The New Kid on the Block

There are some advantages to having been involved in politics for a long time. One of these is historic memory.

I worked on my first presidential campaign in 1968 while a student at Georgetown Law School and have played a role in virtually every race since then. Some times I have supported insurgents over the establishment candidate.

I was with Jimmy Carter in 1976, Gary Hart in 1984 and Wes Clark in 2004. Carter won the nomination and the presidency. Hart and Clark lost the nomination to establishment candidates who then lost the general election.

This time Barack Obama is the insurgent and Hillary Clinton is the candidate of the Democratic establishment. John Edwards is somewhere in the middle.

People who vote in Democratic primaries and attend Democratic caucuses are fascinated with insurgents … the new kid on the block.

Howard Dean was just such an insurgent in 2004. But in the end, the party usually nominates the establishment candidate, such as happened with Walter Mondale in 1984 and Al Gore in 2000. Certainly that was true for the Republicans in 2000 when John McCain’s insurgent candidacy scared George W. Bush before the political establishment pulled him across the line.

The question before the House at this juncture is whether or not the insurgent campaign of Obama is somehow different than the insurgent campaigns of the past that have failed in both parties.

Obama’s dramatic $25 million first-quarter fundraising total has sent shock waves through the Democratic political establishment. But can he close the deal? That’s the unknown question.

Often, insurgents have run short of money at key points in the race. That happened to John McCain in 2000 who was outspent by Bush (who had rejected federal funding and the accompanying spending limits) and, to a degree, happened to Gary Hart in 1984.

Dean raised a lot of money in 2004 but he had a very high “burn rate” so that he didn’t have much left when things really got tough. Also, Dean had other problems which cut into his appeal.

It does not appear that money will be Obama’s problem. He had twice the number of contributors that Clinton will report, meaning that his average contribution was lower than hers.

The significance of this is that he can go back to many of those donors for more money, whereas Hillary built her $26 million total with a significant number of people who have maxed out (given the $2,300 permitted for the primary).

Obama also has demonstrated that he can excite many groups of Democrats (young people, black professionals, entertainment industry executives) and has a truly broad base of financial support. Additionally, he outraised Hillary on the Internet, which is where much of Dean’s money came from in 2004.

Thus, it comes down to message and credentials. Hillary is a disciplined campaigner who will not make many mistakes. While she’s only held elected office for six years, she really is the political equivalent of a sitting vice president (thus the Mondale and Gore comparisons) based on her long years of political involvement at a very high level.

One great unknown factor is whether or not there really still is a political establishment in the Democratic Party that can deliver votes in primaries and caucuses. Clearly organized labor continues to fill part of that role but even if members are united (and they may not be), they alone wouldn’t be enough to put Hillary over the top.

Labor provided the margin of difference for Mondale’s victory over Hart in 1984 but its influence has diminished somewhat since. Local office holders and party officials are another part of the political establishment. Many of them rely heavily on black support in their own elections and they may be reluctant to oppose Obama if he really catches on.

The third part of the political establishment is black voters, themselves, who constitute a disproportionate share of the Democratic electorate in some Southern and heavily urbanized Northern and Midwestern primary states.

Many black voters stayed with Mondale and Gore against white insurgent candidates. Will they do the same thing against a black insurgent who, unlike Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, has a legitimate chance of being the party nominee, or will Bill Clinton be able to hold a significant share of the black vote for Hillary?

And will women — a key voting bloc for Democrats — unite behind Hillary and help offset losses in the black community?

Americans love a good melodrama and often root for the underdog. In presidential politics the underdog often loses. Will this year be different? Stay tuned.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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