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Why Obama & Clinton are neck-and-neck

Three polls now show Barack Obama is neck-and-neck with Hillary Clinton in Texas. He has ended a 10 percentage point deficit in less than a fortnight. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri examines.

world Updated: Feb 28, 2008 03:52 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times

Three polls now show Barack Obama is neck-and-neck with Hillary Clinton in Texas. He has ended a 10 percentage point deficit in less than a fortnight in the US’s second-largest state. Obama’s most fervent support base remains middle-class whites and black Americans. But he has broken off bits and pieces of Clinton’s supporters: including a third of Latinos and a large chunk of white women voters.

This replicates Super Tuesday, notes Craig Charney, head of polling agency Charney Associates. “Those results were amazing. Obama was way behind Hillary 10 days before the primaries — he gained 10 points nationally in 10 days.”

Ohio and Pennsylvania are moot points. Without Texas, Hillary cannot blunt Obama’s momentum. “Without Texas she’s toast,” said a member of Obama’s policy advisory team recently in India.

When Obama began his backers were rich whites and poor blacks. The former identified with his class, went the line, the latter with his race. He declined to play the race card.

What lies behind his success?

Obama’s theme of change reflects a weariness among Americans for the rabid partisanship of the past 15 years. While the Bush administration is the most tainted, the politics of polarisation began with Bill Clinton. During the past three presidential terms, independent voters shrank from a third of the electorate to barely five per cent. Today, the centre is holding: a quarter of Americans say they are neither Democrat nor Republican.

The surfeit of ideology, from both left and right, is now blamed for a whole host of ills: a war gone bad, an economy in trouble, political correctness gone wild and a national leadership that can’t lead. It’s not just about Bush, it’s about how Washington works. George W Bush’s approval rating is an abysmal 33.7 per cent, but the Democratic-controlled Congress’s is 24 per cent.

Obama has tarred and feathered Hillary as part of “the system that doesn’t work” and she’s hasn’t been able to shake the establishment tag. Independent voters — those least likely to distinguish between Clintons and Bushes — flocked to Obama’s banner in the primaries. Obama likes to say “this country is more than a collection of red states and blue states,” referring to colours used to identify conservative and liberal political leanings.

The message alone would be insufficient. Obama also gets it spread with a well-oiled political machine. Clinton failed to build a grassroots network to get out the vote and raise money. In almost every primary, Obama has had more local campaign offices and more staff on the ground than she has had.

The unelected superdelegates hold the balance of power. Says Bruce Riedel, a former Clinton administration official, now at the Brookings Institute, “Her support in the establishment is built on the expectation of victory.” And that is now history.