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Campaigns refine strategy: Obama expands map, McCain targets Reagan Democrats

As both presidential campaigns have started airing their first ads and hiring staffers in various battlegrounds, the time has come for more definite decisions on what states ought to be contested and what constituencies ought to be targeted. Last week, Obama started to air his first general election ad in a series of 18 states (14 of which were won by Bush in 2004) that included Indiana, North Dakota and Alaska. This week, Obama's campaign manager confirmed to Politico that they are intending to contest all of these 14 states and extended the list of states the campaign is looking at to... Wyoming and Texas.

Hildebrand suggested that, while the campaign is unlikely to air advertisement here, they are thinking about the possibility of sending paid staffers to organize in such states in order to help down-the-ballot candidates. Indeed, the difficulty of Democrats to win congressional races in Wyoming or Texas in a presidential year is that they are dragged down by the top of the ticket. But Obama has enough money to take care of his own business and afford to also ease the way for red state Democrats.

Of course, Obama can expect something in return: Red state Democrats are notoriously weary of supporting their party's presidential nominee but for Obama to make sure he is not a drag could make them more supportive in return. Given that we are seeing a few Democratic representatives decline to endorse Obama (as they had refused to endorse Kerry) and that the special election in MS-01 last May had Travis Childers struggling to explain that he had no connection to Obama, this would be a welcome development.

Now, we are also getting a better idea of McCain's strategy. As I have noted many times before, the Republican's biggest challenge is the shift in partisan breakdown. With the LA Times poll, the Newsweek survey and countless SUSA state polls all showing a dramatic improvement for Democrats since 2004 and as much as a 15% partisan ID edge for Obama's party, all Obama needs to do to win this election is secure the vote of registered Democrats and not fall too far behind independents.

In other words, if all three partisan groups vote roughly according to the 2004 patterns, the 3% Bush victory would transform itself into an Obama blowout -- all thanks to the changes in partisan affiliation over the last four years.

McCain then must convince registered Democrats to vote for him -- and I insist on the word "must," as this is not simply a strategy meant to put his opponent on the defensive (as is, for instance, Obama's appeal to moderate Republicans) but a matter of absolute survival. The Arizona Senator is perhaps the only GOPer who can even entertain any hope of succeeding at such an effort, though the latest national polls suggest that the road is getting tougher. Now, McCain's general election ad buy gives us an idea of how McCain intends to appeal to registered Democrats.

Marc Ambinder details McCain's latest ad buys to find that McCain is targeting former Reagan Democrats and working-class voters, groups among which Obama was very weak throughout the primary. In Pennsylvania, for instance, McCain is not spending in the Philadelphia market but in the state's blue-collar regions. The same pattern holds in Ohio. The Appalachia region in a number of states will also be targeted heavily by McCain given that these are all are areas in which Hillary Clinton crushed Barack Obama, sometimes by gigantic margins.

By rolling out proposals like offshore drilling and by insisting that Obama is a country club elitist, Republicans are hoping to drive a wedge between the beer track and the wine track constituencies of the Democratic Party and thus offset Obama's advantage in partisan identification. And the high stakes of the success of inspiring distrust among Democrats about their candidate guarantees that the tactics will only get more ugly as we get closer to the election.

More generally, it is striking that the list of McCain's buys is more traditional, with no unexpected expense popping up. And also telling is McCain's heavy spending in Minnesota, since the Obama campaign did not include that state in the list of states it is running its ad. McCain looks committed to keeping that state competitive -- perhaps a reflection of the likelihood that he will select Gov. Pawlenty as his running-mate or perhaps just a reflection of McCain's confidence that he will appeal to Midwestern independents.

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The last throes of New York's Republican Party

Few storyline have been more powerful this election year than the death march of New York's once-dominant Republican Party. The state's GOP was already reduced to a very weak position in 2006, when Democrats conquered the governorship, 3 House seats and got close to seizing the state Senate. That the party would playing for its survival in 2008 has long been obvious: a special election victory left Democrats one seat away from the state Senate and NY-25, NY-26 and NY-29 are on everyone's list of vulnerable Republican-held House seats. In fact, NY-25 is arguably the district that is the most likely to switch parties in the country.

The Vito Fossella saga in NY-13 only worsened the situation for New York Republicans, as the Staten Island congressman's arrest on DWI charges and subsequent announcement that he would not run for re-election left the GOP scrambling to keep their last NYC seat. The party's contrasting recruitment fortunes looked to have ensured Democratic take-over when the race took an even more tragic turn this week-end with news that the candidate endorsed by Republicans -- Francis Powers -- had passed away, leaving the GOP with no one to run in this district.

Over the past two days, Staten Island Republicans have tried their best to find a replacement for Powers, a relatively unknown figure whose main advantage was his pledge to donate $500,000 to his own campaign. A series of high-profile Republicans (District Attorney Donovan, state Senator Lanza and city councilman Odda) who had already declined to run last month refused once again, leading the GOP down its second walk of shame in as many month. It will take a few more days for Republicans to sort out the mess. The most often mentioned candidates are NY1 reporter Lisa Giovinazzo and state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Maltese (who would have to resign before taking the first step of a political campaign). Former Assemblyman Matt Mirones, who might be able to self-fund his candidacy, is also being mentioned.

Complicating the GOP's efforts is that they would have to start the entire petition process anew if Powers had not finished collecting the 1250 signatures needed to get on the ballot. If he had, the GOP can just replace his slot but if he hasn't time is pressing before the July 10th deadline. In fact, it looks like Republicans are so worried about this seat that speculation is now rising that the GOP might endorse the Democratic candidate Mike McMahon! That's right, Republicans might simply give up on a seat that was barely on the radar screen two months ago... and while they would presumably ask for something in exchange, the loss of a seat Democrats would be almost assured of keeping for a long time would be an awfully high price to pay.

As if the possible loss of four out of six House seats was not enough, Republicans are now contemplating the almost assured loss of the state Senate, their last bastion in New York politics. Democrats have been waging an intense war to reclaim the chamber for many cycles now, but the resilience of entrenched Republican incumbent who have been serving for decades in districts that are now blue has prevented Democrats from making as solid gains as they might have expected. But as a number of these long-time state Senators was considering retiring this cycle and last, it took the insistence of Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno to convince them to say on board and fight to keep the majority.

Even with Bruno's success at keeping incumbents from retiring, his rule was hanging by a thread and Democrats were looking to pick up the remaining seat in November. But the news yesterday that Joe Bruno was retiring was as unexpected as it is consequential. Perhaps moved by corruption probes and perhaps unwilling to stay in the probable minority, Bruno announced he was calling it quits and he is already being replaced as the Majority Leader.

This makes it that much more difficult for Republicans to survive. Not only will they have to defend Bruno's old district (and given how much difficulty the party has defending anything in New York, no retention is assured) but the party has lost its one statewide leader and the one who kept the party motivated and focused on the prize. With Bruno's departure, it is very possible that a number of other state Senators representing very difficult districts for the Republicans to hold but who had only stayed at Bruno's urging will join him and announce their retirement in the coming days, leading to a game of musical chairs and opening the door for Democrats to complete their take-over.

Come 2009, Democrats could control all levels of New York's political world, including as many as 27 of its 29 House seats. It is ironic that the office that seems to be the most competitive is also the highest in the state, as the 2010 gubernatorial race already looks to be heating up as one of the hottest in the country. David Paterson is emerging as a popular governor and the names of Andrew Cuomo, Mike Bloomberg, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton are are being thrown in the mix (remember when the three latter politicians were supposed to face-off in this year's presidential race?). But for now, Democrats are surely happy at the turn of events and the increasing likelihood that they will take over NY-13 and the state Senate.

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Tuesday polls: Stunning toss-up in Indiana, as Obama leads in MI and CO's Udall continues to inch ahead (Updated with new LA Times poll!)

Update: Well, well, well, that Newsweek poll has company! A new LA Times/Bloomberg poll finds a 12% lead for Obama, 49% to 37%. In a four-way race including Bob Barr and Ralph Nader, Obama is ahead 48% to 33%. The key, once again, is the poll's partisan breakdown: 39% of voters identify themselves as Democrats versus only 22% as Republicans. That is simply too big a difference for McCain to hope to survive.

Original post: After yesterday's wave of good poll news for Obama that showed the Democrat gaining in swing states like New Hampshire and in traditionally red state like Alaska, today's shocker comes in the form of a SUSA poll from Indiana -- not the first state you think of when you wonder where the next exciting presidential poll will come from:

  • In a state in which George Bush crushed Al Gore and John Kerry, SUSA finds a toss-up race, with Obama edging out McCain 48% to 47%.
  • No surprise as to the reason: There is a 16% swing from the partisan breakdown of 2004. That year, 46% of voters were Republicans and 32% were Democrats. In this poll, 38% of respondents identify themselves as Democrats and 36% as Republicans.
It is increasingly evident how big an obstacle to McCain's election this shift in partisan breakdown, about which I have written numerous times before, has become. It is what explains Obama's 15% lead i a recent Newsweek poll, and what also accounts for Obama's gains in a number of red states like Indiana. Keep in mind that the Illinois Senator has chosen to run his first ad of the general election in this state which should not be dismissed: While it doesn't cost him that much to run ads in similarly red Montana and Nebraska, Indiana does have an expensive media market (Indianapolis) and the Obama campaign has to be at least somewhat confident that they can tighten the race here and force McCain to play defense.

