Will there be a backlash?
That, I think, is the only question* that matters now, in terms of Tuesday's result in Pennsylvania. Will the Keystone State's Democratic voters -- remember, these are Democrats, not general-election voters -- rebel against the negativity, the "gotcha"-ism, the endless drumbeat of cynical word-twisting and opportunistic gaffe-pouncing, that has become the central operating principle of the Clinton campaign, and vote instead for the man whose message of "hope" and "change" and a "new kind of politics" so inspired voters in the early stages of this nomination contest? If there's ever a moment for that message to gain new traction, it would be now.
The conventional wisdom holds, and the polling suggests, that undecided voters will break for Hillary, as they did in New Hampshire, and in various big Super Tuesday states, and in Texas and Ohio. But in the last week, Hillary's campaign has gone almost entirely negative, and her inner attack dog been unmasked as never before. Pennsylvanians, remember, have rarely if ever been the center of the political universe like this before -- they're not used to being New Hampshire on steroids -- and the negativity must be absolutely overwhelming at this point. I imagine a lot of voters are getting awfully tired of it all.
If I'm right, tonight's debate, while superficially helpful to Hillary (Sullivan calls it Obama's "worst performance yet on national television," and I don't disagree), may actually have damaged her -- precisely because it seemed, in some ways, almost like an extension of the last week of her campaign. It wasn't really a "debate" so much as an endless series of "gotcha" moments, an ongoing riff on "electability" and side-issues and distractions. The lefty blogosphere is in an uproar; Ed Rendell is mad as hell; commenters on ABC's site are livid. But what will Pennsylvania's voters think? And if they were turned off the debate, will that turn them on to Obama's message, and turn them off to Clinton's transparent Rovianism? I think it just might.
One of the night's most popular answers, according to WPVI's undecided voter reaction tracker thingy, was this response by Obama to a question about his relationship to former Weather Underground bomber William Ayers:
George, but this is an example of what I'm talking about.
This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who's a professor of English in Chicago, who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He's not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis.
And the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values, doesn't make much sense, George. ...
[T]his kind of game, in which anybody who I know, regardless of how flimsy the relationship is, is somehow -- somehow their ideas could be attributed to me -- I think the American people are smarter than that. They're not going to suggest somehow that that is reflective of my views, because it obviously isn't.
Hillary's response? "Well, I think that is a fair general statement, but I also believe that Senator Obama served on a board with Mr. Ayers for a period of time, the Woods Foundation, which was a paid directorship position." The undecided-voter meter plummeted.
Perhaps I'm being a pollyanna-ish member of the Cult of Obama here, but I think there is a real chance the voters of Pennsylvania will rise up and, once and for all, reject the endless, party-destroying "gotcha" tactics of Hillary Clinton, and choose the candidate of "change." It would be the backlash to end all backlashes. I'm not predicting it. But I think it could happen.
And it would be so sweet if it did.
*Check that: "Will there be a backlash?" is one of two questions that matter. The other one is, "What constitutes 'victory' for Hillary Clinton?" I still maintain she must win by double digits, but I worry, in keeping with the yea theory, that a late rush of pro-Obama polls -- or even leaked, unweighted, pro-Obama exit polls on election night -- could lower the bar and allow her to claim "victory" with a mere narrow win.
UPDATE: Welcome, Andrew Sullivan readers!
P.S. Full disclosure for my new readers: before you put too much stock in my quasi-prediction here, you should be aware of my track record. In October 2005, I made a friendly bet that Giuliani, not McCain, would win the GOP nomination. In November 2007, I bragged that Rudy's strong showing in national polls proved my long-held belief that the GOP isn't as monolithically closed-minded as many liberals think it is. (I actually still think this point is correct, but my use of Giuliani as an exemplar was obviously woefully premature.) In January 2008, one day before New Hampshire, I predicted that Hillary Clinton, after being crushed in the Granite State, would quickly fade and "will not win a single primary." I implied she'd drop out after Super Tuesday. The next day, I picked not just Obama, but Romney, as New Hampshire winners. Later that month, in a reversal of wrongness, I picked McCain to win Michigan. I subsequently opined about a possible "Rudy surprise" in Florida. I could go on, but you get the idea. I've repeatedly been spectacularly wrong this election season. :)
But hey, here's hoping this is the time I'm right!
Meanwhile, in comments, Jim Hu writes, "Maybe there will be a backlash, but basing it on the uproar in blogs and comments sections strikes me as wishful thinking. If these were reliable indicators, Ron Paul would be the GOP nominee."
