Obama’s Pyrrhic Victory?

Barack Obama trounced Hillary Clinton last night by a massive margin. However, Dick Morris, a man who worked with the Clintons for years, has an interesting contrarian view of the Clinton’s strategy:

Ultimately, the Clintons are playing a game of jujitsu with Obama, using his own strength against him.

By challenging Obama for the black vote – by promising to go door to door in South Carolina in minority neighborhoods, for example – Bill is highlighting the question: Will Obama carry the black vote? Of course, he will. He leads, 4 to 1, among African-Americans now.

But by making that the central question, Obama’s South Carolina victory will be hailed as proof that he won the African-American vote. Such block voting will trigger the white backlash Sen. Clinton needs to win.

Once whites see blacks voting en masse for a black man, they will figure that it is a racial game and line up for Hillary. Already, she carries white voters by 2 to 1.

The Clintons can well afford to lose South Carolina as long as the election is not seen as a bellwether of how the South will vote but as an indication of how African-Americans will go. It’s a small price to pay for the racial polarization they need to win.

Sure enough, the story is how Obama carried the black vote.

As often as Dick Morris gets it wrong, he seems to be on to the Clinton strategy. Right now Barack Obama has two constituencies: well-off whites and blacks. Hillary Clinton is peeling away women, low-income voters, union members and other traditional Democratic groups. It’s a simple matter of numbers: Clinton can win with the groups on her side, and Obama can’t.

This loss certainly doesn’t look good for Hillary Clinton—she got creamed by Obama—but ultimately time (and the byzantine Democratic primary process) is on her side. The Clintons are masters of political hardball, as well as divide-and-conquer politics. They know full well that all they need to do is split the vote along racial lines and they can win—and it’s not like black voters will cross over and vote Republican in the general election.

Obama won a major victory tonight—but it could end up being a Pyrrhic one. Obama must broaden his appeal beyond racial and class lines, and so far he’s been unable to do it. The demographic tide going into Super Tuesday doesn’t favor him, and while he’s dinged Clinton’s armor twice now, he’s yet to slay the beast.

The Real Loser In South Carolina

Is Mike Huckabee:

For all the talk about South Carolina being the death knell for Thompson, who South Carolina really killed was Huckabee. Huckabee is an insurgent. He has neither the establishment support, nor the money, nor the conservative movement mouthpieces to drag him along.

Huckabee has only the force of his own personality and the media momentum perception. Insurgent candidates like Huckabee need to ride a wave to victory and any wave Huckabee had broke on the shores of South Carolina’s coastline.

Huckabee does have the support of a certain segment of the evangelical vote, but his game of identity politics means he’s already alienated everyone else. Right now the media is fawning over the guy they fawned over in 2000, which leaves Huckabee high and dry. He doesn’t have the support to win and he has little chance of broadening their support.

Had Romney been knocked out in Michigan I think Thompson would have probably won South Carolina on the basis of sealing enough of the conservative vote. There’s still an incredibly small chance that as the race continues Thompson could still pull that off—but that’s contingent on having enough money on hand to remain in the race. Right now the conservative vote is split between Thompson and Romney. If their votes were combined, one or the other would be ahead. If they drop out, it leaves conservatives with a choice of John McCain or Mike Huckabee—which is not the most appetizing choice for many, although McCain would almost certainly be the beneficiary in that case.

In the end, South Carolina spells the death of the Huckabee campaign. If he can’t win there, he can’t win elsewhere, and he needed a win to keep his momentum going. Huckabee’s a talented politician, but he can’t broaden his base beyond his evangelical constituency, and he’s made enough tactical mistakes in recent weeks to take the shine off of his campaign.

Thompson may have been put out by South Carolina, but Huckabee’s second place doesn’t give him much room either. The dynamics of the race are changing, and they’re not changing in a way that’s at all helpful to Mike Huckabee. His narrow appeal and lack of experience have ensured that he can’t broaden his base enough to win, which means that his outsider challenge is likely to fail.