The day's second good news for Obama comes from Michigan:

  • PPP finds Obama to be ahead 47% to 38%, with 78% of Democrats supporting him versus 74% of Republicans supporting McCain.
This will not come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog who know that I tend to view Michigan as more dangerous for Obama than Pennsylvania, but this is the biggest lead Obama has ever posted in a Michigan poll. The state is likely to remain competitive to the end, just as it did in the past two elections, but it would be a huge boost to Obama if the state at least comes back to its Democratic leanings. We will have to wait for confirmation from other polls to see whether PPP marks Michigan's return to its more traditional role of a lean-blue state or whether it overstates Obama's support.

The third and last presidential poll of the day comes from New Mexico:

  • Obama narrowly leads McCain 49% to 46% in the latest SUSA poll, based on a 54% gender gap and the support of 63% of Hispanics. The two were tied at 44% last month.
Yesterday's Rasmussen poll of the race found an 8% lead for Obama, in what is one of two Gore states to have switched over to Bush in 2004. Polls here remain tight, though Democrats are hoping that claiming an early edge New Mexico and Iowa will put them within striking distance of the White House (6 evs) before contesting more difficult red states. The fact remains that while Obama is putting states like Indiana and Alaska in play he has not been able to open a consistent and clear lead in states that ought to swing to his side more easily if he has a national advantage. And that's what keeps this race so suspenseful.

Finally, four down-the-ballot polls:

  • In Colorado's senatorial race, Democrat Tom Udall has opened a 9% lead (46-37) against Republican Bob Schaffer according to an internal poll released by the DSCC.
  • In Indiana's gubernatorial race, Gov. Daniels leads Democratic challenger Long Thompson 50% to 45% (in the SUSA poll).
  • In Nebraska's senatorial race, former Gov. Mike Johanns crushes Scott kleeb 60% to 33% in Rasmussen's latest poll. He ld 55% to 40% last month. Johanns's favorability rating stands at 63%, versus 50% for Kleeb.
  • Finally, PPP accompanied its presidential poll with the uninteresting finding that Carl Levin is leading 54% to 32% in his uninteresting match-up against Republican Jack Hoogendyck.
Long Thompson was unexplicably trailing big in the last 2 polls of the race, though this survey is a return to what we have seen most of the year: Mitch Daniels is a vulnerable incumbent though he has somewhat recovered in the past year, making this race unpredictable. As for the Nebraska race, it remains the Democrat's big disappointment of the year as Bob Kerrey's running would have made this one of the hottest pick-up opportunities of the year rather than a blowout which Kleeb has little chance of tightening. In fact, the Democrat himself probably views this as a resume-boosting name ID-enhancing run.

As for the Colorado poll, it is an internal survey but this is the second poll after Rasmussen's that shows Udall extending his lead a bit. Democrats have long been hoping that Udall will repeat the gubernatorial scenario of Gov. Ritter in 2006, when the Democrat unexpectedly opened a huge lead in what was expected to be a close open seat race and he never looked back. The environment is still as bad for the GOP and the state has only trended more blue in the past two years but Udall has been unable to inch ahead of Schaffer. If these latest polls are confirmed, however, it will be a very positive development for Democrats.

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VP watch: Biden, Sebelius and Crist campaigning more or less overtly

It is still early in the veepstake game. Barack Obama only wrapped up the nomination three weeks ago and the two candidates are giving themselves more than a month to pick a running-mate. In fact, Marc Ambinder reports that neither campaign has yet winnowed down the field of potential picks to those who will be asked to submit vetting documents: medical and tax records, answers to embarrassing questions.

Since both Obama and McCain are likely to make that first cut soon, this is a particularly important time for those politicians who want to be seriously considered and who want to be vetted. Except for those politicians who are look certain to be vetted (say, Pawlenty and Sebelius), every statement and action from a potential VP is doubly important right now. A successful attack on the opposite party can attract your candidate's attention, for instance.

But is there such a thing as too overt campaigning for the vice-presidential slot? Mitt Romney will find out soon enough, as he has done little since the day he dropped out other than do whatever the McCain team could have asked him to do. On the Democratic side, Joe Biden has been demonstrating how effective an attack dog he would be by offering scathing reviews of McCain's foreign policy positions, months after he ridiculed Giuliani when he said that his sentences consisted of "a noun, a verb and 9-11."

On Sunday, Biden declared on NBC's Meet the Press that he would accept the nomination if it was offered to him by Obama. "The answer I’ve got to say is yes," he said. This does not seem a particularly forceful statement, but it is nonetheless a break from the tradition that potential veep picks remain discreet and never offer definite answers about anything. In fact, is the art of artfully changing the subject one of the tests VPs need to pass?

More seriously, Joe Biden would make a lot of sense as the Democrat's running mate. He gained a lot of positive reviews for his campaigning last year, and he has been among the most effective attack dogs over the past few months, displaying his willingness to do what VPs are meant to do while on the trail. Biden is also among the most experienced Democrats when it comes to foreign policy, ensuring that he would be effective on the topics McCain would love to focus the campaign on. The downside, of course, is Biden's tendency to speak too quickly and the last thing Obama needs in the coming months is to waste time addressing a Biden gaffe.

More discreetly campaigning is Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, whom Ben Smith points out referred to herself as an "Ohio girl" and praised Obama's "Kansas values" on Saturday. This is a clever way for Sebelius to highlight the strength she would bring to the ticket. Obama's Kansas roots are an essential part of the biography the Democrat is introducing to voters this months, with the expression "Kansas values" featuring in Obama's first general election ad. Who better than that state's Governor can tout that message and strengthen Obama's appeal in the heartland?

While some of the governor's doubters contend that she would not help the ticket in any particular state, Sebelius seems to be aware of that weakness and seeking to address it. By calling herself an "Ohio girl," she is signifying that her appeal would extend across the Midwest and that her success in convincing conservative voters in red Kansas bodes well for the reception she would receive in states that are more obviously on the list of battlegrounds -- starting with Ohio.

On the Republican side, Florida Governor Charlie Crist has been attracting a lot of attention of his own, starting with his surprising decision last week back McCain's proposal to lift the moratorium on offshore drilling. That has long an idea vigorously opposed by Florida politicians, and one Crist had consistently rejected. While there have been some indications over the past few days that McCain's move might not be as unpopular in Florida as it was first thought, Crist's willingness to quickly rally behind his party's nominee on an issue so central to his own career betrayed his eagerness to be considered for the vice-presidential slot.

As I have often pointed out, Crist's biggest weakness is the insistent rumors about his sexual orientation. Will McCain risk a bombshell revelation over the next few months that would anger social conservatives and potentially keep them at home? Crist's denials have franklydone nothing to squash speculation ("No, man. No. I love women. I mean, they're wonderful.") and the issue has now made its way to an interview Crist conducted with New York Times magazine. This is the end of the interview:

Your personal life is not that of a typical Republican candidate. For starters, I hear you’re not a property owner. It is true. I do not own property. I just never found a need for it. Now I have the Governor’s Mansion, and I rent a condo in St. Petersburg.

You were married nearly 30 years ago, but the marriage lasted less than a year. Do you prefer living alone? I got married and divorced because it didn’t work out. I haven’t found the right one since. It’s really that simple.

You can’t find one woman in all of Florida? Maybe I have. Stay tuned.

Note the use of "the right one" in that second answer and the non-committal suggestion that Crist might soon no longer be a bachelor. Talk about doing what it takes to be included in the list of the vetted? I also included the first question as a reminder that Crist faces the distrust of business conservatives as well, many of whom regard him as a more of a Democrat than a Republican and are angered by what they perceive as excessive moderation. The National Review profiled him last month, coming close to vetoing Crist (not that McCain owes much to the National Review or similar groups).

Most recent VP headlines:
  • June 20: James Jones chooses McCain, Frank warns against Nunn
  • June 16: Jindal's exorcism problem and (more-or-less credible) Democratic denials
  • June 13: Colin Powell and Chris Dodd heading out of veepstakes
  • June 11: Strickland, Jones spark weird storylines as Obama's vetter resigns
  • All coverage for Democrats and Republicans

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Monday polls: Why can't every day have more polls from Utah than from Pennsylvania?

