Handicapping the Front-Runners

By Becky O’Malley
Friday January 11, 2008

Comments based on the meager amount of hard data emerging from the Iowa and New Hampshire Democratic primaries have offered a lot of speculation but few facts. This is primarily because the commentators, as they themselves will tell you, prefer to report the horse race (“as they come around the bend, Obama is gaining on the left...”) rather than the track statistics which experienced bettors actually use. Or at least that’s the theory. 

The top site for Internet gamblers is InTrade.com, out of Ireland. It allows speculators to buy and sell “shares” in the prospects of candidates. One economist’s view, from several proffered on the site to attract potential “investors”: 

“The [Intrade] markets offer a great way to track the market-based consensus on political and current events. People put real money on the line in making predictions, which is better than snap judgments in opinion polls or no-stakes views of pundits.” That’s Tom Gallagher at the ISI Group. Or ask Koleman Strumpf, professor of economics at the University of Kansas: “When people ask me who will win the next election, I say ‘Let me look at the price on Intrade. It is the best forecast I know.’ ”  

So what are they saying about the potential nominee of the Dems? At the time of this writing, the odds for Hillary Clinton as nominee were at 57.8 percent, for Barack Obama at 43 percent, and poor old Edwards and Gore, choices for many thinking folks around here, were hovering around 1 percent each. The most interesting thing about the site is the historic graphs: not just how are they doing now, but how have they been rising and/or falling since 2005? Neither of the last two ever got above 20 percent. Clinton started in the 40 percent range, and has trended up, with some downs, since then. Obama, the classic dark horse, started at flat nowhere, and has seen an almost meteoric rise into the forties.  

What does it all mean? If you know, by all means go ahead and “invest.” I’m not a betting woman myself—I’m going to have enough trouble deciding how to invest my one vote come February. Still, the temptation to indulge in punditry, which is probably what the gamblers actually rely on to make their decisions, is irresistable. Bus Rapid Transit and KPFA will just have to wait. 

What struck me most strongly on Wednesday is that all three front-runners are lawyers. This is no surprise, since invariably head counts in legislative bodies and elsewhere in government show an overwhelming preponderance of lawyers. Baby-boomers and those who followed them had noticed by the end of the 1960s that law school was where you learned to how to tinker with gears that ran the machine that ran the country, perhaps after you’d already tried out Mario Savio’s famous dictum to throw your bodies on them instead.  

If you think this is going to turn into an anti-lawyer rant at this point, you’re wrong. I love lawyers: good thinkers, great talkers, often funny, even when I disagree with them. My personal heroes in the sixties were mostly lawyers, Thurgood Marshall heading the list. The three lawyers now hoping to bear the Democratic standard are good examples of what you can do with a law degree if you’re so inclined.  

John Edwards is the classic torts lawyer. For the uninitiated, that means he’s made his living filing suits on behalf of people who think someone’s done them wrong. And often someone has, which is why he wins. Clever lawyers of his ilk sometimes win even when they shouldn’t, which is what gives traction to the unstinting corporate effort to restrain the practice of personal injury law, but there would be many more abuses of ordinary people without personal injury attorneys.  

But the flash and dash that plays so well in front of juries isn’t necessarily an asset on the campaign trail. What voters do seem to like (and his showing is much more respectable than the bettors seem to believe) is that he always takes the side of the powerless over the powerful. And you can learn to do that effectively as well as ardently in law school. If Edwards were the nominee and eventually the president, he’d probably be just as effective jawboning Congress to do the right thing.  

Hillary Clinton took a safer route, migrating from an early taste of public interest work (she interned for a summer with Oakland’s own Bob Treuhaft, radical husband of the equally spicy Jessica Mitford) to corporate practice for the big boys in Arkansas. Despite her feminist credentials, Clinton is just young enough to have missed the real hard core discrimination against women experienced by law school applicants a few years older. (I first applied to law school about the same time she did, as a woman of thirty or so, and was told to my face by the assistant admissions dean that the University of Michigan had never had a female student with small children and wasn’t about to start.)  

Many women in her generation traded their early idealism for the realpolitik of going along to get along in what was still a man’s world, ending up like Hillary doing corporate dirty work. You can see women like this at city council meetings, often appearing on behalf of the polluters and the developers. Other female law school graduates of that time (myself included) moved on to other pursuits when it became apparent that much of the practice of law was a lot like being a housewife: cleaning up after other peoples’ messes.  

Barack Obama tried out community organizing before going back to school to be a lawyer. The age of my children and a classmate of one of them, he’s been able to use the tools his Harvard Law School education gave him to full advantage in the public interest arena.  

Hearing Obama interviewed by a reporter trying to trip him up on Wednesday, after he’d come in second in New Hampshire, was a fine demonstration of why he was a topnotch law student and is probably an excellent law professor, one of his several day jobs while building his political resume. In classic Socratic style, he managed to turn every single question back on the questioner, revealing no more than he wanted to of his position on the hot topics while still appearing affable and even presidential. Is this good or bad? It’s probably a great survival skill for a candidate facing hostile media, but it induces a certain amount of anxiety in those of us who’d like to know what he’d actually do if elected.  

What does any of this tell the would-be election handicapper? Not much, perhaps, but it does give a clue or two about why Hillary Clinton came from behind in the home stretch in New Hampshire. I’d heard male critics, even some who should know better, complaining about her “harsh” or “aggressive” personal style in debates, and I’m sure I’m not the only woman of my age who cringes when she hears that. Women who have taken advantage of their improved opportunities are damned if they do and damned if they don’t: either too strong or too weak, seldom just right. Women lawyers like Hillary Clinton are particularly vulnerable to this kind of trash talk. 

It seems clear (and there’s no shame in this) that Clinton’s handlers were listening too. A sign that she’s been advised to soften her image is the flowered dress she wore for her victory speech on Tuesday, a change from the no-nonsense pants suits she’s previously favored. And then there was that teary moment. 

The ever more offensive Maureen Dowd asked snarkily in Wednesday’s NYT, “Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back to the White House?” Any competent actress, even in a high school play, can cry a tear or two on demand, so there’s every possibility that the episode was less than spontaneous. But what of it? Courtroom lawyers male and female in the Edwards mold have often both produced and provoked tears on their clients’ behalf. 

The power of “una furtiva lacrima” (a furtive tear) to move the viewer is celebrated in the Donizetti aria made famous by Pavarotti. Method actors know that the best way to produce tears is to think about something you’re really sad about. Hillary Clinton has had plenty of real things to cry about over the last decade or two, and as another song has it, it’s her party and she can cry if she wants to. It seems to work, and that’s what counts at the end of the race.