The day after: narrative through the lens of strategy

original essay March 5, 2008

see the comments for updates

Back on February 7, Catherine Dodge and Alex Tanzi of Bloomberg News broke a story on an Obama campaign spreadsheet, “inadvertently” released by the campaign, with their projections (or maybe predictions) of delegates. Ben Smith on Politico has a nice screenshot, and even better a link to the version of the spreadsheet that Catherine and Alex shared. Barack Obama said he hadn’t seen it; his press secretary Bill Burton had a great quote: “This ‘newsy’ spreadsheet is basically an electronic piece of scratch paper with a dozen scenarios blown a little out of proportion.”

As far as I can tell, the press, media, and pundits covering the election responded with a collective “oh okay” and went back to talking about more important topics like their own prognostications, their importance to the electoral process, their responsibilities, their inadequacies, and the threats to mainstream media from blogs and social networks.

From both a strategy and a narrative perspective, this is fascinating on several levels. So building off my past “narrative as strategy” experience with Ad Astra, I’m going to wrap up my month of being a full-time political activist and blogger with some thoughts on these subjects.

Impressively, the Obama campaign’s projections in early February for delegates from yesterday’s voting likely to be within 1% of the actual results, which I bet is a lot more accurate than any professional polling firm or pundit was at the time. Until yesterday, though, they were off-target in most of the other primaries and caucuses. Interestingly, they were always off in the same direction: consistently underestimating their actual performance.

Saying it another way, the Obama campaign’s results between Super Tuesday (when they first said they thought they would have a pledged delegate lead at the convention) and yesterday consistently exceeded their own projections: +3 (three more delegates than expected) delegates in Louisiana, +4 in Maine, +6 in Hawaii and Wisconsin, and so on — including the jackpots of +14 in Virginia and + 15 in Maryland. If I did the math right, it’s +60 overall, for a swing of 120 pledged delegates from Clinton to Obama. From a strategy perspective, this is substantially exceeding expectations, and making success far more likely.

Yesterday, with the aid of a timely leak from the conservative Canadian government that has already provoked questions in their Parliament; equally-timely help from Limbaugh along with an appearance on right-wing talk radio by Bill Clinton, a proposed lynching by O’Reilly, and a Drudge misinformation campaign that manages to be simultaneously racist, anti-Somali, anti-African, anti-Muslim, anti-Democratic party, and anti-Obama; an attack on Obama’s qualifications by McCain coincidentally enough on the same issue as the Clinton campaign’s Rovian “fear over hope” 3 a.m./red phone campaign video (certain to be recycled by Republicans in November no matter who is nominated); some brilliant political theater “live from New York”; and a press and media justifiably ashamed of its sexism and misogyny playing lapdog for a few days while engaging in narcissistic self-analysis about how horrible they are for not doing a better job of covering newsworthy events …

With aid of what they describe as “the kitchen sink,” the Clinton campaign came out tactically slightly ahead: somewhere between four and ten delegates out of the 370 in play. Kudos to them. Even so, yesterday’s results are almost exactly what the Obama campaign had projected a month ago, a likely +3 or +4 over projections in Texas balanced by a likely -2 or -3 in Ohio. The Obama campaign continues to have a huge cushion: 120 pledged delegates over their early-February projections. With less time for a Clinton turnaround, Obama’s strategic advantage has grown … guess they were prepared for the kitchen sink, or something like it.

The common wisdom on the day after the March 4 voting seems to be along the lines of “the kitchen sink worked!”, portraying the Clinton campaign’s comeback in having (somewhat) blunting the Obama campaign’s momentum — Chris Bowers goes so far as to say “Obama has to win Pennsylvania!“. Looking through a strategy lens, that’s not how I see it at all.