A number of presidential polls were released over the past 24 hours, including (strangely enough) two polls from Utah. While Barack Obama might be putting a lot of red states in play this year, Utah, which gave George Bush 72% of the vote in 2004, is not one of them. In both polls, however, there is a narrow tightening compared to the 2004 margin:

  • Deseret finds McCain crushing Obama 57% to 29%.
  • Rasmussen's poll shows it a bit narrower, with McCain leading 52% to 33%.
While Utah might not be high up on Obama's priority list, a traditionally staunchly red state that is looking like a surprising bright spot for Democrats this year is Alaska. There have been a number of presidential polls finding a tight race, including Rasmussen's latest survey showing McCain leading Obama by 4% last week. Add to it now another poll, commissioned and leaked by the DSCC:

  • McCain and Obama are in a toss-up, with the Republican edging out the Democrat 44% to 42% with 3% for Bob Barr.
  • This poll was actually mentioned in the Washington Post a few days ago but came to my attention only now.
The Alaska Republican Party is in a particularly bad shape, with many of its major figures entangled in a corruption scandal that is threatening to end the careers of Rep. Young and Sen. Stevens in the coming months. That dismal predicament is spilling over to the presidential race, as Alaska voters are clearly not as eager as usual to support a Republican candidate. And the positive effect is mutual: Down-the-ballot Democrats running in a red state in a presidential year have to fight counter-current and escape negative coattails, so for Obama to truly contest Alaska (and he has an ad buy there) will help Democrats in the Senate and House races.

Other major polls released today include:

  • Rasmussen's latest survey from Pennsylvania, that finds Obama leading 46% to 42%, up from a 2% lead last month but down from an 8% lead in early April.
  • Obama's favorability rating (58%) is comparable to McCain's (57%) though Obama has higher very favorable and very unfavorable numbers.
  • In Oregon, the latest SUSA poll finds Obama dropping from a 9% lead to a 3% lead, 48% to 45%. The partisan ID is comparable to 2004's in this poll, whereas SUSA usually shows a swing towards the Democrats.
  • Finally, Obama gets good news from New Mexico in the latest Rasmussen poll. He leads 47% to 39%, holding on to his May lead.
It's difficult to know what to think of New Mexico as Rasmussen and SUSA are the only institute to release polls from the state. If Obama can manage to win back New Mexico and Iowa (the only two Gore states won by Bush in 2004), he will only be 5 electoral votes from a tie, making those early leads in both NM and IA particularly important. Much of the outcome of the race in New Mexico will depend on the Hispanic vote, but it's worth noting that the state was among the closest in the country in both 2004 and 2000.

As for Pennsylvania, I moved the state to the Lean Democratic column in my second presidential ratings last week. That was not meant to imply that the race is no longer competitive -- indeed every sign, including this poll, suggest that it will -- but that it is possible to say that Obama has a slight edge there based on a narrow but consistent lead in polls, massive gains by his party in registration results and the state's move towards safer blue in 2006. But there is no question that McCain will play very heavily in the Keystone state, and Republicans are no doubt aware that the margin here was tighter than in Ohio back in 2004. Pennsylvania is as close to a must-win as Democrats have in the list of swing states, as it would be difficult for Democrats to overcome the loss of these 21 electoral votes. And would the loss of PA not seal that of Ohio and perhaps of Michigan?

Finally, we got down-the-ballot polls today:

  • In New Mexico, Rasmussen finds that Tom Udall is still increasing his lead over Republican Steve Pearce, now trouncing him 58% to 30%. Udall's favorability rating is 66%, compared to 54% for Pearce.
  • In TX-32, an internal poll for the Democratic challenger's campaign finds Eric Roberson trailing Rep. Pete Sessions 52% to 43%.
Steve Pearce might have hoped for a bounce off his primary victory, but this race appears to be increasingly in the bag for Democrats. Combine it with Virginia and New Hampshire, and that's a very likely base of 3 gains for Senate Democrats. But I am very skeptical of the TX-32 survey -- as we should often remember to be with internal polls. Roberson is an unknown candidate with little money in a district that has been gerrymandered to insure Republican victory and in which Bush got 60% of the vote in 2004. In fact, Democratic Rep. Frost was shoved into this district by Tom DeLay and lost to Sessions in 2004 by 10% despite being as high-profile a Democrat as the party can hope for here. So don't cross your fingers for TX-32. For now, there is very little to see.

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May fundraising: Obama and McCain raise similar amount while RNC crushes DNC, but Democrats shouldn't worry

Fundraising has received renewed attention ever since Barack Obama announced he would opt out of the public financing system last week. Over the past few days, two news items have attracted attention: (1) Obama and McCain raising roughly the same amount of money in May and (2) the RNC’s continued financial dominance over the DNC.

The first item has understandably led to more headlines, with some using it to question Obama’s decision to renounce public financing. But Democrats should not be worried about that bit of news. In fact, it is the second story that could prove more problematic -- though it confirms that the Illinois Senator’s decision to free himself from spending limits was strategically necessary.

First, then, came the two campaign’s financial disclosures for during the month of May. McCain announced he had raised $21.5 million, his best fundraising month yet and leaving him with a respectable $31 million in the bank to use until his early-September convention. Obama, meanwhile, raised $23.3 million, a strong sum as well but one that pales in comparison to the Democrat’s totals for March ($40 million) and April ($32 million). More surprisingly, this means that Obama has as much cash left in the bank as of the end of May to use in the primary season, $33 million (Obama has also already raised about $10 million to use in the general election, between September and November).

Why has Obama’s fundraising declined, and does this mean that his decision to opt out of public fundraising was a bad one? McCain devoted a lot of the month of May to fundraising. He certainly needed it and his respectable cash-on-hand totals are his reward, as he will surely have enough money to stay on air through the next few months. On the other hand, the Obama campaign was in surreal situation: They had effectively clinched the nomination on May 6th by winning big in North Carolina but Hillary Clinton was staying in the race, making it impossible for Obama to switch to the general election (and ask for contributions accordingly) without making unity efforts more difficult. This means that Obama held off on major fundraising efforts designed in the perspective of facing McCain, and donation pitches framed as part of the primary campaign surely had a reduced effect since the race against Clinton no longer seemed competitive at the time.

In June, the Obama campaign has been in full fundraising mode this month. Not only did the days following June 3rd surely boost his totals but the campaign launched a fundraising drive after its public financing decision to emphasize its determination to shatter records. After all, the campaign is aware that it has to make the choice to opt out of the system a worthy one. Also don’t forget that Obama will now start to tap into the vast network of Clinton fundraisers, and while some of them might be too bitter to donate to his campaign Hillary herself has encouraged her top donors to contribute to her former rival and is arranging a meeting between the Illinois Senators and her best fundraisers. That should lead to some very tangible benefits.

And all in all, the fact remains that McCain will be limited to $84 million between September and November -- a total Obama is sure to surpass even if he remains at such "low" totals as $23 million. And it goes without saying that the mere fact that $23 million is considering a disappointing result is a reflection of how much Obama has raised the bar.

Much more worrisome to Democrats is the financial disclosures of the national parties for the month of May. The RNC raised more than $24 million while the DNC raised less than $4 million. The disparity in cash-in-hand is huge: $53.5 million to $4 million. Most of this money will be used in the presidential race (though the RNC might be forced to somewhat help the RNCC), creating a big disadvantage for the Obama campaign to overcome. There are a number of reasons to this (the RNC is historically a very strong fundraising machine, while the DNC is hurt by the fact that Democrats are enthusiastic by Obama and donating their money directly to him), but the result is clear: Combined with McCain’s totals, Republicans will have enough money to operate a decent campaign over the next 5 months.

In fact, the difference between the RNC and DNC should make the Obama campaign much more confident that its decision was strategically necessary. If the Illinois Senator had opted in public financing, both he and McCain would have been limited to $84 million from September to November. But the fact that the RNC would have had millions more to spend would have put the Democrat in a huge financial hole, without even considering what effect 527s might have. With Obama opting out, however, he will have a lot more than McCain to spend during those few months and, given that some are predicting a $300 million budget, he looks almost certain to crush the McCain + RNC total as well.

(The non-presidential story in those fundraising numbers is of course the continued disparity between the NRCC and the DCCC. While the Republican branch managed to stay fairly close in May receipts, $6 million to $5 million, it remains at a stunning financial disadvantage: The DCCC has $47 million of cash-in-hand and the NRCC only has $6 million. This will have a huge impact in the fall given how much many House challengers depend on the national committees. The Senate's picture is less severe, with the DSCC having $17 million more.)

Update: Ben Smith reports that the Obama campaign is worried about the RNC/DNC disparity and has released this chart to pressure Clinton supporters into donating to the DNC:


OR-heavy down-ballot thread: Sen. Smith touts Dem endorsements and GOP House candidate hit by abortion scandal

Running for re-election in liberal-leaning Oregon, Gordon Smith has long known that he will have to fight hard to win re-election. Though Democrats threw him a lifeline by failing to recruit one of their strongest candidates, their nominee Jeff Merkley is solid enough to keep the race competitive. Smith has been preparing for more than a year by moving towards the center on enough issues to coherently argue that he is no Bush lackey, particularly on the Iraq War: Smith was one of the first Republicans to break with the Administration and start critiquing the war effort -- though his new ad is disingenuously forcing that trait by describing him as "one of the first to stand up to George Bush and other Republicans to end this war."

