The Eclectic One

…Because labels are a poor substitute for thinking

Biden stengthens Obama

Posted by Bill Nance on August 23, 2008

As everyone knows at this point, Back Obama has decided on Delaware Senator Joe Biden as his V.P choice. I’ve already written briefly on the subject here.

At this point, many are wondering what this all means and a few people with whom I’ve spoken have wondered why Obama passed over Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia or Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, two other Democrats supposedly on Obama’s short-list.

I think Biden was the right choice, but the specifics are something I didn’t have time to write about in depth until now. In my opinion, Biden was the no-brainer choice for Obama because he brings many things to the table which Obama lacks and with which the other two possibilities would not have helped. Additionally, Biden is unquestionably ready to step into the number one spot should something happen to Obama; something no one should forget, no matter how politically incorrect it is to mention.

First, Obama’s weak points:

Obama is generally considered particularly vulnerable among whites and less educated (read blue-collar) workers, those most concerned with national security and foreign policy and independents. States in the rust-belt are toss-ups at this point and could, in the general election, go to McCain because of these weaknesses. This would effectively kill Obama’s chances at an electoral win. Ohio in particular is considered a must-win State, and Hillary Clinton won it handily during the primaries.

Another area where Obama suffers among voters is his lack of experience; something even Biden cited during the Democratic primaries. While Obama has unquestionable charisma and is probably the best orator in a presidential race since Kennedy or perhaps even Roosevelt, many voters see him as long on rhetoric short on specifics; all talk and no gravitas.

Older voters pose another serious challenge for Obama. According to this Gallup poll, McCain out-performs Obama by an eight-point margin among voters 65 and older, which in a close election could spell doom for an Obama candidacy. This weakness would virtually eliminate any hope for gaining Florida, as one example.

Obama has voiced consistent opposition to the Iraq war. This is something which turns off many voters who favored the initial invasion, even many of those who have since changed their minds. Since Republicans have a long history of painting democrats as weak on defense, this is a very real vulnerability for Obama. Virtually no one who is strongly opposed to the Iraq war is going to vote for McCain, but many are still ambivalent on how best to proceed. McCain has demonstrated a genuine ability to successfully attack Obama on this issue, and those attacks are likely to grow stronger as November approaches. Americans have a strong Jacksonian tendency and McCain will continue to hammer home the idea of “no-retreat, no surrender” until November. It is by far his strongest issue.

And finally there’s the issue of race. This has been the “elephant-in-the-living-room” that no one wants to talk about, but it’s is a very significant issue. Based on the primary results, I believe this could present problems for Obama in the rust-belt and mountain west more than it does in the south, most of which Obama will have wisely written off altogether as hopeless.

In an NPR interview earlier this month, experts talked about people’s tendencies to lie to pollsters about race issues. Some of this reflects what is called the Bradley Effect. This makes polling numbers less reliable than they otherwise might be, which will force Obama to spend time and money in more places, unable to feel safe except in solidly blue states. Another problem for Obama may be what I’ve heard described as “cultural discomfort.” In the west Virginia primary a whopping 21% of white voters said race was an important factor in deciding their vote. I think this is particularly significant because African Americans constitute only 3.3% of the population in West Virginia, compared with a national average of just over 12%. I believe much of this racial preference stems from simple lack of exposure as much as overt racism. If one’s only significant image of African Americans comes from watching television, it is easy to see how some could draw negative stereotypes. The reason this is significant is that other states which are considered swing-states have similar demographics, Colorado being a significant example. This is a state which George Bush took by nine points in 2000, and five in 2004, and according to this poll taken last week, Obama and McCain are in a virtual dead heat. Will race be the deciding factor? No one really knows, but it will certainly be an issue for at least some voters.

On the upside of this issue for Obama, it’s equally unknown how many people will vote for him because of his race. I talked to one person recently who told me “If I Obama wiins, I’ll tell the next Black person who whines about whitey keeping him down to kiss my ass.” Regardless of how one feels about such comments, I think there are a lot more where this person comes from. Many whites have historically resented affirmative action, and who also resent what they perceive as “being blamed for slavery.” It may well be that Obama could pick up votes from this group. But all in all, I believe his race will hurt Obama. The only question is how much.

