1.30.2008

A week from Super Tuesday, Clinton is holding her ground and performs well among key groups

There was no suspense tonight in the Democratic primary, as Hillary Clinton was marching towards a convincing Florida victory. But there were still a few questions that needed to be answered, as I explained this morning: margin, turnout and media coverage.

Margin and exit polls: Hillary's margin of victory was substantial. While she did not cross the 50% threshold, she did win by 17% which is a very healthy lead -- and she led both among early-voters and those who voted today. While Obama and Edwards did not campaign here, neither did Clinton so these polls are an interesting indication of what can be described as default numbers, similar to a national poll. And the fact that she is holding this big a lead has got to be reassuring for Clinton heading into Super Tuesday. After the catastrophic past few days (South Carolina debacle, Kennedy endorsement), she managed to hold her lead.

The exit polls do point to a few troubling signs for Clinton. For example, she trails among those who made their minds in the past month (though she wins among those who made their mind today), underscoring that Clinton has lost ground in the past month. Also, Obama's 33% is a good result that shows he has been able to capitalize on the withdrawal of other candidates and on his own buzz to raise above where he was a few weeks ago.

But the Clinton campaign will not deny that. After all, they started 2008 with a big enough national lead that they can lose some ground and still hold a lead. If Clinton survives Super Tuesday -- which is only in a week -- she will feel good about holding on after that since the bulk of states will have voted. And however momentum Obama has, he has not yet eroded Clinton's national lead (reflected in her numbers in places like California).

With Feb. 5th voters now paying attention, Obama has an opening to make his case and move some numbers. But Florida was meant to give us some indication of whether Obama can outperform expectations and show that there is some movement building. This was a perfect opportunity for him to hammer Clinton a bit more and prove that the SC win and Kennedy endorsement have fundamentally changed the playing field. But he did not do that tonight. While he could have lost by more, certainly, there is no big shift just yet and Clinton is holding her own.

Looking at the detail of exit polls also should make Clinton feel better about next week. First, she got a higher proportion of the black vote in South Carolina (about 23-24%) and it is essential for her to cut her losses as much as possible among African-Americans. If anything, she would lose a lot of delegates next week if she fails to break 15% in some precincts and counties. Second, Clinton once against came out with a strong lead among Latinos, just as in Nevada, confirming her strength among that group that should help her greatly next week in California and Arizona.

Turnout: More than 1.7 million voters went to the poll in a Democratic primary that had been hammered as insignificant. That is comparable to the less than 2 million who voted in the GOP primary, described as a momentous occasion. Not only does that say something about the level of excitement on the Democratic side (that we witnessed in even more dramatic fashion in South Carolina), it also allows Hillary to argue that impressive turnout does not necessarily benefit Obama and that she can expand the voter universe too. More importantly, Clinton can argue that it's hard to ignore a contest with this many voters.

Media coverage: This is where Clinton is coming out the loser tonight, as she benefited from very little coverage. MSNBC mostly ignored the Democratic contest and only included the GOP results in the ticker at the bottom of its screen, while CNN's Wolf Blitzer rarely mentioned Clinton's victory without adding the modifier that there were no delegates at stake. Similarly, the Democratic results are hardly visible on the NYT's web frontpage right now. The networks carried the beginning of Clinton's speech live, but neither MSNBC and CNN let it run in its entirety. If you want a more precise rundown of what was seen on TV tonight, our very own commentator Robert V. summarized the media's ignoring the Democratic primary.

This means that Clinton will have to work overdrive to spin this into a result that should be covered. And while it gives her an opportunity to change the subject and stop bleeding support in the run-up to Super Tuesday, don't expect Florida to give her a significant bounce. It will at best allow her to stabilize herself and keep on to whatever edge she has left at this point.

Ultimately, this determination to ignore the Florida results is strange. I have been writing about the absurdity of the pledge for many months now, and this week's developments are not making me feel better about this calendar's chaos. First, as I explained this morning, delegates are not the number we should be looking at just yet. They will be in the morning of February 6th if no one gets a decisive victory on Super Tuesday. Second, Clinton did got half of the vote in a state in which no one campaigned thus in which no one had a particularly strong advantage. At the end of the day, the Clinton camp is very satisfied tonight that its support is not eroding as they were afraid it might be, and that satisfaction is not just spin.

Edwards: John Edwards got 14.6% tonight, very close to the viability threshold of 15% he will have to meet next week to get delegates. This will be the test of whether the convention might be brokered: Will Edwards take enough delegates to prevent Clinton and Obama from getting a majority? He will have to get to 15% either statewide or in a significant number of districts to do so, and tonight's number suggests he is still in the hunt. He won a few counties in Northern Florida and was strong in dfiferent parts of the state. He is hovering in an area in which he can get delegates, so don't count him out as kingmaker just yet.

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