As media commentators proclaim Hillary Clinton's rebirth from the ashes of defeat, they miss a critical story--Obama and Edwards won the New Hampshire primary. Add together Obama's 36 percent and Edwards's 17, and they beat Clinton's 39 percent by 14 points. And because the Democratic primaries have proportionate representation, they'll in fact come out with more combined delegates-13 to Clinton's 9. I've talked or corresponded with hundreds of supporters of both of them, pored through hundreds of blog responses, and from everything I can tell, those backing Obama or Edwards solidly pick the other as their second choice. So if only one were running, they'd be opening up an unambiguous lead. But because Clinton's two main opponents have effectively split the vote, her three-point victory over Obama has revived a campaign that seemed on the verge of meltdown just a few days ago, and left her again the media favorite.
So what are Obama and Edwards or their supporters to do about this? First, remind those covering the race that although Clinton got a split-vote plurality, most Democrats still don't prefer her as their nominee. Some serious polling could help to verify the convergences between the Obama and Edwards supporters and their shared discontents, and maybe we could encourage that.
Those who make up the Obedwards constituencies recognize the problems with so many of Clinton's approaches and stands. That's part of what's driving them, along with a genuine passion for Obama and Edwards, and a sense, confirmed by the polls, that either of the two has a better shot at beating the leading Republicans than does Clinton. If we look just at delegates, both Iowa and New Hampshire advanced the Obedwards combined cause. But because the coverage has focused so exclusively on the Obama/Clinton match-up, they've missed that a solid majority of Democrats in both New Hampshire and Iowa rejected a candidate who a short while back was proclaiming her nomination as nearly inevitable.
If all those wary of Clinton coalesced around Obama, he'd become the odds-on favorite to become the Democratic standard-bearer. But at least for now, Edwards is staying in. I think he genuinely wants to keep raising fundamental issues about how divisions of wealth and power have damaged our democracy--and the people left behind without health care, jobs, or hope. He's also hanging in there in case his message belatedly catches fire, or both Clinton and Obama unexpectedly melt down. So at least for the moment, the Obedwards constituency may keep amassing a majority of elected delegates, while making it more difficult for Obama (or a far longer-shot Edwards) to become the clear front-runner and clinch the nomination.
There are some partial solutions, though, even with both in the race. Beyond reminding the media of their convergences, Obama and Edwards could also keep using their speeches, debates, and ads to highlight the real differences they have with Clinton and her approach, while minimizing their attacks on each other. Of course their main message needs to focus on their own strengths and visions, and the issues about which they feel passionately, but they also need to draw some clear political lines.
It's a tricky dance, since Hillary, Bill, and their surrogates will continue to attempt to dismiss any criticisms as "the boys" ganging up on the woman. This narrative indeed seemed to work when Clinton's tears set off a wave of sympathy and female solidarity that most likely swung New Hampshire. But so long as Obama and Edwards keep talking about real issues, and do so in a civil way, I think Hillary's complaints about being picked on will yield a diminishing return, especially if they challenge the Clinton campaign's history of highly questionable distortions.
But the fundamental fault lines in this campaign are about whose interests the candidates are likely to heed, and they need to be articulated. Think back to Clinton's six years on the Wal-Mart board, during which she said nothing to protest the company's relentless union-busting and destruction of small-town businesses. Obama, meanwhile, was working as a community organizer, and then at a law firm that represented local organizers. Edwards pursued and won lawsuits on corporate malfeasance. The two of them need to highlight the links between their past history and their joint refusal to take donations from lobbyists, and their strong and early stands for fundamental campaign finance reform: Obama pushed a major bill while still in the Illinois legislature-Clinton signed on only after Common Cause ran a full-page Iowa ad. They should also challenge Clinton's argument that the way to make change is to reduce our expectations and hopes
Obama and Edwards could also make an even more explicit alliance. Each could pledge, for instance, to nominate the other for Vice President, or publicly state that if no candidate got an absolute majority going into the Democratic convention, whichever of the two trailed would throw their support to the other. Given the rules on proportionate representation, this would allow both to keep campaigning as passionately as possible without falling into the trap of political spoiler.
This last might be particularly attractive to Edwards, since otherwise, those who feel he'd still be the best candidate really do face the choice between risking helping Clinton defeat Obama, or eroding their support for Edwards so much he'd have little choice but to leave the race. Edwards might not even have to make a formal pledge, but just to keep reminding voters--and the media--that if no candidate gets an absolute majority before the convention, he'd encourage his delegates and those of Obama to join together at that point. The approach is probably less likely for Obama, because he still has a major shot without it, but he might consider it if the votes continue to divide and we end up with gridlock.
Most likely, all three candidates are going to stay in the race, at least for a while. Even if Obama does not prevail outright, if he and Edwards keep gaining delegates at their current rate and can convince the uncommitted Super-Delegates to respect the will of the voters, they should go into the convention with enough combined votes for one or the other to win. The more they can keep reminding us all how much their supporters want a politics no longer ruled by money and fear, the more they'll increase their odds.