Though it’s been clear more or less since Super Tuesday that Barack Obama was going to finish the primary season with more delegates than Hillary Clinton, her campaign has relentlessly tried to move the campaign's goalposts, resetting the thresholds needed for victory as suited their needs. And the media more or less had to go along: when Clintonistas claimed that Obama's caucus victories ought to be less important than Hillary's big-state wins, or that Michigan and Florida should count, or that pledged delegates could vote for whomever they like, beat writers duly noted the new flare-ups, and talking heads chewed them over. The narrative of the horse race following her successes in Texas and Ohio on March 4 became a question: "Is there a way she can catch up?" All of which played perfectly into Clinton's down-but-not-out, scrappy-fighter makeover.
Last week, however, Clinton fell short of the expectations her own campaign had set. As Bill Clinton's sickly countenance revealed during Hillary's half-victory/half-concession speech, their campaign finally ran out of spin.
Finally, we’re all on the same page about the math involved in the fight for the nomination. Pledged delegates plus superdelegates plus Florida and Michigan plus zero credit for Michigan's uncommitted delegates and John Edwards' supporters--Clinton's fantasy equation--still add up to an Obama lead. The totals under Hillary's best-case scenario: Obama 1942.5, Clinton 1890, according to Democratic Convention Watch. Of course, hope dies hard, and Bill Clinton has been barnstorming West Virginia, telling voters they “will see the earth move” if enough of them show up to lead a miracle comeback for Hillary in the popular vote.
Hillary has had two motivations for staying in the race. One was prudential: Obama really was about as untested as his opponents claim, and there was always a chance that some surprise would trip him up. Yet even when his closet turned out to be hiding the braying carcass of Jeremiah Wright, Obama buckled but did not crumple. The other was psychological: It was impossible for the Clintons, given their massive sense of entitlement as well as their faith in Bill's political expertise, to believe that Hillary essentially lost this campaign before she was fully paying attention to the rules. But the fact that top Clinton officials are arguing now about whether Mark Penn understood proportional representation last year is just the latest sign that they had an irretrievably bad winter.
For all the finger-pointing within her campaign, there has been a heroic aspect to Clinton's resolve. But to extend its fight, her campaign has thrown around a lot of sand, obscuring two important facts that should become much clearer to everybody in the days ahead.
First, superdelegates were never going to trump an Obama nomination by breaking en masse toward Hillary. Calling superdelegates party elders is just another way of saying they are politicians with long records. They want to preserve their own careers, not trigger riots about hijacking the presidential primaries, and maximize their access to the next president. And that means they are subject to the same public pressures and bandwagon-jumping calculations as any other politicians.
Naturally enough, more than 150 superdelegates endorsed Hillary back when she was leading the national polls. Then, as Obama won primaries and caucuses, superdelegates started hopping aboard his campaign, to the point where Obama now holds a narrow lead in their support. The superdelegates who remain uncommitted today are no great profiles in courage; they're mayors and congressmen who didn't want to guess wrong--or, more charitably, who wanted to let voters have their say. Either way, they are submitting to the legitimacy of the popular will as expressed through primaries and caucuses.
The second reality emerging from the (near-)resolution of the Democratic race is that "momentum" is a function of place as much as time. In the weeks following Super Tuesday, Obama looked irresistible as he racked up one victory after another, but in reality, he was on favorable terrain almost everywhere. Then it seemed like he was faltering as he couldn't knock Hillary out in Texas and Rhode Island. Demographics matter; Clinton and Obama spent six weeks and more than $15 million in Pennsylvania without fundamentally altering the dynamics of the vote there.
Recently, the nominating calendar has given Hillary a boost, as she ruthlessly isolated Obama's weaknesses among working-class Catholics, Scotch-Irish, and seniors. The Clinton campaign has used her success in a series of states that happened to be strung together on the schedule to create the impression that she is strong and Obama weak all across the regions that will matter in November. Result: In comparing Clinton and Obama, the media have focused on Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania.
But it's a big country. Obama leads John McCain in Colorado, Iowa, Washington, and Wisconsin in recent polls, while Hillary is losing those states to the Republican. Obama also outperforms Hillary by seven points in Minnesota and eight in Oregon (where the Democrats are ahead), and by four-and-a-half in Nevada (where McCain leads). He's within striking distance of McCain in North Carolina, as well as Virginia, where Clinton trails by double digits. And scattered polls over the past few months have shown Obama ahead of or close to McCain in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and even Alaska--all states Clinton has no shot at winning. Clinton might make a formidable general-election candidate anyway; her full-throated adoption of right-wing talking points against Obama has been so successful among Appalachians that she could put states such as Kentucky and West Virginia in play. But Clinton always needed to win Ohio and Florida to beat McCain. Obama might not.
Which brings us to the big question confronting each candidate in this new, terminal phase of the nominating race. For Hillary, it's how much she wants to hurt Obama. And when she equated “white Americans” with “hard-working Americans” in attacking Obama last week, she signaled that she’s still willing to campaign destructively. As long as Hillary is playing with her knife collection, she can make Obama bleed. Until she puts it away, next-stage questions, such as how the Michigan and Florida delegations will be seated and whether Hillary merits a vice-presidential nod, will go unanswered.
For Obama, the big question is just how much he believes that 2008 isn't just a Democratic year but a realigning election. His safe play would be to aim for a replay of the 2000 and 2004 elections with the national baseline a few points more favorable to the Democrats. Under this scenario, Obama ought to put Hillary or a Clinton surrogate on the ticket and focus on bringing traditionally Democratic and swing states into the fold.
But looking at today’s electoral map, Obama knows he has consistently polled very well in the Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest, Democratic-leaning swing regions where Hillary’s scorched-earth campaign may actually have helped him among progressive whites, and where anti-Bush sentiment is running particularly high. Obama’s landslide primary coalitions in Virginia and North Carolina, combined with recent local Democratic successes, could put those states on the table, too. The Southwest and Mountain West trended strongly Democratic in the 2006 elections. And none of these areas is dominated by the kinds of voters who have given Obama so much trouble over Jeremiah Wright. He might well try to sweep them all, dispensing with the calculations and shifts required to win Ohio or Florida and winning with a "new politics" reform coalition of African Americans, white liberals, new voters, anti-war/anti-Washingon independents, and less-enthused Clinton Democrats. Obama’s newly-launched voter-registration campaign would play a huge role in this.
That strategy would turn whole swaths of purple and reddish states blue if it works. But it requires a heavy investment in states that aren’t used to voting Democratic, and where McCain is currently quite popular. And there probably wouldn’t be a Rust Belt to fall back on if it failed.
Which way to turn, and how big a bet to make on fundamental change--that's the argument Donna Brazile and Paul Begala started to have in their televised smackdown last Tuesday night. It's likely to keep us busy all the way to Denver.
Peter Keating, the former senior writer for politics at George, covers sports business for ESPN The Magazine.
By Peter Keating