This latest ad features a Democratic state representative and a Democratic state Senator endorsing the Republican Senator, praising him for his bipartisanship:

Keep in mind that while Bush is certainly very unpopular in Oregon, this is not the bluest state in the country we are talking about. The extent to which Smith is trying to shake off the GOP label and claim the bipartisan mantle is remarkable and revealing of how much trouble Republican incumbents are in this year solely because of their party's dismal ratings. And the fact that elected Democratic officials are willing to participate in his advertisement efforts speaks to the fact that the Oregon Democratic Party has not really gotten its act together. Smith has led in all polls of the race, though his advantage is within single-digits and he comes in under 50% -- a sure sign of vulnerability. Given Al Franken's troubles in MN, the DSCC is sure to devote as much resources to this race as necessary.

Meanwhile, Oregon Republicans are letting the open seat of OR-05 slip out of their hands despite it being one of only two competitive Democratic-held open seats. You might remember that, back in May, Mike Erickson was viciously attacked by his primary opponent Kevin Manni for having paid his girlfriend's abortion years ago. Right to Life blasted Erickson immediately, but all that drama unfolded too late to damage Erickson in a state in which most voters sent their ballot in early via mail. Erickson prevailed in the primary, leading Democrats to rejoice that the GOP had nominated a candidate too damaged to be competitive in the general and some Republicans are refusing to support Erickson.

Now, the woman whose abortion Erickson allegedly paid for has been contacted by the Oregonian and she confirms Mannix's story. She reveals being particularly angered by Erickson's denying the story and his attempts at campaigning as a pro-lifer: "Tawnya, a registered Republican, said she received a campaign flier with a photo of Erickson next to a baby, touting his endorsement by the anti-abortion group Oregon Right to Life. The mailer made him out to be "some sort of safe haven for babies, and honestly, it made me sick," she said." Erickson denies the story entirely -- but this isn't going to help his already rocky relationship with local conservative activists.

In other -- tragic -- House news, the candidate endorsed by the Staten Island GOP to run for Vito Fossella's House seat in NY-13 passed away yesterday. The Republican Party turned to Powers on May 29th after a slate of potential GOP candidates declined to run for this Republican-held seat, in a reflection of the long odds the party faces in keeping its last New York City seat. The GOP will now presumably reconvene to endorse another candidate, and the names of some candidates who had previously declined to run (starting with state Sen. Lanza) are being mentioned again. Democratic candidate Michael McMahon was already favored to win this seat that has now gone through months of unexpected and at times tragic news.

Moving on to the Senate, South Carolina was never on anyone's list of vulnerable Senate seats, but a party always likes to have some sort of credible challenger in case the incumbent has a meltdown, commits a huge blunder or has some senior moment (see Kentucky in 2004 and Virginia in 2006). Well, it turns out that SC Democrats might have nominated... a Republican to take on Senator Lindsay Graham. Bob Conley has had a long relationship with the GOP and, while he claims to have left the party back in 2000 or 2001, he won a spot on the Republican Party's Horry County executive committee in February 2007. While he pledged to be a Democrat when filing his candidacy papers and thus resigned from the GOP, this shouldn't push the DSCC to attempt anything in SC even if Graham suffers the worst scandals over the next few months.

Finally, the roll call of the House vote on the FISA bill is now up, and 128 Democrats voted nay versus 105 who voted yea, including many of their prized pick-ups of 2006 (Altmire, Gillibrand, Arcuri, Boyda, Sestak, Pennsylvania's Murphy), many of whom represent more or less conservative districts. Of the two Udalls who are looking to upgrade to the Senate, New Mexico's voted Nay and Colorado's voted yea. The former is more of a shoo-in than the latter. As Glenn Greenwald reports, there is some massive fundraising going on to punish Democrats supporting the bill and the sight of activists is set on Rep. Barrow of GA-12 (one of the most conservative Dems in the House, even though he represents a district won by Kerry). Remember that a heated primary is being held in that district, but Obama chose to cut an ad for Barrow last week.

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Third party news: Ralph Nader works to get on the ballot, Bob Barr hits McCain

Every four years, third party candidates must first figure out just how many states they will be able to run in. That problem is only made more pressing when a candidate runs as an independent, forgoing the help (and a secured spot on the ballot of some states) of structured parties. That is the case of Ralph Nader this year. Just like four years ago, Nader is not running as the Green Party's candidate and has to collect signatures and file petitions.

As the memory of 2000 is more distant, it looks like Democrats are not as determined to make life difficult for Nader as they did in 2004. That year, Nader encountered countless numbers of challenges to his petitions, forcing him off the ballot in many states -- starting with Ohio and Pennsylvania. This year, there are much fewer challenges to Nader's efforts and the repeat candidate has been submitting a number of successful petitions, including in at least 2 states in which he had failed to qualify in 2004: Hawaii and Arizona. Nader also looks to have qualified to be on the ballot in Colorado -- where he got 1% in 2004 but 5% in 2000 -- and is talking up his success in Illinois.

Without the support of the Green Party and given that Democrats seem to be more enthused by their candidate than they were eight years ago, Ralph Nader is unlikely to draw the type of support he did in 2000 -- though the latest poll to include his name found him at 4%, compared to 2% for Bob Barr. But there is no doubt that Republicans are more worried by Barr's presence than Democrats are by Nader's.

Just as Nader is primarily aiming his fire at Obama, Barr is first and foremost hitting McCain, as both try to appeal respectively to disaffected liberals and conservatives. Speaking to the Washington Post, Barr blasted McCain on a host of issues, including the Iraq War and domestic policy, about which "Sen. McCain really has put forward nothing that would indicate he believes in dramatically shrinking the size and cost of the government." As Ron Paul's success in the GOP primaries indicated, there is a substantial number of voters who are uncomfortable with McCain's candidacy and who want an end to the Iraq War and a more explicit program of small government.

Barr's attempts to channel Ron Paul might not be entirely successful, but as long as he gives the Paulites and similarly disaffected conservatives somewhere to go other than McCain, he could end up boosting Obama's chances. And a new AP article sets the CW that many Republicans are worried enough about this to discuss it publicly -- with the specter raised that the GOP might to do Barr what Dems did to Nader, particularly in Pennsylvania. The AP also notes that Barr will be on the ballot for sure in 30 states, with petition drives being held in 20 others.

What particularly worries some Republicans is that Barr's support could be more localized than Nader's, and have a big impact in a select number of swing states. This includes Western states in which the Libertarian Party has often had a higher share of votes, and Georgia, a state that few people thought about as competitive a few months ago but that the Obama campaign is clearly determined to contest. The Insider Advantage poll of Georgia released late this week that showed McCain ahead by just 1% also found Bob Barr at a high 6%.

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FISA bill: Obama's about-face disappoints, in first renounciation of strategy of clear contrasts

It was just last week that Obama delivered an admirably strong response to Republican accusations that he was stuck in a "September 10th mindset," hitting back that he would not be lectured on September 11th by "the same guys who helped to engineer the distraction of the war in Iraq at a time when we could have pinned down the people who actually committed 9/11." This prompted me to remark that Democrats in 2008 seemed perfectly happy to draw clear contrasts on national security issues, in a clear departure from the the 2002 midterms and the 2004 presidential election.

Well, that didn't last long. On Friday, Barack Obama announced that he would support the FISA bill that dramatically extends the state's surveillance powers. Ever since the New York Times revealed Bush's wiretapping program, Republicans have been clamoring that these are essential tools in the fight against terrorists and that anyone who holds a contrary position is weak on terror (starting with the NYT, accused of treason).

In mid-February, Obama missed a vote on a previous version of the FISA bill but issued a statement announcing he stood with those "who are refusing to let President Bush put protections for special interests ahead of our security and our liberty." Something evidently changed over the past four months. Might it be that Obama won the Democratic nomination in the interval, and is now starting his drift rightward to contest the general election?

Given the Democratic Party's record in standing up to George Bush over the past 6 years, this would hardly be a surprise if it weren't for Obama's insistence that he would usher in a new era of American politics, an era in which Democrats would no longer automatically cave in when accused of helping terrorists. After all, it is for similar reasons of political expediency that Hillary Clinton and John Edwards voted in favor of the Iraq resolution in 2002 -- and we know how central a moment that became in Obama's campaign against them. Yet, opposing one of the most controversial programs of the Bush Administration and insisting on the importance of court-issued warrants became too much to ask of the Illinois Senator.