Heh. Touche. But actually, I'm not "basing it on" those things. I'm basing it on my own sense of voters' likely reactions, which the online uproar has only confirmed. My sense is simply this: Democratic voters (not to be confused with general election voters) seem generally unmoved by Bittergate and these other "gotcha" issues. That sense seems to be generally confirmed by polls, "man on the street" interviews, and so forth. So, given that voters are generally unmoved by those issues; and given that Hillary has run an unceasingly negative campaign in the last week or so, based primarily on those issues; and given that last night's debate seemed like an extension of that negative campaign; and given that Pennsylvania has really never been saturated like this with a sustained, PA-centric, negative campaign; I think a backlash is possible. I may well be wrong, but if I am, it won't be because I'm putting too much stock in online commentary. It'll be because my internal predictive sense of how voters are likely to react is wrong. As demonstrated above, it wouldn't be the first time!
UPDATE: The ever-insightful FlyOnTheWall writes in comments:
There may be a backlash provoked by the debate, Brendan, but I suspect that the narrative of a backlash will be far more important. Scanning the coverage this morning, there seems to be an emerging consensus among the talking heads that Clinton hurt herself through her unrelenting negativity last night. I'm not sure that's entirely fair - it strikes me that she's mostly guilty of sinking to the level of the moderators, and taking their bait. But it may not matter.
Consider, for example, this gem from Halperin: "The Obama campaign tells Stephanopoulos that 'prominent Pennsylvania supporters' will switch their support from Clinton to Obama Thursday morning due to Clinton’s negativity." Now, I'd be willing to wager that if they actually exist, these supporters came around before last night. But Axelrod and Plouffe aren't stupid - they recognize the value of reinforcing perceptions. So they'll roll them out this morning, and the day-after cycle will be dominated by the news that Hillary even turned off some of her own supporters. (Assuming Stephanopolous is correct - can you trust the guy after last night?)
I doubt that the debate itself changed many minds. But far more people will see coverage of the debate and its aftermath than tuned in to watch the event itself last night. And if Obama can make Hillary's negativity the crucial issue, he can turn a truly dismal performance to his advantage.
Well, hey, Hillary won New Hampshire on the basis of a ridiculous, trumped-up "sympathy card." If Obama can do the same in Pennsylvania, they'll be even. Oh, and Obama will be the nominee.
UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Upon reflection, it occurs to me that the "narrative of a backlash" could be bad for Obama, because it could have the effect of resetting the expectations game -- again! -- so as to lower the bar for Clinton -- again! -- thus allowing her to claim a "win" on the basis of a narrow margin that should really be seen as a moral victory for Obama -- again!
As commenter "yea" pointed out two weeks ago, and as I alluded earlier in this post, this late-in-the-game resetting of expectations has been a major Achilles' heel for Obama throughout the campaign. (Think New Hampshire, Super Tuesday, Texas & Ohio.) And it could happen again, with the "backlash narrative" being the launching point.
Think about it: there are still six whole days before the primary. That's a lot of time. And polls are already showing a tightening race, as they always seem to do when primary day nears. That in itself will start to reset expectations, but what's worse, the "backlash narrative" may convince the commentariat that Obama will pick up a big chunk of the undecided vote. Throw in a couple more polls that, by random variation, show Obama with a slight lead -- which will, in keeping with the conflation of correlation and causation, be attributed to the "backlash," thus strengthening the meme -- and, by Tuesday, the MSM could be well-nigh convinced that Obama has a chance to win Pennsylvania outright.
And then think about what will happen when the first wave of leaked, unweighted exit polls -- which always seem to favor Obama -- appear on the media's and blogosphere's radar. If those numbers show a dead heat or an Obama victory, and if the first round of published, issue-based exit polls show the voters saying by wide margins that they hate all the negative campaigning, and that it was important to their vote -- which voters always say, whether it's true or not -- the narrative of a "possible Obama upset" will become conventional wisdom by the time the polls close.
All of which will mean that, when Hillary wins by 5 or 6 points, she'll be able to claim a "comeback" victory, and the narrative will abruptly shift back to: "Well, I guess that 'bitter' stuff, and the Wright stuff, and the Rezko stuff, and the Ayers stuff, and the flag stuff, really hurt Obama after all! Why, look, he lost the working-class white male vote by a 2-to-1 margin! Obama is in trouble!" The superdelegates go back to being alarmed; Hillary again vows to stay in the race until the convention; the thumb-suckers suck their thumbs vigorously; and, basically, we're back to square one. All because of a narrative that I played some small role in starting. Dammit. :)