sometimes I don’t know who I’m campaigning against,” Obama said at Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina on Jan. 21.

In a final question to Prof. Thurber, I ask him to predict a possible outcome:

“Who do you see as better positioned to win against the Republican candidate Senator John McCain in upcoming general elections?”

Republicans make a big deal about Senator Clinton being their “dream” opponent. Apparently, McCain doesn’t enjoy as loyal a fallowing among his party as George W. Bush, he has openly stood in for some very liberal views. But a shared hatred among the Republicans for the whole Clinton family, Hillary included, the logic goes, would unite even the most removed Republicans to vote against her and for McCain. A mid-left oriented Obama might even steal some of those undecided Republicans who have to choose between two wrongs.

In the end, though, it may simply be about stamina. The 2008 elections will stretch over an inordinately long time, momentums can switch, mistakes will undoubtedly be made.

We’ll see  whether experience or change – and whose version – will be able to run the full distance.

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