How does Biden help?

Democrats lose presidential elections for essentially one reason: They are often perceived as soft or weak. In other words, many voters, especially white males, perceive Democratic candidates as, you’ll forgive the word, “pussies.” Americans will put up with a lot of things from a presidential candidate , but they won’t vote for a sissy, especially not when they feel there is a credible threat to their safety, whether it be crime or terrorism. When Bill Clinton won a squeaker election in 1992, this issue nearly sank his campaign. Only a very unpopular George H.W. Bush, a sputtering economy and a brilliant campaign staff saved him. This, more than anything else, is what killed Kerry in 2004, Dukakis in 1988 and Stephenson in 1956.

Whatever one might say about Biden, “sissy” is not a word that immediately comes to mind. He initially supported the Iraq war, has consistently voted for funding of the war, and has spoken at length about the incompetence of it’s prosecution as well as the need for success. -So much for “He’d rather lose a war than lose an election.” Biden will take that kind of statement and chew it to ribbons. (A typical Biden sentiment, written in The New Republic in 2004 can be found here). Biden is famous for being fast and loose with his facts, but this seems on balance to be more along the lines of “Never let the truth spoil a good story” than any deliberate attempt to mislead. Americans like that kind of talk and it’s an excellent contrast to “Mister Cool” Obama. Biden also has a long history of commitment to U.S. international involvement which rivals that of the so-called “Neo-Cons.” In 1993 during one of his many visits to the Balkans, Biden met with then Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. In that meeting, he told the Serb president: “I think you’re a damn war criminal and should be tried as one.” That kind of straight talk and moxie will go over well on the campaign trail. So, Obama’s perceived weakness on matters of foreign policy can be nicely filled out with Biden as running-mate.

Biden comes from a working-class background, is a native in Pennsylvania (with it’s 23 electoral votes) and has a long history of popularity among working class voters. He is a Catholic, which adds depth to Obama’s appeal to more religious people, and has commuted between Delaware and Washington D.C. during his entire Senate career. “Family Values” will not be an issue this ticket will have to be concerned with, and white, blue-collar workers tend to like Biden’s straight talk and flamboyant style.

Biden also has a strong appeal to older voters, who make up 20% of the population, but as much as 30% of votes cast. Some numbers from Nate over at 538.com:

VF = Very Favorable
SF = Somewhat Favorable
SU = Somewhat Unfavorable
VU = Very Unfavorable

Age       VF  +  SF  =  Favorable    SU  +  VU  =  Unfavorable
18-29      3  +  26  =     29        14  +   8  =     22  (+7)
30-39      4  +  19  =     23        17  +  16  =     33  (-10)
40-49      8  +  19  =     27        22  +  18  =     30  (-3)
50-64     19  +  24  =     43        19  +  18  =     37  (+6)
65+       21  +  24  =     45        12  +  21  =     35  (+10)

This is a huge boost for Obama, who has been polling weak among this group and perhaps most importantly, moves Florida form the “impossible” column firmly into the “possible.” This will force McCain to spend more time and money in the state at worst, and at best could give the state to Obama.

Because of his style, which has at times gotten him into trouble, Biden is the perfect attack-dog for Obama, who clearly is a little uncomfortable directly responding to the rough and ready attacks by the McCain campaign. Biden has a long record of savaging his opponents with tough talk and a grasp of policy matters which he can turn on less informed or slower reacting opposition. Whoever McCain picks for a running-mate, I would place good money on a Biden sweep of any debate.

All in all, I don’t think Obama could have made a better choice. The only issue Biden can’t adress is the racial one, but neither could anyone else. Hillary Clinton has so many negatives, that it’s hard to imagine she would do anything but hurt Obama, and can be criticized for lack of experience as much as he can. Virginia’s Kaine is an unknown on the national stage, as is Indiana’s Bayh, and neither one would be likely to decisively deliver their home state. No running mate has helped bring strong regional support since Johnson ran with Kennedy.

Biden will help win support among white blue-collar voters, national security voters, independents, older voters and those concerned with Obama’s lack of experience. Now we can only wait and enjoy the show, for a great show indeed this campaign promises to be.

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