Passing the Chalice


Hillary Clinton casts a long shadow over Barack Obama as the Democratic Convention does its job of anointing him as their candidate.

This is in part because Obama is not travelling so well since clinching the deal with the superdelegates in June. All the same, "Obamacans" need not panic yet. It would be an historic upset for him to lose the presidential election. The tide of history is on the side of the Democrats in 2008. Yet a ten point gap in the polls between presidential voting intentions and voting intentions for congress illustrate the enduring weakness of a candidate who was greeted in messianic terms by his supporters as "The One".

The One would unite America and turn the whole map blue on election day with his "50 state strategy". The congressional race indeed looks like a coming landslide for the Democrats. The presidential race however looks almost identical to 2004, hinging on the swing state of Ohio, with a few others like Virginia and Colorado thrown in for extra excitement.

If Obama did not appear shaky electorally, the announcement of his choice of running mate would not have been so eagerly awaited, nor would we be so interested in the speeches of his rivals for the nomination.

Hillary Clinton’s speech to the convention was polished and pushed all the familiar buttons of her own campaign: from universal healthcare to "green collar jobs", from women’s rights to gay rights. It rallied the Democratic base to unite behind their nominee, Barack Obama. It was a speech well honed by constant rehearsal and as passionate as if it were she who was accepting the nomination.

The speech was evidence of how much the nomination campaign improved Senator Clinton’s own stumping skills, and of how the nomination battle made a stronger candidate out of her all round even though she was unable to win. She went into the contest as the liberal, elite candidate, and emerged the champion of the working class and battlers everywhere. Obama went in as the fresh faced outsider, and emerged looking like Clinton did at the beginning.

In this respect Obama’s biggest problem is far from the Democratic base. His support has fallen among independent voters, where he started so strong in the early primaries. Reverend Wright sapped that support and it has never fully recovered.

Clinton’s speech was aimed at her supporters rather than the independents who will really decide the election. Most dedicated "Clintonistas" will heed the call for unity against John McCain because, like Hillary, they are Democrats first and foremost. For many, Hillary’s brilliant performance will be a reminder of the opportunity they lost by the narrowest of margins to have their candidate in the White House – but they will do their duty.

The big problem for Obama is not disgruntled Hillary voters, but the rest of America. It won’t be feminists and gay rights activists who will vote for McCain in November, but the "small town America" Obama derided in his speech in San Francisco during the Pennsylvania primaries. For losing support in that America, responsibility lies with Obama rather than Clinton.

Obama supporters have been loudly demanding Senator Clinton miraculously deliver the voters who would have voted for her to Senator Obama. In so doing, they have only compounded their candidate’s image problem. It is not up to the Clintons to win the election for Obama. That is Obama’s job. Relying on the Clintons reinforces the view among the broader electorate that Obama is not ready to stand alone as "commander in chief". Like Obama’s pick of Joe Biden as VP, Clinton’s professionalism and energy only highlights his weakness and inexperience. These are the perceptions that will guide the hands of undecided and independent voters on election day.

Obama needs a defining moment like Hillary’s in New Hampshire, when she found her own voice again. Preferably, at a pivotal moment in October.

In the Congressional polls, Democrats have been over 10 points ahead all year. In the first presidential polls following the opening of the Democratic convention, McCain edged marginally ahead in Gallup for the first time. For a very brief moment, as McCain makes his own choice of running mate, the presidential election may be his to lose, rather than Obama’s.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.