This Time, Expectations Work for Obama

So far, 2008 has been the year of artificial momentum and warped expectations, and Hillary Clinton has been the beneficiary.

In contest after contest this primary season, we have seen the illusion of momentum, created by the spillover effect from recent results and whatever the dominant media narrative of the moment happens to be. So, for instance, when Barack Obama scored a clear win in Iowa and Hillary Clinton finished in third place, the Clinton Collapse instantly became the media’s obsession and Obama overtook Clinton in New Hampshire polls almost overnight. He had “the Big Mo.”

But then the voters actually went to the polls and produced a completely different result, one that thumbed its nose at Obama’s supposed momentum but that was actually in line with what expectations had been for months before Iowa. And this pattern has repeated itself several times.

Remember how Obama, the early underdog in Ohio and Texas, erased Clinton’s leads in both states on the strength of the momentum from his February winning streak and was poised to sweep to a pair of nomination-clinching wins? Or how the same basic story played out in Pennsylvania?

What has been most remarkable about this Democratic race is the degree to which support for both candidates was locked into place early on. Each has assembled a massive and distinct coalition defined largely by race, gender and economic status. There have been fluctuations in the candidates’ standing among various groups within their coalitions, but the basic fault lines have been impervious to big swings. In almost every state, the appearance of momentum behind one candidate has developed, only to disappear by primary day.

This has been a big help to Clinton in building an effective narrative as a tenacious, back-up-off-the-mat fighter. If at any point in 2007 it had been revealed that she would ultimately win New Hampshire by three points, few people would have been surprised. She seemed well positioned in the state and led in most every poll there. But when she was declared the winner by three points on primary night, it was a seismic, campaign-saving development for her—Obama’s perceived momentum had so lowered the bar for her. She had “come back.”

In the big picture, it’s similarly no surprise that she won Texas by four points, Ohio by 10 and Pennsylvania by nine, but because Obama was seen as surging in those states just before they voted, the value of victory multiplied for Clinton.

But now, finally, it may be Obama’s turn. In the same way that New Hampshire, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania were natural Clinton states, North Carolina is an Obama state, one where polls, until recently, gave him the kind of lead Clinton enjoyed in the early going in her states. And while Indiana is not quite a natural Obama state, it’s also not really a Clinton state. A close race, with either candidate winning, has long been expected there.

Which creates something of a silver lining in all the recent bad news for Obama, starting with the Pennsylvania results two Tuesdays ago. That verdict produced a torrent of “What’s wrong with Obama?” stories in the press and fed doubts about the certainty of his nomination this summer. A few days later came Jeremiah Wright’s reemergence, which began with his not-too-destructive appearance on Bill Moyers Journal last Friday only to turn worse—much worse—with his deliberately obnoxious National Press Club speech on Monday. Just as the Wright story peaked, there was word that Mike Easley, the popular Democratic governor of North Carolina, was throwing his support behind Clinton, fueling talk that the state might suddenly be within her reach.

And now the polls are catching up to the stories. In Indiana, Clinton’s lead has edged up to high single digits, even 10 points in one poll, a clear change from pre-Pennsylvania numbers that had the contest dead even. And Obama’s once overwhelming North Carolina advantage has been cut to single digits, with Clinton even moving into a tiny lead in one new poll.

For the first time, it is Clinton, and not Obama, who has the perceived momentum heading into a major test on her opponent’s natural turf. That, combined with her increasingly unfavorable delegate and popular-vote math, means that she’ll pretty much need a big win in Indiana and a win, or at least a near-miss, in North Carolina not to be considered a failure. This was not the standard before Pennsylvania.

Conversely, Obama is now in Clinton’s usual position, battered by the news media’s narrative of the moment and facing plummeting numbers in states he’s supposed to win. If he ends up pulling off a sizable win in North Carolina and either winning or finishing a close second in Indiana, the story will be that he went through a rough patch but that the voters came back to him—even though these margins are completely in keeping with what was always expected in both states before Pennsylvania.

There are reasons to believe that Obama will be able to outperform the now-lowered expectations for him. For one thing, the polls now coming out mainly reflect Obama’s standing at his lowest point of the last week. The effect of his denunciation of Wright on Tuesday and of several relatively Wright-free days—assuming the coming days are, in fact, Wright-free—is not yet apparent in any of the data.

Then there’s Obama’s mini-wave of superdelegate endorsements, capped by the attention-grabbing news on Thursday that Bill Clinton’s handpicked D.N.C. chairman from the late ‘90s has jumped ship from Clinton to Obama. These stories figure to reinforce confidence among wavering Obama backers that he is still in control of the race, his recent struggles notwithstanding.

And finally there is the basic pattern that has defined this race: What is true in most states a month before primary day generally ends up being a more reliable barometer than what is true a week before primary day. The polls swing and the narratives shift, but each time, most voters have ended up back where they’ve always been expected to be.

If they do that next Tuesday, it will be a very good day for Obama.

This Time, Expectations Work for Obama