Where Democrats stand: Does Clinton have a path to the nomination?

The series of nine general election polls that I chronicled today showed Barack Obama declining in general election numbers, but the first question we need to ask ourselves is the effect Obama's recent bad patch will have in the primaries.

The events of the past week, after all, are perfectly timed for Clinton. They are, after all, what Hillary had been arguing for many months now, that she is a vetted figure about which most everything is already known and that there is little Republicans can uncover about her, in contrast with Obama, whom the GOP would have a much easier time smearing. This line of attack led to the memorable slip-up of one Clinton official, but it remained a central part of the campaign's electablity appeal. And they will now take this case to superdelegates -- and they will do so more easily if Obama continues to show the vulnerability in polls he has been showing in recent days.

But is this too little, too late? Obama emerged as his party's front-runner in the days following Super Tuesday, and he increased his inevitability with every contest since then. Even the elections of March 4th were mathematically-speaking a victory for Obama, as Clinton did not get anything close to the delegate boost she needed to cut into her rival's lead. Can she now work her way to the nomination?

The morning after March 4th, I wrote the following recap of the Democratic situation in my analysis of Ohio and Texas's results:

The Democratic contest [has been made] into a paradox: Mathematically speaking, Obama is the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination. But how can he convince superdelegates to join him and the party to coronate him without winning important occasions such as this? And on the other side we have Clinton, a candidate who is very unlikely to get the nomination but who can now press ahead with new-found momentum.

Today, Obama is even more favored mathematically than when I wrote this. He increased his delegate lead first in Wyoming then in Mississippi. A few days later, Obama scored a major coup in Iowa by increasing his margin by 10 delegates that were not supposed to go to him at the state's county conventions. All together, these increased Obama's margin by 17 delegates
-- one less than what Clinton got in Rhode Island, Ohio and the Texas primary combined.

Any hope that Clinton had of catching up with Obama's pledged delegate lead was crushed this week with Florida's decision to not hold a re-vote and what is now the near certainty that Michigan will follow suit. The Obama campaign's refusal to approve the Michigan primary plans -- whether they were driven by genuine concerns or not -- has pushed Michigan Democrats to give up on attempts to pass any bill (as if they asked the campaigns what they thought of plans to put the primary on January 15th in the first place).

Pledged delegate-wise, then, Obama does not seem at risk. According to the Forbes delegate calculator (which has yet to give Obama some of the delegates he recently gained in Iowa, Texas and Mississippi) Obama would still be in front even if Clinton won every single remaining contest with 60% -- including places like Oregon and South Dakota where Obama is favored to win.

But the paradox remains: How can Obama win? He has gotten an impressive number of superdelegates in recent weeks, but he needs to get at least one impressive win in the two coming months to close the deal and convince enough to jump on board prior to the convention to avoid a floor flight. If Clinton triumphs in Pennsylvania as polls suggest she will as of now, and if she follows that up with a strong showing on May 6th, how will she forced out of the race and how can Obama suddenly present as the nominee?

She clearly has the potential of strong showings even in places where her chances are right now dismissed. A new PPP poll of North Carolina shows her dramatically improving her position and tying her rival, 44% to 43%. This is a 3 point improvement since the previous poll two weeks ago, and that was already an improvement from the poll before that. Clinton had been trailing by double-digits in this May 6th state not so long ago. Noteworthy also that Clinton is up 1% among registered Democrat (another strike against the Limbaugh voter storyline).

Clinton's hope, then, is to continue amassing momentum and to finish the primary season on June 3rd with a streak of very strong results throughout the month of May. Thus, Obama might claim the pledged delegate lead but Clinton can say that Democratic voters ended up siding with her -- and she can in that way hope to legitimize superdelegates siding with her and handing her the nomination. That is a very difficult argument to make, obviously, and the Obama campaign will be ready to ridicule the notion that earlier primaries should count for less than later ones (note that this could be an interesting reversal from almost all presidential cycle... for example from 2004 where Iowa by itself determined the Democratic nominee). But it is Clinton's only chance.

The probable nixing of Michigan and Florida re-votes strikes a terrible blow to this momentum strategy, for there just aren't that many contests left for Clinton to build such buzz. Pennsylvania votes on April 22nd, some six weeks before the end of primary season... And after North Carolina and Indiana on May 6th, there are small-to-middle states voting (Oregon, West Virginia, ...). The process will be closed off by South Dakota and Montana... Not the best way for Clinton to get a lot of coverage of any a series of wins (if she gets one), and even if she beats all expectations throughout May and early June she is unlikely to wake up on June 4th with two big earth-shattering victories. And this is why Obama did his best to throw obstacle on the path of Michigan and Florida: If those two states were voting on June 3rd, it would have dramatically changed the primary picture and given Clinton a huge opening to close the primary season with a gigantic splash and take her case to superdelegates armed with two big wins.

