3.22.2008

State of the race: After surviving instant-death primaries, will Clinton get through the six-week lull?

Hillary Clinton is eying the upcoming contests to put together a string of impressive victories that could give pause to superdelegates and make them consider throwing the nomination to her. But before we get to Pennsylvania, Clinton has to first survive the 6-week lull, which may very well be the most difficult period she has to encounter.

The facts are there, and I have clearly exposed them over and over again -- most recently in my analysis on Wednesday night. Little has changed since then, so there is no need for me to enter the details of the analysis once more (do read it if you have not done so yet). In brief, Clinton has almost no path to the nomination mathematically speaking, and at this point of the process math is pretty much all that matters. Now that Florida and Michigan appear to have nixed revote plans, Clinton's hopes of building an unstoppable momentum in the coming months looks unrealistic.

One reason Hillary Clinton has been able to stay in the race is the fact that the contest is regularly portrayed as a toss-up, a down-to-the-wire suspenseful race that can only be resolved after a bloody fight on the convention floor. By pulling off surprising victories on March 4th, Clinton did her part to keep that narrative alive. But the fact remains that whatever her scores in the upcoming contests it is nearly certain that Clinton will not catch up with Obama's pledged delegate total.

The Clinton campaign's response is that Obama will not get the delegates to secure the nomination either, and that is certainly true: Both candidates would need the support of superdelegates to clinch the nomination. But it appears increasingly unlikely that supers are willing to go against the will of the primaries and caucuses. Obama has reached a near tie in superdelegate endorsements, getting 62 since Super Tuesday while Clinton has not even reached 5.

All evidence points to the fact that the remaining superdelegates want to support Obama, not Clinton -- if only because they want the nomination fight to end and that they see Obama clearly ahead. Clinton is reportedly managing to keep many of them from declaring, but Richardson jumping on Obama's wagon (and doing so in the name of unity while implicitly calling on Hillary to withdraw) showed that the floodgates might opening and that a number of superdelegates might now be deciding that the race is over and that it is absurd for Clinton to stay in the race any longer.

With no contests from March 11th to April 22nd, Hillary Clinton cannot rely on getting wins to fight back against the pressure of withdrawing. And most disastrous for her is the fact that the press (which doesn't have any actual election to focus on until the Pennsylvania campaign becomes more heated) is increasingly pointing out to the unlikeliness of any of her mathematical paths to the nomination.

The New York Times story on the Richardson endorsement, for example, explains that the news comes at a time in which "Mrs. Clinton’s hopes of winning the Democratic nomination seem to be dimming." This formulation is telling, for Clinton's chances have really not changed for the past month, since Obama took a dramatic lead in pledged delegates following his wins in the Potomatac Primary and Wisconsin. On February 20th, I wrote that "Two More Obama triumps get Clinton on the brink of elimination" and that "With another big night that extended his winning streak to ten contests, Barack Obama made March 4th as irrelevant as he possibly could have." March 4th allowed Clinton to freeze the process and stabilize herself, but it did not allow her to alter the fundamentals of the race.

Reflecting the unwillingness of the press to cover the race as a toss-up when it is anything but is a brutal Politico story that ran yesterday, "The Clinton myth." The piece explains why the nomination is essentially Obama's and that the Clinton campaign realizes that:

One big fact has largely been lost in the recent coverage of the Democratic presidential race: Hillary Rodham Clinton has virtually no chance of winning.

Her own campaign acknowledges there is no way that she will finish ahead in pledged delegates. That means the only way she wins is if Democratic superdelegates are ready to risk a backlash of historic proportions from the party’s most reliable constituency...

People who think that scenario is even remotely likely are living on another planet.

As it happens, many people inside Clinton’s campaign live right here on Earth. One important Clinton adviser estimated to Politico privately that she has no more than a 10 percent chance of winning her race against Barack Obama, an appraisal that was echoed by other operatives.

In other words: The notion of the Democratic contest being a dramatic cliffhanger is a game of make-believe.

This kind of story is exactly the cue uncommitted superdelegates are looking for to decide when it is safe for them to come on stage and pressure Clinton to withdraw. Richardson's endorsement speech made clear that he was drawn to Obama's inevitability, and numerous reports reveal that Nancy Pelosi (who is still uncommitted) is voicing a similar opinion backstage.

So why is Hillary Clinton still in the race? This is where it gets so complicated: No matter how far behind Clinton is right now, she has an excellent chance of pulling off a stunning string of victories in April, May and June. Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, even North Carolina which is back to a tie in the latest polls -- all are within her grasp. Clinton has no reason to withdraw when she is winning the states she has to win, keeping her electoral coalition alive and tying Obama in national polls.

Obama has to earn the nomination by overtaking Clinton decisively, preferably in one of those instant-death primaries he has not yet been able to triumph in (New Hampshire, Ohio and Texas). He has not done so yet, and he has weakened enough in recent weeks that it is unclear whether he will be able to do so before June.

This makes it likely that Clinton will power through the six-week lull and try her luck in Pennsylvania and the May states. Clinton knows that this is also the path to impose herself as the only viable vice-presidential pick, as she could struck a deal with Barack in early June after voting ends. If she succeeds in getting more high-profile victories and does cut Obama's delegate margin, she would end the race on a high note and force a joint ticket with the Illinois Senator.

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12 Comments:

  • I suspect your analysis is correct and I hope Clinton is on the ticket. After this week's mishaps with Obama, I'm convinced the Democrats cannot win without her. Unless ... Al Gore steps in - highly improbable.

