It’s been fashionable to compare Barack Obama’s presidential transition favorably to Bill Clinton’s 16 years ago, which was supposedly a model of chaos and disorganization. This is somewhat unfair to the former president, whose popularity didn’t really take a hit until after he was sworn in. But Clinton did make at least one blunder that Obama has avoided: getting involved in a Georgia Senate run-off.
In late November ’92, weeks after eking out a victory of his own in the state, President-elect Clinton made a last-minute campaign appearance (after first dispatching Vice President-elect Al Gore) with Senator Wyche Fowler, who was facing Republican Paul Coverdell in a run-off. Victory was certainly within reach for the Democrats – Fowler had led by a point in the preliminary vote – but when Coverdell pulled out a two-point win the next day, it was trumpeted as a slap in the face to the incoming president.
On Tuesday, Georgia will hold its first run-off since that ’92 contest, with Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss, who led the preliminary by three points (coming within a handful of votes of an outright majority that would have made him the winner on the spot) facing a challenge from Democrat Jim Martin.
Obama, unlike Clinton in ’92, has been nowhere near Georgia since Election Day, a development that hasn’t sat well with many on the left (to whom Chambliss remains a particularly reviled figure, thanks to the notorious campaign ad he ran against Max Cleland in 2002).
Actually, though, Obama is doing both himself and the left a favor by staying on the sidelines.
For Obama personally, it’s simply not worth the trouble of going to bat for Martin, who is probably doomed no matter what. The most recent poll, released on Monday, shows Chambliss with a healthy seven-point lead, 53 to 46 percent. Obviously, that leaves Martin within theoretical striking distance, and Democrats have been clinging to the notion that a superior ground operation – helmed by veterans of Obama’s effort – will inflate Martin’s numbers amid low overall voter turnout. Practically speaking, though, there’s almost no chance this will happen.
First, turnout for Democrats was maximized in the preliminary vote on November 4. Thanks to Obama, African-American participation soared, with blacks accounting for nearly one-third of Georgia’s electorate, up from 25 percent in 2004, with 98 percent of those voters casting ballots for Obama – an even higher level of loyalty than Democratic candidates typically receive from blacks. This allowed Obama to put the state in play. He ended up losing Georgia by just five points; four years earlier, John Kerry had lost it by 17.
This swell in black participation trickled down to the Senate race, bringing Martin, a little-known former state legislator, within three points of Chambliss and forcing the run-off. But replicating this effect in the run-off is a pipe-dream for Democrats. It’s certainly true that Obama benefited from an incredibly well-organized field operation, in Georgia and other states, and that a similar operation is now in place for the run-off. But what’s missing is Obama himself. It took the presence of an African-American at the top of the ticket to spark such astronomical black participation on Election Day. The best intentions of every Democratic organizer in the state can’t replicate such energy. Not surprisingly, early voting figures for the run-off show blacks making up about 23 percent of the electorate – nowhere near enough for Martin to prevail.
"I can absolutely guarantee you that if that number doesn’t increase when those who turn out tomorrow are factored in that Saxby Chambliss will win by double digits," Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling, which commissioned the poll that showed Chambliss ahead by seven, wrote on Monday.
Obama’s victory over John McCain, and the victories of countless Democrats in Senate and House races, also works against Martin. 16 years ago, the situation was similar: With Clinton’s election, Democrats found themselves in control of the executive and legislative branches for the first time in more than a decade.
Back then, Coverdell hit paydirt by portraying the run-off as a referendum on one-party rule by the Democrats. Georgia has only become more Republican-friendly since then, and the G.O.P. has been pressing the same themes in this run-off campaign.
Given that he essentially began the run-off three points behind, these two factors – black turnout and the resonance of the G.O.P.’s message – make it highly unlikely that Martin will prevail. By stepping into the fray, Obama would have been practically begging for a humiliating defeat.
Of course, some Martin supporters believe Obama’s presence could have produced the spike in black turnout that Martin needs. But this doesn’t pass the sniff test, either. An Obama campaign appearance might have produced a marginal increase in black turnout, but it would not have brought out the masses like his own campaign did on November 4. A Senate run-off campaign, even with a visit by the president-elect, simply doesn’t register with casual voters like a presidential election does.
In fact, an Obama campaign swing might actually have hurt Martin more than it would have helped him. November’s results showed that the electorate in Georgia, like most Southern states, remains highly polarized along racial lines. While Obama won 98 percent of the black vote in the state, John McCain took 76 percent of the white vote. At least when Bill Clinton pitched in for Fowler in ’92, he was coming to a state that he had won (with a much higher share of the white vote than Obama received). Obama’s presence now would only reinforce the racial polarization that works against Democrats in Georgia. It would also play into the G.O.P. strategy of nationalizing the race, and of making it a referendum on one-party rule.
By staying away, Obama has probably helped Martin retain whatever slim chance of victory he has.