It seems something has happened on the way to the coronation. What happened to Obama mania? It seems the cult is falling apart. Could these pundits have been wrong about Sen. Obama's followers? In short, yes. Completely wrong. The truth of the situation is that Sen. Obama's base were always the most fragile and, in many ways, the most easily ignored. First to the fragility. Breaking down Sen. Obama's core supporters you have white, highly-educated voters, African-American voters, and young voters. White, highly-educated voters are drawn to Sen. Obama's message of post-partisanship/post-racism/post-Iraq. Thus, as the race drags on and Sen. Obama tacks more to the left to gain Democratic-primary voter support; as his business dealings and campaign tactics show him to be more of a politician and less a savior; as his race becomes more front and center in the campaign; as it becomes clear that none of the candidates can get us out of Iraq any time soon (despite their promises to the contrary), his support in this group wanes. Currently, African-American voters are assumed to have always been overwhelming in their support for Sen. Obama. This is just not true. As recently as late last year, Sen. Clinton led among African Americans in national polls. It was only after Sen. Obama won Iowa, proving he could win white votes, that African Americans began to support him in large numbers. As for young voters, they tend to be more idealistic about the political process. Therefore, Sen. Obama's post-partisan/above-the-fray approach to the campaign is highly attractive to them. However, as the campaign wears on, their idealism gets trampled by the negative campaigning and they turn away. All of this is why (all along) Sen. Obama's supporters have had more doubts about their candidate than do either of Sen. Clinton's or Sen. McCain's supporters. So, all in all, not very cult like. Thus, Sen. Obama's coalition is fragile. Why can it be ignored? The first two groups, highly-educated whites and African Americans, are very unlikely to vote Republican. They may stay home, the whites may vote for Nader, but they are not going to vote for Sen. McCain. The last group, young voters, are just not likely to vote at all. Remember, young voters were supposed to carry Sen. Kerry to victory in 2004. There is an old adage in politics, "What do you call a candidate that is relying on first-time voters? The loser." This is not a reliable voting block. They tend to lose interest over time, and this primary season has been a long time. Many more could fall off before the general election in November.
Now, Sen. Obama's coalition has proved reliable over the past months, but Sen. Clinton's have been even more reliable; even in the face of overwhelming odds against her victory. In 2004, the Democratic Party quickly coalesced (collapsed?) around Sen. Kerry after he won Iowa and New Hampshire. Sen. Obama won 11 contests in a row and there was no such mass migration. In fact, quite the opposite happened. Each candidates' supporters became more entrenched and the battle for the nomination became more embittered. Sen. Clinton's supporters are the old-time, Democratic party faithful. They relish this type of fight. They have been waging it for decades against the Republicans. Sen. Obama's supporters want to rise above all this petty bickering. The Clinton campaign won't let them (and neither will the Republicans in the fall).
What about the independents and moderate Republicans that have been voting for Sen. Obama? As discussed in a recent post, studies have shown that the more partisan someone is in their politics, the less they use the rational parts of their brain when thinking about political issues. It would be expected, then, that independents and moderate Republicans would be more rational in their political thinking. They also tend to pay less attention to politics. This works against Sen. Obama in two ways. First, when they see negative things about Sen. Obama, the negativity plants a seed of doubt in their minds. When they see Sen. Obama going negative, on the other hand, it makes him seem like a typical politician. Both of these things erode their support for him. The former because the seed of doubt gets planted and they are not naturally motivated to attempt to debunk it (whereas hardcore Sen. Obama supporters refuse to believe anything negative about him). The latter because when Sen. Obama behaves like "just another politician", it undercuts one of the major rationales for his support: the promise of change. Ultimately, these supporters are less likely to support their candidate if he or she were to behave in a way inconsistent with the reasons they supported him in the first place than the diehards in their coalition (which is what is happening to a greater and greater degree as the primary contest rages on).
The result of all this is that there is little chance that Sen. Obama can chip away at Sens. Clinton or McCain's core supporters. Conversely, there is little risk Sen. Clinton will lose her core supporters. Therefore, she is more free to attack. She has taken advantage of this by attacking Sen. Obama on issues where she is vulnerable: public financing of elections, shady business dealings, political doublespeak, taking a page out of Karl Rove's playbook, endorsements from questionable characters, etc. Conversely, when Sen. Obama responds in kind, he loses support because he has promised to run a positive, post-partisan campaign. When he goes negative, many supporters feel he has broken a promise, and rightly so.