Particularly frustrating is Obama's revisionist attempts to change the terms of the debate. Just as Hillary Clinton argued that the 2002 vote was not about taking the country to war but about prolonging the diplomatic effort, Obama is reducing opposition to Bush's program to criticism that it was illegal. "Under this compromise legislation, an important tool in the fight against terrorism will continue, but the President's illegal program of warrantless surveillance will be over," Obama wrote in a letter released on Friday.

So was the only problem with Bush's surveillance program that it was illegal? Are we forgetting that the first issue here is the expansion of executive authority and the strengthening of the police state -- policies that are questionable whether or not they are authorized by law? By accepting the FISA bill and by calling it a "compromise," Obama and a depressingly high number of Democrats are essentially saying that the way to address the executive branch's illegal actions is to make those acts legal... and the problem will be resolved!

What will not be resolved, however, is the fact that this bill grants extensive and excessive powers to government and limits civil liberties. Sen. Feingold, one of the bill's main opponents, blasted this latest bill in a statement for "fail[ing] to protect the privacy of law-abiding Americans at home" because "the government can still sweep up and keep the international communications of innocent Americans in the U.S. with no connection to suspected terrorists, with very few safeguards to protect against abuse of this power." This deal "is not a compromise; it is a capitulation," Feingold laments, joined by other Democratic lawmakers like Senator Chris Dodd and Rep. Holt.

A second bit of revisionism is Obama's acting as if retroactive immunity for telecommunication companies is the only part of the FISA bill that is controversial and worthy to fight. He promised to fight on the Senate floor to remove the provisions granting immunity to telecommunication companies, though he indicated that he would still vote in favor of the overall package if his efforts fail (as they are likely to). MoveOn is particularly furious and is insisting that Obama keep the promise he made this past October that he would filibuster any bill granting immunity.

But as is obvious from Russ Feingold's statements and the anger of many liberal activists, the reasons to oppose the FISA deal go far beyond the immunity question and into the problem of insufficient judicial oversight and the extension of the surveillance state. Obama's using his renewed opposition to the immunity issue to mask his about-face on the rest of the bill is particularly frustrating given that it is the parts strengthening executive authority that are the bill's most problematic provisions.

Washington Monthly has a strong explanation of the issues with the FISA bill, including the extension of the period the NSA can conduct wiretaps without FISA approval and the fact that they can still be used in court evne if they are struck down, as well as disregard for what has come to be defined as probable cause, as algorithms will now come to define who is suspect and what merits surveillance. Kevin Drum explains that,

We're tapping the phones of anyone who fits a hazy and seldom accurate profile that NSA finds vaguely suspicious, a profile that inevitably includes plenty of calls in which one end is a U.S. citizen. But the new FISA bill doesn't require NSA to get a warrant for any of these individuals or groups, it only requires a FISA judge to approve the broad contours of the profiling software. (...) The oversight on this stuff is inherently weak. (...) For all practical purposes, then, the decision about which U.S. citizens to spy on is being vested in a small group of technicians operating in secret and creating criteria that virtually no one else understands.

And Salon's Glenn Greenwald adds:

It is absolutely false that the only unconstitutional and destructive provision of this "compromise" bill is the telecom amnesty part. It's true that most people working to defeat the Cheney/Rockefeller bill viewed opposition to telecom amnesty as the most politically potent way to defeat the bill, but the bill's expansion of warrantless eavesdropping powers vested in the President, and its evisceration of safeguards against abuses of those powers, is at least as long-lasting and destructive as the telecom amnesty provisions. The bill legalizes many of the warrantless eavesdropping activities George Bush secretly and illegally ordered in 2001. (...)

This bill doesn't legalize every part of Bush's illegal warrantless eavesdropping program but it takes a large step beyond FISA towards what Bush did. There was absolutely no reason to destroy the FISA framework, which is already an extraordinarily pro-Executive instrument that vests vast eavesdropping powers in the President, in order to empower the President to spy on large parts of our international communications with no warrants at all. This was all done by invoking the scary spectre of Terrorism -- "you must give up your privacy and constitutional rights to us if you want us to keep you safe" -- and it is Obama's willingness to embrace that rancid framework, the defining mindset of the Bush years, that is most deserving of intense criticism here. (...)

He's supporting a bill that is a full-scale assault on our Constitution and an endorsement of the premise that our laws can be broken by the political and corporate elite whenever the scary specter of The Terrorists can be invoked to justify it.

And Yale Law School professor Jack Balkin adds:

Most Americans don't realize that the FISA compromise comes in two parts. The first part greatly alters FISA by expanding the executive's ability to wiretap and engage in much broader searches of communications than were permissible under the law before. (...) People aren't paying as much attention to this part of the bill. But they should, because it will define the law of surveillance going forward. It is where your civil liberties will be defined for the next decade.(...)

So, let's sum up: Congress gives the President new powers that Obama can use. Great. (This is change we can believe in). Obama doesn't have to expend any political capital to get these new powers. Also great. Finally, Obama can score points with his base by criticizing the retroactive immunity provisions, which is less important to him going forward than the new powers. Just dandy.

Sure, Obama's move is shrewd and designed to prevent the GOP from using FISA as an issue against him. Sure, most other Democrats would have done the same and are doing the same, and Hillary Clinton was moving rightward on national security as early as late September, when she was shifting to general-election mode and voted for Kyl-Lieberman. But that doesn't obscure the fact that (1) the FISA bill is a major issue and a dramatic extension of executive authority and the surveillance state and (2) those who are against its provisions have to speak up against Obama's decision and those of other Democrats (and there will be a lot) who support the bill.

It makes no sense to hold criticism on a bill of this importance, on an issue on which Democrats have been fighting for years now. It also makes little sense to silence criticism to win this election. For one, since when have liberals criticizing a Democratic nominee hurt that candidate? If anything, Democratic candidates have purposefully sought such criticism. Unfortunately, Obama changing his mind has prompted many Democrats to conveniently give up a difficult fight. As Greenwald points out:

People who spent the week railing against Steny Hoyer as an evil, craven enabler of the Bush administration -- or who spent the last several months identically railing against Jay Rockefeller -- suddenly changed their minds completely when Barack Obama announced that he would do the same thing as they did. What had been a vicious assault on our Constitution, and corrupt complicity to conceal Bush lawbreaking, magically and instantaneously transformed into a perfectly understandable position, even a shrewd and commendable decision... Numerous individuals stepped forward to assure us that there was only one small bad part of this bill -- the part which immunizes lawbreaking telecoms -- and since Obama says that he opposes that part, there is no basis for criticizing him for what he did.

This bill's acceptance by many in the Democratic Party -- including now Obama -- is nothing but the party's continued willingness to be boxed in into Republican positions out of fear of being portrayed as weak on terror. This is exactly what Obama was supposedly going to rebel against last week, and exactly what we are back to today. Maybe this was necessary for Obama to avoid accusations that he was too soft in his commitment to securing America, but has that not gotten the country into enough trouble from the Patriot Act to the Iraq War and now to wiretapping and surveillance laws? As Hunter points out over on Kos, it is the fact that enough Democrats are supporting this bill to make it a "compromise" that is a true sign of weakness:

FISA was not expiring. FISA was not falling into a legislative black hole. It continued to exist, as the exclusive means for electronic surveillance of the American people, and all it required was a warrant, and all the warrant required was probable cause. That's it. That's what this entire, months-long parade of panic, bluster and torn hair has been about, that it was just too damn difficult for the administration to be asked to show two sentences of probable cause to a judge in a secret hearing before collecting whatever electronic information about you (...)

And if you object to it, then even Barack Obama will hold the threat of imminent Terror over your head as justification for why we should ignore past violations of Constitutional rights and declare a massive, flag-waving, star-spangled do over that simply declares there's no more problem.

As for electoral consequences, none of this is likely to hurt Obama, of course. The enthusiasm of liberal activists and groups like MoveOn will not fade based on this, especially since most Democratic presidential candidates behave this way once they have wrapped up the nomination (see John Kerry and the Missouri anti-gay amendment). But it does call into question what sort of campaign we will see over the next few months: Will Obama keep firm on his determination to draw clear contrasts with the Republican Party? Or will he minimize differences on issues relating to national security to concentrate on the Iraq War?

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Saturday polls: Obama opens lead in NH, and why so many polls from WA?

After yesterday's Newsweek poll showing Obama enjoying a dramatic bounce, the USA Today/Gallup poll looks to be more in line with what we have been seeing from other institutes:

  • Obama is leading McCain 50% to 44%, which is the margin the latest NBC and CBS polls found as well.
  • Obama enjoys the support of a high 84% of registered Democrats, and has a 12% lead among independents.
The Newsweek poll had similar internal numbers for the different partisan groups, confirming the analysis I offered yesterday that partisan breakdown would be the key measure of this election. While Newsweek's poll found a stunningly strong breakdown for Democrats (55% of respondents described themselves as such versus 36% of Republicans), it is not out of line with SUSA's repeated findings of a massive swing towards Obama's party compared to the 2004 exit polls.

