Saturday 2 February 2008

Barack Obama's Race Against Time

The Washington Post ran a perceptive article today (Obama Is Racing Against the Clock Short Calendar Favors Clinton) on the Obama campaign. The opening sentence says it all: Sen. Barack Obama has two opponents: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and the clock, which is rapidly running down.

I'm struck by three things about this article:

1. Politics is still personality-driven
This is strange, given all this country has been through in the last 8 years, and given the improvements in media technology which presumably make it easier to find out about issues. The emphasis on personal appearances at campaign rallies, together with the exhausting primary schedule, are definitely a keynote feature of US Presidential politics. In today's world, this implies that since "time is money", a campaign needs A LOT of money.

2. Politics are not issue-driven, at least in the primary stages
I was struck by the comment in the article that people couldn't distinguish campaign platforms.

But along the trail there are signs of the ground that Obama has to make up with many voters who have had little experience in casting a meaningful vote in the primaries and have only recently trained their minds on their choices.

In Phoenix, Cynthia and Stuart Preston said that as they were driving to Obama's rally with their children, they quizzed each other to come up with three of the candidate's major platform planks. To their surprise, they couldn't think of them. Despite that, Cynthia Preston said she is supporting Obama. She was drawn, she said, by the "popular movement" behind him.

"I don't know if he has enough time to detail [his plans in all Feb. 5 states], but if you care enough, you can do the research on your own," she said.

Both Senators Clinton and Obama have excellent campaign websites, although I find Obama's more convincing in terms of detailed policy recommendations. The importance of issues will become more pronounced after the Democratic and Republican candidacies are announced.

3. You need a permanent campaign structure
One of Senator Obama's acknowledged weaknesses is the lack of a well-funded, national campaign structure to offset the awareness issue. To do this obviously costs a lot of money. Yet if we are worried that the campaign season is already too long, imagine what it may become like in the future. I wouldn't be surprised if it's a 2- or 3-year campaign season, where candidates maintain permanent structures in place to get their message out, then ramp up spending and events long before the primaries start.

Despite any perceived weaknesses with the Obama campaign, I believe the race is still open, and that some of the conclusions in this article - such as the Florida results - may not stand up for long.

It seems that Democratic voters face a choice: backing an "insider" such as Senator Clinton, whom is seen on the one hand as a "safe" pair of hands, with a strong network. Or backing an "outsider" such as Senator Obama, who inspires more than the "insider", yet raises more doubts about "electability".

Given this choice, I think we should look carefully at the campaign websites of the two candidates as well as the record of the new Congress. We have to ask ourselves whether we really believe something will change in Washington in January 2009, or whether it will be business as usual - no matter who is elected.

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