As the fight for the 2008 Democratic nomination continues, "change" has emerged as a central theme. Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign banners read "Ready for Change, Ready to Lead" and she recently put out an ad entitled "Ready for Change." Sen. Barack Obama's website refers to a "Countdown to Change" and his campaign is running an ad in Iowa called "Change."
But for all the talk about "change," there is a marked distinction between the two candidates where the meaning of that term is concerned. Mr. Obama's variety is all about changing the system of American politics itself, whereas Mrs. Clinton's version is simply about changing the name and partisan affiliation of the President.
That distinction is important, though it is not surprising. With President Bush's approval ratings hovering in the 30 percent range, Mrs. Clinton, as the Democratic frontrunner, finds her best shot in beating up on Mr. Unpopular. By contrast, Mr. Obama, the man in second-place, has the task of distinguishing himself from Mr. Bush, and Mrs. Clinton, simultaneously - it's tough, but it makes him the bolder candidate.
Mr. Obama is the one willing to blast "divisive ideological politics" - a staple of both parties in Washington, to which Mrs. Clinton has contributed for fifteen years - up-front, on his website. He is the one whose latest ad highlights ethics and government transparency issues. He is the one who, in last month's debate, condemned the "failed politics of Washington," and "conventional thinking that has become the habit in Washington," tying Mrs. Clinton to both.
Mrs. Clinton, by contrast, remains content to stick with refrains about "George Bush's war" in debates, and comments about working families being "invisible to our president" on her website and in her campaign ads. Sure, she wants change, but overall, her focus remains on her experience within politics as we know it - i.e., Bush vs. Clinton. Mr. Obama, meanwhile, clamors for a systemic shake-up.
Mrs. Clinton's message seems to be working. She leads Mr. Obama by at least 15 percent in virtually every major nationwide poll conducted in the last month. Moreover, a CBS News poll last month showed that by a 44-41 percent margin, voters value experience more than fresh ideas. Of Democrats who prefer experience, she leads Mr. Obama 49 percent to just 16 percent.
Mrs. Clinton also dominates where support from the high-dollar donating, politically-invested Democratic elite is concerned. Where Mr. Obama says "no" to lobbyist money, as surely as he says "no" to the system that generates it, lobbyists happily give to Mrs. Clinton, and she happily accepts—$400,000, so far, according to OpenSecrets.org, an online tracker of campaign finances.
Also, as early as the first quarter of 2007, Mrs. Clinton was already looking like the candidate of the Democratic elite on other counts. The average donation to her campaign for that period was about $520, and she claimed a pool of just 50,000 donors. Mr. Obama, by contrast, claimed about 154,000 donors, and an average donation of just over $200 per donor--making his donor base look very different from the relatively small, moneyed, super-engaged liberal establishment Mrs. Clinton seems to attract.
It begs the question: is Mr. Obama playing a game that by definition, he cannot win? Attacking the system is great, but when you must appeal to people who propagate it in order to get ahead, it can be problematic.
Tough though Mr. Obama's task is, he does have a few points in his favor beyond sheer charisma (on which he is heavily reliant).
First, the electorate is frustrated with President Bush, but also with Democrats in Congress—of which Mrs. Clinton is one, and of which she has been one for longer than Mr. Obama. While recent polling shows Mr. Bush's approval rating at about 30 percent, congressional Democrats pass muster with just 33 percent of voters. That makes Washington, not just Mr. Bush, look like the problem.
Second, Mr. Obama should take heart from a recent Gallup survey showing that where Democratic voters are forced to choose between "change" and "experience," they prefer "change" by a 73-26 percent margin.
If either of those sets of numbers continue to hold, it could create the perfect storm in which Mr. Obama, the underdog, wins it all—and Mrs. Clinton, with all her experience, loses out.