If Barack Obama had won in Pennsylvania, it would have ended speculation over whether he can compete in the “rust belt” states crucial to a Democratic presidential victory in November.
Party bosses will soon learn whether the leader in both pledged delegates and popular votes can achieve the near impossible: Extend his appeal to every socioeconomic segment of the population and connect with voters identified as low-income, less-educated, white working-class and/or Catholics — all key groups every Democratic presidential candidate has sought to bring back into the fold since the 1980s with varying degrees of success.
Suddenly, this mission impossible has become the new metric pundits and the (so-called) undeclared superdelegates should use it to assess the chances of the party defeating John McCain in the fall. But before everyone grabs this yardstick — a hurdle set by Obama’s rival, who desperately wants to change the standard by which we both evaluate and declare the winner of the contest — let’s keep in mind that the race is about who is winning more delegates.
After seven long weeks without an election, my colleagues in the punditry class have shifted into overdrive trying to explain what the Pennsylvania primary results say about the race for the Democratic nomination. They are following these individual state contests the same way an avid fantasy baseball fan examines statistics, breaking down the hits and misses to discern who will be the better general-election candidate. Well, I am both a pundit as well as an undeclared superdelegate, and I say there is no justification for turning the remaining contests in seven states and two territories into a contest about which candidate is attracting what kind of voter at the ballot box. The primaries are a numbers game based on winning delegates, not picking apart the Democratic coalition and who is appealing to whom.
Hillary Clinton contends that Obama can’t win the really big states like Ohio, California and Pennsylvania in the general election because he didn’t in the primaries. The argument is specious. Given the state of the economy and McCain’s lack of interest in it, these voters, with Clinton out of the race, will likely be interested in voting for Obama.
Meanwhile, for Obama to win them over in the remaining primaries, he must neutralize Clinton’s strength on the economy by appealing to key middle-class swing voters in Indiana, North Carolina, Oregon and Kentucky. Obama wasn’t able to fully connect with blue-collar, white, small-town voters like those in Texas and Mississippi. That’s no surprise. Pennsylvania is no surprise, either. He wins delegates with a different coalition of voters than Democrats have typically relied upon. Still, Obama can’t rest on being the leader in pledged delegates or the popular vote. He has to fight back against the media that has fallen into Clinton’s trap of declaring that he can’t win the general because the coalition that brought him victory in the primaries is different.
I have to ask: Does anyone actually believe New York, New Jersey, California or Pennsylvania would go for McCain over Obama in the general election? Will white working-class men and women prefer someone more in line with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney than someone who can bring about the change they are anxious for? We’ll see if Obama wins the nod if he can appeal to their aspirations. But, for now, the media would have us focus on their fears — real or imagined.
Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR, contributing columnist to Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, and former campaign manager for Al Gore.
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