Meanwhile, a number of state polls were also released in the past 48 hours, some of them from crucial swing states:

  • In New Hampshire, Obama has opened a big lead according to Rasmussen's latest poll. He is ahead 50% to 39%, up from a 5% lead last month.
  • In Nevada, Rasmussen finds McCain holding on to a lead, 45% to 42%. This is down from a 6% lead last month.
  • Obama's favorability rating is only at 50%, versus 58% for McCain.
  • In Iowa, SUSA finds Obama leading 49% to 45%, somewhat of a disappointing result given that some Democrats believe Obama is in a position to put this Bush state away early.
  • Update: A commenter makes the good point that I should have thought about that polls from Iowa when the state is flooded cannot possibly be reliable.
  • In California, nothing much has changed since 2004 according to SUSA's latest poll. Obama is ahead 53% to 41%, including a 65% to 26% lead among Hispanics and a 42% gender gap.
  • Finally, SUSA released a poll from Washington, again. It shows Obama leading McCain 55% to 40%, which is the margin he has enjoyed in most other polls from the state.
Washington is vying for the title of the most-polled state this cycle. SUSA is releasing a poll from the state every two weeks, and we now have a lot of data points confirming that Obama has successfully put the state away. However much McCain wanted to contest it, the state's move back to the safe-blue column (which had already helped Kerry in 2004) is continuing. Do we really need this many polls from the state to confirm that?

The polls from Nevada, New Hampshire and Iowa are certainly more interesting for it is in these states that the election should be decided. While Ohio and Florida certainly hold more electoral votes, Obama will need an alternative path if those 47 electoral votes stay in McCain's column, one made up of smaller states like NV, NH and IA. Keeping New Hampshire's 4 electoral votes might not seem to be that important a priority, but the state is among the only vulnerable Kerry states from 2004. And it would enable Obama to win the election by pulling out Iowa and Nevada and just one other (say, New Mexico). Polls in Iowa have been favorable to the Democrat over the past few months, though Republicans must be relieved that they are still in a position to contest that one. And Nevada polls have been showing a very narrow advantage for the GOP candidate.

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State of the race: Obama's biggest lead yet is reminder of the shifts in partisan breakdown and of the long odds McCain faces

A new national poll released by Newsweek this evening ensured that the media finally have a data point to cite when insisting that Barack Obama is enjoying a post-nomination bounce:

  • Barack Obama leads John McCain by 15 percent, 51% to 36%. This includes 80% of the vote of registered Democrats and a 12% lead among independents.
  • The poll does note that, while John Kerry led George Bush by only 6% at this stage four years ago, Michael Dukakis was ahead of George H. W. Bush by double-digits at the end of June of 1988.
There are no other national polls even coming close to Newsweek's finding, which for now is more of an outlier. And it would be entirely point out that large leads 5 months before to the election mean nothing. But what does mean something, what is truly fascinating and is not an outlier, in this survey is the sample's partisan breakdown: 55% of respondents identify themselves as Democrats and 36% as Republicans.

Under normal conditions, such a breakdown would be too unrealistic to taint the poll's results. Not in 2008. All pollsters are finding a shift in voters' allegiance towards the Democratic Party, though the size of that shift varies in different surveys. This will be the key measure to look at in the coming months. While a 19% advantage for Democrats might seem excessive, most of SUSA's state polls are finding a swing of 10 to 15% compared to 2004's exit poll.

If Newsweek's and SUSA's findings are at all correct, it means that Democrats have gained such a gigantic advantage in partisan affiliation that it will be nearly impossible for McCain to win this election. Voters' partisan identification will not change over the next 6 months, and they reveal the enormity of the task of hand for McCain to put together a winning coalition: He has to maintain Bush's margin among registered Republicans while significantly distancing Obama among independents and also capture a substantial share of the Democratic vote.

If McCain fails to do live up to any of the part of this equation, he will be buried by 2008's overwhelmingly anti-GOP environment.

The good news for the Republican candidate: He has been able to put the pieces together in most polls that had been released up to this week, enjoying cross-over Democratic support and a slight lead among independents. This shows that McCain still seems like enough of a maverick to over-perform his party and no doubt poll better than what any other Republican nominee would have been able to.

The bad news for McCain: Obama is now increasing his support among registered Democrats -- and that alone could put the election out of reach. This is the Republicans' key disadvantage this election: Given how much the ranks of registered Democrats have increased, this election will be played out among that constituency more than among independents. (Almost) all Obama has to do is defend his home turf; McCain has to seduce the opposite camp.

That it is Obama who is looking to expand the map to traditionally Republican states like North Dakota, Indiana and Georgia is thus understandable cause for panic for the GOP. Obama does not need the support of cross-over Republicans, but by putting McCain on the defensive he will force the Arizona Senator to protect his base while the vote of registered Democrats remains less contested.

Given the structural obstacles McCain is facing this year, what is surprising is that he is trailing by 15% in only one poll. It is a testament to McCain's electoral strength that he is remaining competitive in most surveys that are being released and that Obama's post-nomination bounce has for now been limited to a few points. But in the end, McCain is dragged down by Bush in 2008 just as much as he was in 2000.

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VP watch: James Jones chooses McCain, Frank warns against Nunn

With the Democratic veepstakes seemingly more open and unpredictable than the Republican ones, it is no surprise that there is more speculation concerning Obama's vice-presidential pick. In fact, the GOP veepstakes have long been celebrated Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota as the favorite, with no real equivalent on the Democratic side. U.S. News is now hearing the same thing from a source that insists that Pawlenty is the "flavor of the week."

This is largely self-sustaining speculation: The more Pawlenty is rumored to be the favorite, the more articles and profiles will be written, the more pundits will mention his name to appear in-the-know and the more Pawlenty will appear to be heading the veepstakes. The main thing Pawlenty has going for him is that he has no obvious flaw. Mitt Romney still has to resolve the Mormon question and is not fully trusted (or liked) by John McCain, though their relationship certainly seems more friendly than it was in January. Charlie Crist has that gay rumor going against him and the conservative base would complain. Bobby Jindal is very young and, well, somewhat creepy. Remains Pawlenty, with whom McCain has a good relationship and who is unlikely to offend any major constituency. Given the rest of the field, that's already a big advantage.

The Democratic veepstakes, meanwhile, gained and lost a player within a few days: last week, the Obama campaign purposefully leaked the name of former General and NATO commander James Jones, whom no one had really thought of as a potential VP pick. But it soon became apparent that Jones was a friend of McCain's and was being mentioned by a Republican as some sort of appointee in a GOP Administration. To dispell whatever speculation might have been left, Jones made a joint appearance with McCain on Wednesday after flying on the Arizona Senator's plane. That should be enough to remove his name from the list of Obama's potential running mates.

Another potential pick that some Democrats (and myself) would love to see removed from Democratic veepstakes is former Senator Sam Nunn, whose deplorable record on gay rights is only the tip of the iceberg of what is a very conservative record of a politician positioned at the DLC-wing of the DLC (note that it would be a surprising pick coming from Obama the post-partisan). While most of the attention is devoted to Nunn's opposition to Clinton's attempts to allow gays to serve in the military, Rep. Barney Frank (one of the only gay representative in the House) pointed out in an interview with Stuart Rothenberg that Nunn had voted against the 1996 Employement Non-Discrimination Act which failed by a single vote.

Frank added that he “would have a hard time voting for the [Democratic] ticket” if it contained Nunn's name. While Frank would probably not follow through on that suggestion, it would make little sense for Obama to pick a VP who would make so many Democrats uncomfortable when he has many other more acceptable conservative Dems he can pick from if that is the direction he wants to take.

Meanwhile, Jim Webb potentially complicated his own selection as he endorsed John McCain's proposal to allow offshore drilling for oil. Barack Obama has said he is against the idea. While it is not necessary for a VP pick to agree with the head of his ticket on every topic, offshore drilling is a clear enough contrast and is likely to play a big enough role in the general election campaign (Republicans are gearing up attacks on Obama for ignoring the rise of fuel prices by refusing to lift the moratorium on drilling) that it could prove embarassing for Obama to have to deal with Webb's contrary position. Webb's statement also highlights what is the main drawback of his pick, namely the fact that he would be unpredictable on the trail with all the risks that presents for a vice-presidential candidate. A running-mate's primary role is to not mess up until November, and Webb could certainly grab a few unwanted headlines.

