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Can Obama Make His Free Throws?

Marc Ambinder says:

[W]ere Obama an organic frontrunner, he ought to a win a state like Pennsylvania unless he fully embraces the racial and geographic determinism that his campaign has run against since for fifteen months. He's outspent Clinton by at least six million dollars; Clinton has higher negatives across the board; he's visited the state nearly as many times as she has; his press coverage is better than hers; he has well more than her 5,000 volunteers on the ground.

I don't think this is right. Or, more accurately, I think this misapplies the term "frontrunner." Generally, we think of frontrunners in primary elections as being candidates with a huge wave of momentum that carries them to the nomination. And it's true, such a candidate shouldn't lose a state like Pennsylvania.

But that's not what "frontrunner" means--particularly in the Democratic race this year, where momentum has been nonexistent. It refers to the candidate who's the favorite to win the nomination. The race has proven remarkably stable, and demography is close to being destiny. Pennsylvania was a Hillary state, and it voted for Hillary. Ambinder uses the phrase "racial and geographic determinism" as though it means that Obama's likely nomination is somehow illegitimate unless he wins over Hillary's demographic groups--even if his coalition is a narrow majority. (Was Bush's victory in 2004 suspect because it was a close race won along geographic lines?) The relative smallness of Obama's overall lead--in the delegate count, the overall popular vote, and current national polls--doesn't obscure the fact that it's real and, more importantly, it isn't shrinking.

To use everyone's favorite type of argument, a sports metaphor: if a basketball team has held a lead of, say, six or seven points for the entire second half, the fact that the lead isn't getting any bigger as the clock ticks below a minute left doesn't mean that the team is any less likely to win. On the contrary, it makes the "frontrunner's" small lead nearly insurmountable, absent some dreadful foul shooting. Then again, those urging Hillary to drop out might want to ask John Calipari what he thinks of the idea.

--Josh Patashnik