What I see is the Clinton campaign having thrown everything they had into a last-ditch effort, barely managing to get a small tactical victory out of it while their overall situation worsens dramatically. In the process, they repeated their disastrous strategic mistakes from South Carolina of going negative and aligning with racists:

  • despite having vowed not to split a party they have been leaders of, and the magic moment in the presidential debate where she described herself as “proud” to be in a presidential race with Barack Obama, they still appear to have collaborated with the Bush-backed Republican candidate in an attack on Obama’s fitness to be commander in chief.
  • The Clinton campaign’s potential role in the Obama-in-Somali-garb photo will call more attention to earlier “Obama is a Muslim” email from Clinton staffers, the series of racially charged attacks documented on the Clinton attacks Obama wiki and elsewhere, and the Clinton campaign’s earlier “playing along” with Drudge. At the same time, the “denounce and reject” standard she proposed in the debate will get continued attention thanks to McCain and Lieberman’s welcoming of virulently anti-Catholic anti-LGBT anti-New Orleans anti-Palestinian (and anti-so-much-more) John Hagee’s support. How many volunteers, staffers, supporters will the Clinton campaign “denounce”? How many contributions will they reject?

As for the press and media, well, props to Saturday Night Live (Al Franken for Senate!); well done indeed, and this is going to keep the spotlight trained the coverage of all the candidates. Has the press really been harder on Hillary? Or, have they been ignoring what appear to be Clinton’s repeated exaggerations of her “experience” and (as Obama put on the table today) the more general issue of judgment and fitness for commander in chief? Will attention to the sexism in the mainstream media’s coverage continue and be followed by attention to the racism and anti-Muslim biases? Will Hillary’s attempt to distance herself from Bill’s NAFTA policy be followed by scrutiny on this and other issues (Iraq sanctions, welfare “reform”, warrantless searches, HIPPA, etc.) to see what she advocated at the time — and what, if anything, she did to persuade the administration of her views? We shall see; I think at least some of these cards the Clinton campaign will played for short-term tactical advantage that will come back to bit them.

Speaking of which: are they truly blind to the huge costs (to their claims of “electability” and to the Democratic party) of focusing attention on whether or not Bill Clinton is there in bed with her when the phone rings at 3 a.m.? He’s a huge drag on her popularity, and a reminder of the past in a time when she’s trying to embrace the rhetoric of change. And I’m as tired of hearing about Monica as everybody else, but it’s folly to ignore the persistent stories that Bill’s partying on the campaign trail this year: whether or not it’s true, the Coulters, Roves, Drudges, Limbaughs, and other “fair and balanced” right-wingers will make hay with this video (and at some level, who can blame them), and so will a million comedians of all political stripes trying to outdo SNL. Where’s the judgment in handing a loaded weapon to opponents who will enjoy profit from and enjoy using it against you, and are very good at what they do? For that matter, since these names are all familiar ones, where’s the learning from all this “experience”?

From a strategy perspective, the Clinton campaign in desperation threw everything they could into March 4. (You can only align with Drudge, Limbaugh, O’Reilly and McCain so many times before voters and superdelegates start to ask whether this is good for the party — and there aren’t a lot of other friendly foreign governments they can call on these days.) At the cost of substantially damaging their campaign as well as their individual reputations, they managed to claw their way to an inconsequential and Pyrrhic “victory”. Mathematically, they’re now very close to elimination. Not a good result for the Clintons at all.

And in terms of the narrative, go back to the spreadsheet. The projections going forward leave plenty of room for overperforming in some states (such as Mississippi, North Carolina, Oregon, Montana) — and the projections already factor in potential losses in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Puerto Rico, so (as we strategists like to say) “the downside is capped.” The likely do-over primary in Florida and caucuses in Michigan (not included in the spreadsheet) offer Clinton a chance to pick up a handful more delegates, but nowhere near enough to outweigh the 120-vote cushion so far. When the convention comes around, Obama is going to have a substantial lead with pledged delegates; superdelegates who decide to reflect the will of the voters will follow that. Superdelegates who instead base their vote on electability (see above), party unity, or future party growth (do they really want to alienate the 30-and-under generation to pick the candidate who’s favored by the same 65-and-up crowd as McCain?) will come on board as well.

So, while it’s not over and anything can happen, once all the hard work is done and the votes are counted, I predict that March 4 will be seen as the day that the voters in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont — and the grassroots volunteers for Obama all around the country and the world — virtually assured Barack Obama’s nomination as Democratic party’s candidate for President of the United States of America.