Most recent VP developments:

  • June 16: Jindal's exorcism problem and (more-or-less credible) Democratic denials
  • June 13: Colin Powell and Chris Dodd heading out of veepstakes
  • June 11: Strickland, Jones spark weird storylines as Obama's vetter resigns
  • June 5: Nunn backtracks on gay rights, Webb campaigns with Obama, Clinton steps back
  • All coverage for Democrats and Republicans

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Down-ballot: House reaches record number of female members, as Carson gets safer and Sununu weaker

Unwilling to finish serving his term after failing to win his party's nomination in MD-04, Rep. Albert Wynn resigned last month, setting up a special election that was held last Tuesday. In a heavily Democratic district, Wynn's victor Donna Edwards trounced Republican candidate Peter James with 81% of the vote, making her the 75th female member of the House. This breaks the record -- but the proportion remains at a shockingly low 17% (it's 16% in the Senate). Edwards is much more progressive than Wynn, who had been angering the Left with a number of votes that might be necessary for a congressman representing a very conservative area but certainly not for this district's representative.

In IN-07, meanwhile, Rep. Andre Carson feels safer today as state Rep. Jon Elrod announced he would give up on his congressional candidacy and run for re-election instead. The two just faced off in March in a special election to replace Carson's deceased grand-mother. While Elrod was highly-touted by the NRCC and while the GOP believed he could contest this Dem-leaning state that was unexpectedly close these past few cycles, national Republicans were unable to come to his rescue and Elrod went down to defeat by 11%. Still a young politician, Elrod faced even lower-odds of winning in November and understandably did not want to see his political career interrupted.

In another Indiana seat, IN-09, SUSA released the first poll of the fourth match-up in a row between Rep. Baron Hill and Republican Mike Sodrel. Hill won in 2002 and 2006 while Sodrel won in 2006. This time, SUSA finds Hill starting with an edge, ahead 51% to 40%. Sodrel cannot hope to benefit from that too much of this comes from an incumbent's advantage that will fade since his own name recognition is higher than your average challenger's. One of the Republicans' main hope here has been that Hill is more vulnerable in a presidential year, but will Obama's organizing efforts in this state that Kerry made no effort in boost Hill's chances?

A poll in PA-11, however, points to potential trouble for Democratic Rep. Kanjorski, who is running against hardcore immigration opponent Lou Barletta, the Mayor of Hazleton. The poll is an internal survey conducted and released for Barletta, so take it with a grain of salt, but it shows the challenger leading 47% to 42% -- at the very least a sure sign that Kanjorski is endangered. PA-11 is a rare seat not held by a freshman Democrat the GOP is even talking about.

Going on to Senate news, the possibility of Jesse Ventura entering the Minnesota race and making the match-up between Senator Coleman and Al Franken that much more unpredictable is getting more real as former Sen. Dean Barkley (who Ventura appointed to fill Wellstone's seat for 4 months in 2002) is now saying that Ventura really wants to run and is personally leaning towards it. Recent polls have shown that Ventura would clear 20% if he jumped in and would make life more complicated for Franken. Ventura's 1998 gubernatorial primary came in an open seat nad it would be more likely for him to succeed in a race with an incumbent.

Meanwhile, the Kentucky race might be more competive but I sure am still not convinced that Bruce Lunsford is much of a Democrat. One of the chief complaints progressives (and, for that matter, all Democrats) have against him is that he donated money to Mitch McConnell previously. Asked in an interview on Political Base to justify that, Lunsford gives the only answer that could have been worse than arguing he is in fact a die-heart conservative by openly arguing that his opportunism was necessary for him to make profits and maintain good lobbying connections. He even makes an open reference to the K Street project (!):

The bulk of those Republican and McConnell contributions occurred after their 1994 takeover of Congress while I was running a large public company with significant regulatory oversight by the federal government. Everyone knows about the K Street Project in Washington. McConnell operates his own version of that shakedown with folks in business here in Kentucky and he was not shy about his requests for contributions, especially when our industry had critical legislation before the Senate. And I recall him not being pleased that I had contributed more to some of his opponents than him.

Lunsford is clearly aware that he has to defend some of his Democratic credentials a bit (after all, this is a second-tier race for which the support of the netroots could be very helpful to get attention and money) by attacking the Bush Administration, the Iraq War and even Joe Lieberman, though he doesn't deflect the questioner's skepticism that he wouldn't be a Lieberman on domestic issues very effectively. None of this is likely to hurt his chances in the general (it is Kentucky, after all), except insofar as a candidate trying to get noticed needs grassroots enthusiasm.

Finally, Rasmussen released its latest poll from New Hampshire's Senate race, finding Jeanne Shaheen crushing John Sununu 53% to 39%. Last month, Rasmussen found a 50% to 43% margin. This is the same size lead as ARG found a few days ago, and Sununu increasingly looks like a sure bet to be the Santorum of 2008. He has trailed from the very beginning and the race shows no indication that it's on his way to closing. Add this race to NM and CO and the Democrats look to have 3 sure pick-ups.

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Obama launches first general-election ad, expands battleground to GOP states as Georgia poll confirms fluidiy of electoral map

More than two weeks after clinching the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama launched his first general election ad today, a 60-second biographical spot meant to introduce himself to voters:

What: Speaking directly to the camera, Barack Obama mentions his maternal family, his being raised according to Kansas values and his choice to help devastated neighborhoods (Obama has long ceased calling his days in Chicago 'community organizing') rather than take a Wall Street job. He goes on to tout his record in providing health care to wounded troops, cut taxes and move people from welfare to work. These are all issues that could just as easily be featured in the ad of a Republican candidate, which goes along with the non-threatening heartland imagery and non(or anti)-partisan message the ad is meant to convey.

Politico's Jonathan Martin dubs this a "task in reassurance" and there is little doubt that this is exactly the ad's goal. This election is first and foremost a referendum on the Republican Party and the Administration. That means Barack Obama will be elected President in November unless the GOP convinces Americans that Obama is an entirely unacceptable choice -- whether because of his alleged inexperience or because of whatever smears are circulating online and are foolishly repeated on Fox. In 2004, the Bush campaign managed to survive an election that was a referendum on the incumbent by convincing enough voters that Kerry was too risky (read: unpatriotic) a choice. In 2008, McCain will need to drive up negativity even more given how much the Republican brand has sank just in the past four years.

Obama will have achieved a large part of what he needs to do by simply preventing Republicans from demonizing him. Given his massive financial advantage, he will have plenty of resources to do just that by airing this type of positive ad that emphasize the parts of Obama's story that make him look like just any other American politician while also being able to attack McCain.

Where: As interesting as the ad's content is the list of 18 states the commercial will be air in (the size of the media buy is still unknown): Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Virginia.

This list is the who's who of battleground states, and it gives us a good sense of which states Obama expects to contest in the coming months. Compared to my latest least of competitive states, are noticeable the absence of Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington (and perhaps also California) and the inclusion of Alaska, Georgia, Indiana, Montana and North Dakota.

Obama's confidence in carrying the first set of states is due to a series of polls finding the Illinois Senator improving in what I have been calling the "Dukakis 5." WA, OR and MN appear to be returning to their longtime Democratic roots after flirting with take-overs these past two cycles. As for New Jersey, Bush considerably improved his score in 2004 and McCain believes that his support among independents makes the state a worthy target. But New Jersey is an expansive state since running an ad requires investing in both the Philly and NYC markets and Obama is unlikely to accept such investments without further indication that the state might be competitive. (A similar argument could be made about expensive California.)

As for the more unconventional states that are included in the list, they are truly fascinating: Obama has long argued that Georgia is competitive but now that push is coming to shove and the time has come for the first media buy, it is noteworthy that Obama is actually following through and spending money here. It suggests that this is no longer just spin but that the Democrat's campaign actually believes that its registration drive and the increase in black turnout will make the Southern state Bush won by 17% truly competitive. And don't forget that the Bob Barr factor could play in Georgia more than in other times. Just in time to give us an idea of where Obama is coming from, Insider Advantage released a poll from Georgia finding... a toss-up:

  • McCain gets 44% to Obama's 43%, with Bob Barr coming in at a high 6%. (A Rasmussen poll taken 10 days ago had McCain leading by 10%).
This is obviously stunning and we eagerly await more polls from this state -- particularly more surveys that include Bob Barr, as he could really influence this election if he draws more from McCain than Obama. The Democrat's targeting Indiana can be described in the same way as Georgia: McCain's lead is narrowing there, just as it is in Georgia, but for Obama to actually take the jump in a state that has a more-expansive-than-most media market (Indianapolis) is remarkable.

As for Alaska, Montana and North Dakota, those are the real stunners of Obama's list, states George Bush won by 25%, 20% and 27% respectively! And DailyKos notes that running ads in Iowa probably enables Obama to reach the Omaha network, where one or two of Nebraska's EVs could potentially be contested. Each of these 3 states represents 3 electoral votes, but Obama is here striking at the core of the Republican base, states that never wavered in its support of Bush in the past two presidential elections. Yet, polls have shown Obama within striking distance in Alaska (there have been less public polls from MT and ND) and the candidate is less affected by racial polarization patterns in these Western states than he is in the Southern red bastions. Boosted by the fact that all three of these states are relatively cheap to advertise in, Obama looks determined to test McCain's vulnerabilities.