It is still quasi-impossible to imagine superdelegates not siding with Obama if he gets any sort of significant pledged-delegate lead, and it looks as difficult as ever for Hillary to break even in that margin. She did get her first March superdelegates yesterday when a West Virginia DNC member and Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania (a major get for Hillary) endorsed her candidacy, but superdelegates seem to conscious of the huge risk for the party if superdelegates were to decide the election against the candidate ahead in the pledged delegate count. And it will also be very difficult for Clinton to get a momentum strategy to work if Florida and Michigan are left out of the process. Naturally, a few more weeks of negative coverage for Obama and a continued plunge in general-election polls could provide Clinton all the momentum she needs to present herself as the candidate of the campaign's end, but we are still very far from any such dynamic even starting.

In fact, given how many ups and downs both candidates have taken since the night of the Iowa caucuses, we should not be surprised if Obama rebounds in the coming weeks and if he is the one to post a string of strong victories in May. After all, he should still be considered favored in North Carolina and there are a number of caucuses in that month as well. And don't forget that we have only reached the mid-point of primary season: There is roughly as much time between today and June 3rd as has passed since the Iowa caucuses!

But where does all of this leave us as of right now? Just where we were March 5th. It is hard to find any path Clinton could use to the nomination, but the question of how Obama can clinch the nomination is equally puzzling. And so the Democratic nomination goes on, with both candidates stuck in a race that probably neither wants to be fighting at this point.


  • all those obstacles camp obama has thrown to derail Michigan and Florida will only come back to bite and haunt him in the general election.

    If he ends up winning the nomination, then seat delegates of MI and FL based on Jan results, then the right-wing will accuse him of flip-flopping on his prior claims that those were meaningless beauty contests.

    And if he refuses to seat them, then the right-wing will accuse him of voter disenfranchisement.

    It's a lose-lose situation for him. He can prevent Hillary from catching up, but in doing so, he has just nailed his own coffin in those 2 crucial major swing states.

    And all that is achieved without the 527s running ads on Wright.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 19 March, 2008 22:33  

  • Late primaries do matter. If Hillary finishes with a strong finish, even getting a split on 6/3
    by winning South Dakota, then the case could be made that despite the popular vote, and the pledged delegate lead, that Obama doesn't wear very well over time with voters. And I could see Obama winning just one or two of the remaining contests.

    Clinton would also have to do better against McCain, as she has slipped in matchups as well. I think's what's happening is that independents (and some Democrats) are in the process of rejecting both Obama and Clinton, which spells the end for 2008.

    By Anonymous Michael Low, At 19 March, 2008 23:17  

  • "He can prevent Hillary from catching up, but in doing so, he has just nailed his own coffin in those 2 crucial major swing states."

    Not necessarily. First, there's an argument that the Dems can win without Florida; it's the Republicans who can't win without it.

    Second, Florida may be an unlikely get for Dems regardless of how their delegates are handled.

    Third, it's an assumption that enough Democratic voters will be upset enough in those states to make a difference in the election by taking it out on the nominee. When Michigan Democrats are faced with the real choice between a Republican or a Democratic president, who knows how many will actually stay home because they're angry rather than vote for their own self-interest?

    I don't know the answer to that question. But no one else does either. Perhaps some polling data would help provide a starting point, otherwise we're just speculating.

    By Blogger dsimon, At 19 March, 2008 23:57  

  • Then it comes down to the superdelegates to decide the fate of the nominee, and, as Governor Deval Patrick recently noted, superdelagets vote their conscience, even if it flies in the face of the voters' choice. So, Clinton does stand a chance of winning the nomination and Obama has made it more likely that this scenario will play out, ironically, by occluding the will of the voters in Michigan and Florida. Add to that his recent slide in the polls, and more supers may change their vote to Clinton. But then what happens? Will voters unhappy with Clinton stay home? If it was January she would have time to recreate herself and soothe ruffled feathers. But I can't iamge that voters will be as easily placated come June or July (or August). God help us if this thing draws on much further!

