"MYSTERY POLLSTER" MARK BLUMENTHAL lives nowhere near California and has no idea whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will win the struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination. But as a polling-data expert, he's been reading the tea leaves, and finding in the California vote some intriguing signals to follow as Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas and other key states prepare for the polls.
Many experts were caught flat-footed predicting a close race in California in early February, and one, Zogby International, publicly explained where it went wrong after predicting a huge win for Obama. Clinton won California easily, by about 10 percentage points, and stole away from Obama a big hunk of California's youth vote despite a media clamor that said the opposite was unfolding: The young in California were embracing Obama.
Imagery of Obama and Oprah being cheered by throngs of UCLA students helped clinch the storyline that the young are playing a major new role. But as Gary Langer, director of polling at ABC News, showed in his widely disseminated data breakdown, the youth vote so far is not exactly cutting a historic swath. In presidential races since 1992, the youth vote has comprised 12 percent of voters on average. This year, it's 14 percent.
Langer says so many people are voting that the youth vote — though really vibrant — is being overshadowed. But Blumenthal says it's also clear that pollsters and the media "have gone through six or seven sets of 'conventional wisdom'" — each of them wrong. "Hillary was inevitable, unbeatable," Blumenthal says. "But she wasn't. Obama was Bambi — he'd never be able to attack anyone. Then he did. Then Hillary had New Hampshire as a firewall. But then Obama was ahead there — and then that didn't happen. Then in the South, Obama couldn't get more than 20 percent of the white vote. But then he did."
Now Obama is on an undisputable roll, winning in states with big blocs of his loyalists: blacks of all demographics and well-off, well-educated whites, but also eating into Hillary territory. Analysts are keenly dissecting his win — and Clinton's most telling loss so far — in Virginia, which had been said by pollsters, including Scott Keeter, director of Survey Research at the Pew Research Center, to offer a classic mix of voters for the two Democrats to fight over.
As Keeter explained before the vote, a lot of Virginia cities and towns "once had significant textile and furniture and agriculture, and have fallen on hard times, plus there's a very big working class all over state" — those are Clinton people. "But also a very heavily educated population near Washington, and a large black constituency" — Obama people. "And a growing Latino contingent" — more Clinton people.
The Clinton camp now is gripped with angst over an obscure bit of data: how Latinos in Virginia voted. Although the voter population there is only 6 percent Latino, and those Latinos include far more Puerto Ricans and Spanish-speaking blacks than in California, with its mostly Mexican contingent, Clinton can't ignore the fact that Virginia Latinos went heavily for Obama.
With Obama now enjoying the clamors of "momentum," Democratic insiders are publicly feuding over what message it will send if a candidate who doesn't win the popular vote — meaning Clinton — gets the nomination thanks to superdelegates.
Superdelegates, those 796 much-discussed Democratic Party insiders, have a key role in naming the Democratic nominee — a longtime rule designed to prevent left-leaning Democratic primary voters from choosing too-liberal nominees who can't win the national vote in November. (Soon-to-be-anointed Republican nominee John McCain is almost certain to paint Obama, rated the most liberal senator in Congress by some conservative groups, with that brush.)
With that potential ugly internal party war yet to come, everyone is waiting to see what happens in what is shaping up to be, in some ways, a California-like battle on March 4.
"Can either of these campaigns cut into the base of the other, in Texas and Ohio?" asks Blumenthal. In Ohio, "Can Obama cut into the less-educated working-class whites who have been backing Clinton" as he apparently did in California? "Can she cut into the more-educated and more-upscale whites?" And in Texas, will Clinton enjoy a more than 2-to-1 edge among Latinos, as she did in California — or will Obama finally do some damage a la Virginia?
Despite his current surge, Obama's camp still must sweat the fact that except for blacks, California's minority groups — Latinos, Asians, gays — very heavily broke for Clinton. Those voters in Texas and Ohio could be swept into Obama-mania, or, in this season of endless surprises, they might behave more like Californians and go Clinton.
And then there's the youth vote, which has definitely helped Obama — except in Arkansas and Oklahoma, where Clinton won, and Massachusetts and California, where the two split the 29-and-under vote. Obama's camp wanted "a lock" on the youth vote. He hasn't got it — yet.
As Blumenthal notes excitedly, "This is an actual race."
A SCENE FROM CALIFORNIA'S SUPER TUESDAY, at a rally in Carson, said a lot about the unpredictable factors the talking heads have been analyzing — at their peril. At the Cal State Dominguez Hills campus, a "Top of the Billboard" hit blasted through the courtyard and a fiery blonde commanded the massing crowd to shout along with her, "It's all about voting! It's all about voting!"
The crowd was jamming with inner-city college coeds, high schoolers, teachers, parents holding little ones, and a slew of media cameras, all awaiting — Chelsea Clinton.
Marisa Blancarte, a recent grad of Loyola Marymount University, traveled several miles south to Carson's minority-rich campus to join her sisters from the historically Latina-based Sigma Lambda Gamma sorority in supporting Hillary Clinton.
Clinton and Obama both would probably like to take credit for a spike in registration among the 29-and-under crowd. But a far more disorderly, undirected hand is driving at least a part of the action, just another in the many twists in the struggle between two Democrats: the social-networking site Facebook.
Although Jonathan Wilcox, a professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, says the campaigns still don't really get how to appeal to young people — "an old person is trying to look cool to a younger person, and it's awkward" — Clinton spokesman Luis Vizcaino boasts that she has 30 chapters on Facebook. "I think it's one of the most important ways of [creating] grassroots organization through technology," Vizcaino says.
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Thousands of politically charged posses have sprouted, made up of users who share not only a preference for a candidate, but also disdain for other prez hopefuls. Right now, 182 groupies belong to "If Huckabee wins President I'm gaining weight just to spite him." Hillary has 35,180 members in "Hillary Clinton: Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich." There's also "Hillary can't handle one man, how can she handle 150,000,000 of them?" — a group of 1,511. Obama gets even more attention, with 832 users in the misspelled "Stop Barrack Obama: (one million strong against communism)" who mock the senator's F.B. group "Barack Obama (One Million Strong for Barack)," which has drawn nearly 450,000 users.
Nobody knows if any of this actually influences the vote. But clearly the pollsters and media analysts — outwitted by the voters so far — don't understand what is clinching the victories.
UCLA political-science Ph.D. student Mac Bunyanunda, who doesn't belong to any politically affiliated groups "on the book" and prefers to remain neutral, has been closely observing the 2008 primaries' presence on F.B. He has been particularly interested in the rise of Obama, who has over 480,000 F.B. supporters, compared to Clinton's 109,572.
One day, Bunyanunda says, he was surprised to see a fellow Ph.D. friend of his suddenly appear "in Barack Obama's group" on Facebook. Says the researcher, trying, like everyone else, to read the tea leaves: "I wouldn't peg him as an Obama supporter, knowing the classes that he takes, and knowing him ... I think he did it to get girls."