The Dem race could drag on, and why that is not necessarily bad for the party

With most factors now indicating that Obama should be his party's nominee, the conventional wisdom (including my debate analysis from last night) seems to be hinting that the race will be quickly resolved. After all, even March 4th victories by Hillary Clinton are unlikely to get her enough delegates to make the primary that competitive again (especially given the Texas allocation rules).

But this does not mean that the race is about to be over, so let this be a warning to those who are expecting a quick resolution. If Hillary loses Texas and/or Ohio, it would make little sense for her to stay in the race and the primary contest could very well come to an end. But if she wins both -- as the polls still suggest she will -- she would be very unlikely to drop out and will instead press forward.

Now, the following race is Mississippi (on the 11th), certainly Obama's to lose. We then have a 6 weeks long break to April 22nd and Pennsylvania. In other words, if Clinton wins both Ohio and Texas in 10 days (in no way a certainty, but definitely possible), the Obama-Clinton showdown is unlikely to find any resolution before... April 22nd and a long grueling Pennsylvania campaign, with many more debates to prepare for.

Would this a good or bad thing for the eventual Democratic nominee? On the one hand, it would delay by a few weeks the Democratic nominee's setting his sight on McCain. And with the GOP having time to prepare for the general election, this could quickly become a problem for Dems. This could become explosive if the two Democrats open fire on each other, providing sound bites McCain would be happy to exploit in the fall.

But none of this is very convincing at this point. The Feb. 6th nightmare scenario -- that Clinton and Obama stay neck-and-neck through February and all the way to June, setting up a confrontational convention -- now looks very unlikely. Obama swept the February contests, as expected, but he did much more than hold serve. He trounced Hillary repeatedly opening a big pledged delegate lead that Clinton will have a very hard time closing (NBC's estimates that she would have to win more than 60% of delegates in the states that look good for her once we account for Obama wins in places like MS and NC, and Clinton barely even got that kind of margin in New York).

Even if the campaign drags on, there will be a clear front-runner. Clinton can hope to somewhat stabilize things down the line, but that cannot happen until PA at the earliest (unless she suddenly makes a stunning comeback and trounces Obama in TX and OH... but how likely does that look at this point?). And more importantly, this makes a brokered chaotic convention highly unlikely. The superdelegates are now quickly rallying behind Obama, and a scenario under which he keeps a pledged delegate lead of the sort he has now and then has to worry about losing the nomination should be entirely excluded. As I explained last week, the superdelegate paranoia is an entirely irrational reaction to a situation that does not look at all out of control.

Another factor to keep in mind is that the campaign does not appear to be going negative at all, which is perhaps the most stunning development of the 2008 primaries. Sure, Clinton accused Obama of plagiarism; and sure, Obama used Harry and Louise imagery in his mailers. But those hardly count as hardball by the standards of modern campaigns, and Clinton's choice to disarm at yesterday's debate, coupled with her obvious discomfort when delivering attack lines, is the clear indication that she does not intend to follow the advice of those in her campaign (like Mark Penn) who want her to go after Obama with everything she has. Now, this might chance if things look closer after March 4th, if Clinton, for instance, gets victories that are more comfortable than expected. But the most likely scenario at this point is that she keeps herself alive and presses on, with a dynamic that resembles where we are now.

In this case, how is it bad for the campaign to go on? (1) The Democrats will continue monopolizing attention and since they are staying mostly positive that can only benefit them and make it increasingly harder for McCain to stay in the news (after all, the media will soon want to cover something else than the campaign).

(2) This is Ohio and Pennsylvania we are talking about, two of the three most important swing states of the general election. This is where Dems will be monopolizing the most attention. How is it bad for Hillary and Obama to monopolize local news and organize in the state for weeks on end (particularly in PA)? This organization would be very useful for the fall, as would be the coverage the two candidates would get. Barack Obama certainly needs to raise his profile and be introduced to voters.

In fact, Obama should perhaps prefer Clinton winning tight races in OH and TX (keeping her alive without giving her that much momentum) to winning himself! A 6 week long campaign in Pennsylvania could go a long way towards locking that state in the Democratic column come November. Of course, that will not be the case if Clinton goes negative but she is showing no inclinations to do that, as I already noted. In fact, both candidates are getting very high approval ratings among Democrats, indicating that voters are satisfied with both of them, even after a campaign (remember the Feb. 5th exit polls that most Dems would be happy with either of the candidates emerging as the nominee?).

Of course, we are not there yet, and it is far from certain that Clinton survives March 4th. We got three primary polls today from March 4th states:

  • In Ohio, Rasmussen shows a 48% to 40% Clinton lead, down from 54% to 38% the week before. The high single-digits is where Clinton's lead seems to be here, confirmed by yesterday's WaPo/ABC poll. In fact, Texas looks much tighter than Ohio in almost all surveys.
  • ARG provides us with surveys from two little polled contests. In Rhode Island, Clinton is ahead 52% to 40% (their last poll, in Feb. 06, did not even include Obama though it did include Mark Warner, who for a time was heralded as the main alternative to Hillary).
  • In Vermont, Obama crushes Clinton 60% to 34%, including a 72-25 lead among independents.

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