During the early fall panic period, when Barack Obama supporters worried Hillary Clinton was leaving him in the dust, those who argued he should be more aggressive clashed with those who argued that scrapping would trip him up. He was the candidate who had written and spoken at great length about a new kind of politics. To really take on Clinton, he would have to raise questions about her honesty and candor, because that’s where voters see her as weak. But that would double the risk of taking a swing, since such attacks can seem personal and voters don’t like that, particularly in Iowa where Obama has been closest to catching Clinton in the polls.
Despite the risks, for more than three weeks, Obama has stepped up his criticisms of Hillary Clinton, and his brand remains intact. In fact, it may be stronger than ever. A new Washington Post poll of Iowa voters shows Obama on the leading side of a statistical dead heat among the top candidates. Thirty percent of respondents favor Obama, 26 percent support Clinton, and 22 percent like John Edwards.
This breakdown is not that different than the last Post poll in July, but the campaign is a lot different that it was then. In midsummer, a peppery Obama comment was big news because it was so rare. Then three weeks ago, he told the New York Times he’d be drawing more distinctions between himself and Sen. Clinton. Since then, he hasn’t stopped. Obama has gone on the offense in debates, on the stump, and in interviews on topics ranging from Social Security to Iran and Iraq to giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. The common thread is not so much the specifics of the policy at issue, but that Clinton is not being truthful. “If she’s willing to shift this quickly on this issue,” he said about her position on ethanol, “we don’t know whether she will shift back when it gets hard.”
Hillary Clinton and her campaign aides have responded to the Obama initiative by reminding voters that Obama used to preach against the practices he’s now engaging in: distorting an opponent’s positions, questioning his or her motives, and embracing the limited and false narratives that diminish the complexity of his or her views. At times they have a point, but voters aren’t buying their argument, it doesn’t seem, at least not in Iowa.
The Post poll shows that voters find Obama the most honest and trustworthy, about double the percentage of those who said that of Clinton, but Obama has benefited not just by raising that issue, he has been able to increase his support at the same time. This challenges that classic piece of campaign wisdom about Iowa—that if a candidate is aggressive, he may degrade his opponent but will also diminish his own standing or lose support to a third candidate. Obama has been able to improve his position among crucial 45 and older voters by eight percentage points over the same period, and with women, he has gained six points since the summer. He has also improved his standing with voters on the question of which candidate can better handle the war in Iraq. Clinton’s 12-point lead on dealing with the issue has disappeared.
We have come to that part of the campaign season where each day we open a new poll, like a door on the advent calendar, and then go nuts over the findings. It’s tricky to poll in Iowa, given the particular nature of the caucus process, which makes it all the easier to read in meaning that isn’t there. Clinton polls third among men, with only 19 percent. That could make you argue that she’s suffered from her recent playing of the gender card, but you’d be wrong. She was in third place with men, at 21 percent, in July, before the recent flap. The story of the new Iowa poll appears to be less about Clinton slipping than Obama rising. That he’s been able to do so while coming out fighting may come to define his new kind of politics more than any of his writings or speeches.