Outside The Cocoon

If you're reading this, you're probably part of the relatively small number of people who take an inordinate interest in politics and the campaign. There are a lot of you, but still a tiny minority of the primary voting public. Most normal human beings with jobs to do, kids to raise, bills to pay, don't have that luxury of examining candidates for months on end, long before voting time. So they often focus as the election day approaches, and picking among several within existing party categories, many make up their minds at the last moment. Jay Cost thinks this explains a lot about the skewiff polls this primary season:

If we put ourselves in the shoes of the average voters, and try to recreate their thought processes - it makes a lot of sense. Their partisanship cannot serve as a quick, easy guide. Thus, they have to take a good, long look at the candidates as people. Given their typical inattention to politics, the time when this happens is the last week or so.

This might explain the wide variability of the primary polling. Because they have not been anchored by partisanship - voter opinions have been unstable for most of the cycle, up until the very end when we are wont to see a massive break in one direction or another. The "error" in the polls might simply be a reflection of public indecision. For that matter, Clinton's massive lead through most of last year might have its origins here as well - without their partisanship, poll respondents had little to go on except their vague sense of the media's consensus view of the race. Predictably, they claimed to support Clinton. Finally, this might account for momentum. Voters take a close look at winners at precisely the moment they are basking in the glow of positive media coverage. Unsurprisingly, researchers have found that more informed voters are less susceptible to momentum effects.

Cost believes that the swings decline in the general election, as partisanship stabilizes preferences. My own view of this primary campaign is that Clinton has long enjoyed a big advantage because of her name recognition, her partisan brand, and almost two decades of media attention. And that was her strategy - coast to a coronation because she's ... Hillary. Obama - for all the hype - is still relatively new on the national scene. But when people actually focused and realized things were not fore-ordained, he caught up quickly. That's why a twenty-point lead in the big states evaporated as Super Tuesday approached - because Dem voters realized they actually had a choice. In most of those states where retail campaigning really mattered - New Hampshire excepted - Obama won. The more you see of him, the more support he tends to get. Now he has momentum as well.

I may be deluding myself and I don't believe for a minute that the Clintons will give up until they have no alternative, but my sense is that Obama has already won this thing. And as the broader electorate focuses more and more, that will become clearer and clearer. His main problem is voter cold feet. His relative unfamiliarity is still unsettling to many. He's up against a very familiar, comforting brand, especially if you're a Democrat. At the last moment, some lose their nerve. Hence the odd phenomenon of his winning most final weeks but losing support the day or so before the actual vote. His major obstacle now is understandable but unmerited trepidation.

Which means to say I can still see a way in which Obama could win or lose. But there is no way that Clinton can do anything with this election but survive it.