At the very least, this expansion of the electoral map will put McCain on the defensive, forcing his campaign to calculate whether it should play defense in Indiana and Alaska or whether it should invest that money in Minnesota and Oregon, states Obama is not even bothering to defend. Remember that the Republican's campaign will only have $85 million to spend once voters start paying the most attention in the fall and there is only so many states that he can spread that money on.

Update: Further provoking Republicans, Obama is assigning the former political director of its Iowa caucus effort to... Indiana, a state that has not voted Democratic since 1964. And the campaign is pledging paid staffers to... Texas!

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Thursday polls: McCain leads big in Florida, Udall opens a lead in CO

The pace of polls certainly looks to have picked up after a big wave of surveys yesterday brought good news to Obama's campaign yesterday. Today's polls serve as a reminder that the presidential race remains close:

  • Fox News's national poll finds Barack Obama leading John McCain by a narrow 45% to 41%. In a four-way race, Obama's lead is 42% to 39% with 4% for Ralph Nader and 2% for Bob Barr.
  • Fox News included questions about which candidate "loves America" the most. These questions are silly enough that I see no need to include the results.
  • In Florida, Rasmussen found John McCain leading 47% to 39%. This is a slight improvement from McCain's 50% to 40% lead last month.
  • Obama's favorability is negative (46% to 48%) and 33% have a very negative impression of him, versus 21% for McCain (the Republican's overall rating is 50% to 46%).
  • Asked whether they think offshore drilling would lower oil prices, 61% of Floridians responded in the affirmative.
  • Finally, Colorado is a toss-up in the latest Rasmussen poll, as Obama leads 43% to 41% -- down from a 48% to 42% lead last month.
  • Here again Obama has a high very unfavorable rating (31%, against 18% for Obama) and his favorability rating has dropped to 50%.
Colorado is one of Obama's top targets and the fact that he has not trailed once in Rasmussen's 5 polls from the state confirms that he ought to target Colorado's 9 electoral votes. But after yesterday's two Florida surveys showing Obama leading by 4% and 5%, Rasmussen's poll is a reminder that, as long as the election remains tight, we will be seeing a lot of inconsistency in these big swing-states. While yesterday's polls should reassure Democrats that McCain has not locked Florida in his column and that this contest will remain competitive, Obama retains a number of disadvantages in the Sunshine state, which has been trending Republican over the past eight years and which resisted to the Democratic tsunami better than other states back in 2006.

These presidential surveys were accompanied by a fair number of congressional polls:

  • In Colorado, Rasmussen finds Mark Udall extending his lead over Bob Schaffer. He is now leading 49% to 40%.
  • In Kentucky, the McConnell campaign released an internal poll showing the incumbent with a 50% to 39% lead against "Democrat" Bruce Lunsford.
  • In one of the most hotly disputed Dem-held House seats, incumbent Nancy Boyda released an internal poll conducted by Anzalone Lizst that finds Boyda crushing her two potential opponents, 54% to 37% against former Rep. Jim Ryun and 57% to 27% against state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins. It goes without saying that you should take this poll (and any internal poll) with a huge grain of salt.
  • The poll also finds McCain beating Obama by 7% in a district Bush carried by 20%.
  • Finally, SUSA released two congressional polls from Washington State. In competitive WA-08, Rep. Dave Reichert is holding off on his Democratic challenger Darcy Burner 51% to 45%. This is a rematch of a 2006 race which Reichert won 51% to 49%.
  • In WA-02, a district Kerry won by only 4%, Rep. Larsen leads 56% to 38%, confirming that the Democrat is safe in this district the GOP could hope to contest in better conditions.
In Colorado's open gubernatorial race in 2006, Democrat Ritter unexpectedly opened an early lead against his highly-touted Republican opponent and never looked back, easily carrying the election in November after a campaign that was never truly competitive. This was certainly a reflection of how toxic the environment was for the GOP. The same exact pattern held in Minnesota's open Senate race, and Democrats were expecting Mark Udall to enjoy similar success this year. But the race has remained very tight, giving Republicans hope that all is not lost. It is only in the past two months that Udall has opened up a somewhat consistent lead, boosted by the bad press Schaffer has gotten over corruption issues and even ads he ran. Keep an eye on polls over the summer: If Udall maintains a lead, we might be in for a repeat of the CO and MN races from 2006 and the NRSC would probably abandon Schaffer to his fate.

As for Kentucky, this is the second time that McConnell is releasing an internal poll immediately after an independent survey found a competitive race. The first was in late May after Rasmussen found Lunsford leading him by 5%. This one is a response to a SUSA survey released earlier this week with McConnell up 4%. Both of McConnell's internal polls have found the same result -- 50% to 39% -- and it is telling that this is being spun as reassuring numbers by the incumbent. For the Senate Minority Leader to be hovering on the vulnerability threshold of 50% is certainly cause for worry and should encourage the DSCC to look closely in Kentucky's direction.

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Obama opts out of public financing, strengthening his ability to carry national campaign

In a video message released this morning, Barack Obama announced he is opting out of public financing. This makes him the first candidate ever to rely on private donations to finance his general election campaign, and it will give him a giant advantage over John McCain. While the Republican will be limited to spending $85 million between the convention and Election Day, Obama will be able to spend as much money as he raises -- and some estimate that could be as high as $300 million.

The McCain campaign has long been pressuring Obama to respect what they call as his pledge to take public financing if McCain does. Obama had taken no such pledge but had said that he would "aggressively pursue an agreement". To justify his decision today, Obama argued that the RNC's fundraising advantage over the DNC coupled with the possibility that independent groups air attack ads in the next few months would have put him at a disadvantage had he accepted to limit his general election spending. Democrats also argue that the huge size of their small-donor list means that they have found an "alternative" public financing system.

(I for one find that this second point unconvincing because what is appealing about the campaign finance is that it maintains some equity between different candidates' spending and prevents the highest spender to simply buy his way into office. I agree that the sytem is so messed up that it makes little sense to blame Obama, that it makes no sense for the McCain campaign to say they "believe in public financing" when they did not take it for the primary, and that it would have been politically suiscidal for Obama to reject it. But in a hopefully not-too-distant future we can hope for a better European-style campaign finance system that also puts stringent limits on RNC/DNC/outside-group spending and in which candidates do opt in. TPM reports that some reform activists have a similar take on the "alternative system" argument. And Senator Russ Feingold also criticized Obama, saying that the general election system was not broken.)

The McCain campaign believes they have an opportunity to hurt Obama with this issue. They are now insisting that Obama broke his words and are blasting him as just another "typical politician who will do and say whatever is most expedient for Barack Obama." McCain insisted today that this is a "big, big deal." The goal is clear: Hurt Obama's posing as a "change" candidate and the reform image that the Democrat has tried to embody. The problem for McCain's campaign is that... this is a deeply hypocritical reaction. Given the financing problems the Republican candidate has himself, it's difficult for me to understand how he is hoping to claim the reform mantle on this one.

Not only did McCain reverse his position on whether to take public financing in the primary (the period that ends at the conventions at the end of the summer), but he opted out after using the promise of matching funds to secure loans in the fall of 2007. There is a possibility that doing so should have locked McCain in the public financing system and the head of the FEC said as much a few months ago. (more background on this controversy here). Taking advantage of the FEC's lacking a quorum to take action against him and rule on whether he was forced to respect the limits that come with public financing, McCain broke those spending limits. The DNC has filed lawsuits against this but they have little chance of getting anywhere until the Senate resolves its stalemate over FEC nominees. Given this reversal whose very legality is under question, does McCain have any legitimacy to accuse Obama of breaking his word and abandoning the reform mantle?

Even if McCain was clean on the issue and could unproblematically present himself as the reform candidate here, another problem remains: such issues very rarely have any resonance with the electorate, and while the GOP might try to put this in relation with whatever other talking points it has to demonstrate that Obama is just a "typical politician," it's unlikely to do much for them. After all, none of the Clinton campaign's accusations of Obama engaging in negative attacks despite preaching "new politics" hurt the Illinois Senator -- and campaign finance is not something that arouses voter passion.

Ultimately, Obama's prodigious fundraising ability terrifies Republicans, who are worried about being swamped under the Senator's machine. Opting out of public finance allows Obama to outspend McCain in key swing states, but it is in more marginally competitive races that the difference could be the most significant. Indeed, both campaigns need to spend a large portion of their resources in states like Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin. Once all of that is accounted for, how much more of his $84 million will McCain retain to invest in New Jersey, Connecticut and California and to defend states like Alaska and Georgia? Obama, on the other hand, will have millions to run ads and send staffers to states that are not high-priority. That will allow him to develop an alternative electoral map in states like Nevada, Colorado and Virginia while also contesting Ohio and Florida and testing GOP vulnerabilities in third-tier statses.