    By Anonymous Tom, At 22 March, 2008 12:43  

  • I agree with your thinking up until "So why is Hillary still in the race". How exactly do you figure "she has an excellent chance of pulling off a stunning string of victories in April May and June". She remains in the race in a futile hope that Obama will make a fatal gaffe and she can pick up the pieces. Unfortunately she is seriously damaging the Democratic Party and her and her husbands legacy in the process. The race is over and has been for a number of weeks. She could and should just suspend her campiagn now and hope Obama blows up his before the convention.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 22 March, 2008 12:58  

  • let's see, the race is over, period, END OF STORY. of course unless Hillary wins a string of primaries!!! say, by 80 to 20 per cent! what bull. anything to keep it going! good for ratings & all!! amen to post 12:58

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 22 March, 2008 14:13  

  • Obama is TOAST...she should stay in! He cannot win the GE!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 22 March, 2008 14:19  

  • "By pulling off surprising victories on March 4th, Clinton did her part to keep that narrative alive... she has an excellent chance of pulling off a stunning string of victories in April, May and June. Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, even North Carolina which is back to a tie in the latest polls -- all are within her grasp."

    There is nothing "surprising" or "stunning" going on. By and large, each candidate has won where that candidate was expected to win. Clinton was always expected to win NH, except for the few days after Iowa. Obama was expected to win in SC, as well as MD and VA. Clinton was expected to win OH and TX (primary portion) on March 4. Obama was expected to win in Mississippi. With a few exceptions (say, Obama's substantial win in Wisconsin and perhaps his margins of victories in a few other states), all the hype about "momentum" can be attributed to the happenstance of scheduling, not the candidates.

    And since Clinton is expected to win in PA, WV, and IN, victories there would not be "stunning." If she won in NC, it would be a surprise, but that's the only one in the bunch. (And to say that NC is back to a tie based on one poll I've seen is a little quick on the trigger. Perhaps it is essentially tied, but it would be better to wait for more polls to back it up. There seems to be a tendency to take the most recent poll and treat it as the last, definitive word without taking into account that various polls are performed differently.)

    Whether the public and the superdelegates see through the "momentum" canard, or whether Obama recovers from his recent rough patch, remains to be determined. Even PA, much less NC, is a long ways away.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 22 March, 2008 14:38  

  • anon 14:19
    Thanks for your insightful, well argued and reseached discussion on Obama's situation. I'm glad to see Hillarys supporters all have such great acumen.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 22 March, 2008 14:45  

  • sorry, she's not EXPECTED to Indiana at all. Recent market prices show pretty much a tie. Those obama fans who claim she's expected to win either having been reading polls, or just pretending to downplay expectations for obama.

    And she wasn't favored to win Texas. We all knew it's gonna go down the wire. Obama fans love citing polls from eons ago before any voting began to claim that he made a 20% climb.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 22 March, 2008 17:09  

  • Anon 17:09 - Yes Clinton was expected to win Texas because the polls a few weeks before showed her winning by 20% plus the demographics favored her with lots of Latinos and downscale voters. Do not try and revise history by saying how Obama was expected to win!
    Also OH was expected to be a clear Clinton victory. I agree that if she wins or barely loses (<5%) on NC then that would be unexpected. Also if she did much better in PA than OH then that would help her but we will wait and see. She is just waiting for herself (and Bill) with no regard to the party - very selfish.

    She will not win the GE. Obama may not also but at least he has a chance. McCain will be very hard to beat in November.

    By Anonymous Guy, At 22 March, 2008 20:06  

  • "sorry, she's not EXPECTED to Indiana at all."

    As the person who started questioning the "surprising" question, we can disagree around the edges as to what was/is expected and what was/is not. But I think it's fairly clear that things so far have gone pretty much as expected, though perhaps not exactly as expected. My claim is that the perceived back-and-forth hasn't really been due to the candidates as much as the quirks of the schedule, at least to this point, so much of the perceived "momentum" is more psychological than real.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 22 March, 2008 21:43  

  • I suspect your analysis is correct and I hope Clinton is on the ticket. After this week's mishaps with Obama, I'm convinced the Democrats cannot win without her. Unless ... Al Gore steps in - highly improbable.

    I think Tom and Taniel are correct.

    By Blogger Terence, At 22 March, 2008 23:05  

  • After this week's mishaps with Obama, I'm convinced the Democrats cannot win without her.

    It's a whole different story when the general election comes around. Stay in Iraq indefinitely? Drive the nation into greater debt by extending tax cuts for the wealthy? Health care anybody, health care? Wright may have an influence, but compared to these issues?

    Either Democratic candidate should be able to direct the attention to the things that matter. If they can't, they don't deserve to win anyway. Some will try to focus on Wright; others will say it's a purposeful distraction by detractors to keep Americans away from the real issues, and shame on them for doing so.

    One can argue about whether that's actually going to win, but I see it as a viable strategy, with or without Clinton. (Plus if Obama gets the nomination, it might be better for him to have someone with real military experience on the ticket such as Gen. Clark, Senator Reed, or former Senator Nunn. Just speculation, admittedly)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 23 March, 2008 11:32  

  • I agree if Obama is the nominee he will have someone with real experience - like a General or a Governor as opposed to a wife of a governor and then President followed by 6 years in the Senate.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 23 March, 2008 16:17  

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