South Carolina Debate Reactions

Fred just cleaned up with Frank Luntz’s focus group. By a huge shot. 3 people supported him coming in, and a majority of the voters liked him at the end.

Will this matter? Romney did very well in the last New Hampshire debate, and it didn’t help him much. However, with Romney out of South Carolina, that leaves a gap with the conservative vote. Thompson is perfectly situated to take that vote. As I said before, had Fred done this well before I think he could have beaten Romney in Iowa.

John Podhoretz: “Fred Thompson is not only winning this debate, he is giving the most commanding debate performance we’ve seen from any candidate in either party since the beginning of this endless primary process.”

Jim Geraghty, National Review Online: “Winner: Thompson. This performance was so commanding, I wanted his last answer to echo back to the lights in the back of the auditorium, blow out all the lamps and spotlights, for the theme to “the Natural” to play, and for him to trot around the stage in slow motion while sparks showered down in the background.”

Here’s an interesting thought: Fred is working with McCain to split the conservative vote to give McCain a plurality win. I don’t really buy into it, but it’s conceivable. McCain/Thompson would be a ticket that I would love to support.

Erick Erickson, Red State: “Fred Thompson owned this debate. He owned it. He dominated.”

Is Thompson Over?

Power Line notes that Fred Thompson is losing ground in polling in key primary states:

I think there are several reasons why Thompson’s campaign has not, so far, taken off as some expected. Thompson is a perfectly good conservative, but he lacks any particular stature as a one-and-a-half term Senator with no outstanding legislative accomplishments or policy innovations to his name. Given that he is also a quiet (some say lackluster) campaigner, it shouldn’t be surprising that so far, he hasn’t emerged as a powerhouse.

Also, Thompson’s appeal is based largely on the “none of the above” factor. He set out to appeal to the considerable segment of the Republican electorate that expressed dissatisfaction with the existing field. That was a good and potentially fertile niche, but it means that in a sense Thompson has been running against the field. To the extent that Romney, Giuliani and Huckabee have won over some previously skeptical voters, the need for a “none of the above” candidate may have diminished. And John McCain’s resurgence must have taken support away from Thompson, the candidate whose policy profile most nearly resembles McCain’s.

The appeal of Thompson’s campaign is that he’s a consistent conservative who is actually coming out with some strong policy prescriptions—especially in terms of Social Security reform. Granted, it may be a politically unwise endeavor to lead your campaign off with something so esoteric, but in a political climate devoted more to style than substance, there’s something refreshing about Thompson.

The fact that Thompson has been formally endorsed by the National Right to Life Foundation certainly helps. The fact that Mitt Romney had been lobbying for that endorsement also says something about the state of the race. Thompson is finding his niche as a consistent conservative in a race in which candidates either have great appeal to social conservatives and little to fiscal conservatives (Huckabee) or great appeal to fiscal conservatives and less to social conservatives (Giuliani) or candidates who have been accused of shifting their positions to match the prevailing political winds (Romney).

Thompson is not out—polling in these key states can be volatile, and many (including myself) figured John Kerry was dead in the water at this time four years ago. Still, Thompson is losing ground in Iowa and New Hampshire, and while he’s doing very well in South Carolina, it remains to be seen whether the winds won’t shift between the earlier states and that race.

What Thompson needs to do is start creating a grass-roots effort—and that means more time on the campaign trail. He’s got a firm grasp on the issues, in terms of fiscal issues, social issues, and national defense he’s the most consistent conservative in the race. The problem is that people don’t yet see him being able to win. To counter that perception, Thompson is going to have to get his boots on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire and start making a stronger impression with the electorate.

This race is totally up in the air. Romney and Giuliani have the inside track, but Thompson could pull ahead, especially with this key endorsement. McCain is doing better than one would expect (though not enough to win). Huckabee has been doing an excellent job of what Thompson should be doing—winning over social conservatives alienated by the top tier. There is no clear winner, and anything could change.