    By Anonymous Tom, At 20 March, 2008 00:21  

  • What is all this nonsense that a democrat can win without Florida? In case you folks have forgotten to win in 2008 democrats have to turn red states blue and having Florida in play would beneficial for the Dems! Is also important to point out that Kerry won Michigan by only 3% points, not an overwhelming victory by any means. It is also important to point out that Kerry won Pennsylvania by only 2% points and senator McCain is also polling there very well. I was holding hope that Hillary could still pull out the nomination, but I believe that the pressure is increasing for the superdelegates to select Mr. Obama. I also believe that the superdelegates wil select Obama, even when their best instincts tell them that he is unelectable. Simple electoral Math. All this folks dreaming of a 50 states strategy and racking wins in places like Virginia, or Kansas, or the Carolinas are crazy. Obama will not win Virginia, and he has no chance in Kansas. None. Zip. Outside of Iowa and maybe New Mexico or Colorado where else can he go to get the electoral votes needed to get elected? I just don’t see it. President McCain it is!

    By Anonymous Robert_V, At 20 March, 2008 01:03  

  • Your discussion and the comments leave out one important question: How in the world are the Democrats going to, if the superdelegates nominate Clinton, keep the African Americans from staying home or bolting in November? The obvious answer, the Clinton-Obama ticket that would be the superdelegates' ideal solution, is all but ruled out by Hillary's statements that Obama is not fit to be commander-in-chief. Because of those statements, for Clinton to put Obama on the ticket would reinforce one of the worse raps against her--that she is an unscrupulous politician who will do or say anything to get elected.

    The other side of this is that the Republican nominee is not the scare figure for African Americans, or most other Democrats, that Giuliani or Huckabee or Romney would have been. In fact, if Clinton is the Democratic nominee and we have an all-white ticket, McCain could make a play for African American votes if he chooses to. This would be the first time since the Voting Rights Act that the black vote has been in serious play.

    As was pointed out on a local talk show yesterday, no Democratic presidential nominee has carried the white vote since 1964. Democrats just can't win without blacks (and without a good share of the Latino vote, for which McCain does have some appeal). Certainly Obama has some problems, especially with working class whites and especially working class white women. But IMO, a Clinton nomination at this point would fracture the Democratic base so badly as to make victory difficult if not impossible.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 20 March, 2008 08:05  

  • Factually speaking the Dems can win without Florida. Of course it is important with it's 27 EV's but Kerry would have won in 2004 with OH and not needing FL. Gore would have won in 2000 with NH, or his home state of TN and would npot have needed FL. Bearing in mind some of the other states that are coming into play such as VA, IA and CO (collectively more EV's than FL) the need for FL is less. Of course this menas the Dems cannot afford to lose any of their week states such as MI, WI, OR and PA.
    It is a shame that the 2008 General Election will be another very tight race much like 2000 and 2004.

    By Anonymous Guy, At 20 March, 2008 08:16  

  • The NC polls are interesting - they staill show >10% undecided and if these break for Obama then he will win by a clear margin. I think he is getting his bad news out of the way now, many weeks before PA, NC and IN so that the media move onto other things and maybe refocus on Clinton. Especially since some of her White House records are now out in the public domain. Clinton has benefitted by not being the target for the last few weeks. This will change

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 20 March, 2008 08:18  

  • A week after the Democrates choose their nominee, probably Obama, there will be no discussion of Clinton/Obama race. It will all be McCain/Obama or McCain/Clinton. We heard nothing of McCain's rivals after soon the Republican contest ended. The media can only deal with the current contest and what is happening in the twenty-four hour news cycle. But after Nov.4th these races will all be analyzed to death.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 20 March, 2008 09:49  

  • It is too little, too late.... and it's not a lasting shift towards Hillary.

    Ultimately, these poll numbers you cite mean exactly nothing in the general election. They could radically change once Obama becomes the nominee, which is pretty much a certainty at this point, assuming that Michigan doesn't revote.

    All we're seeing right now is simple ebb and flow while some of the most damaging things are coming to light... we've seen the worst of it, frankly, and it should start to gradually get better from this point on. That said, Barack Obama hasn't aggressively and repeatedly beat the drum on Hillary Clinton's negatives, and has left a lot of her skeletons officially untouched. That's something that frankly, as a Democrat, he doesn't feel comfortable about doing, as it would undermine his efforts to rise above such political tactics.

    So, in the larger context, the illusion is to think that the current poll numbers mean much at all. What matters is the final outcome, which is pretty much a certainty at this point.

    Keep in mind that Michael Dukakis was polling 20 points ahead of HW Bush in the May before the election, and he lost that election by about 10%, losing practically every state. Democrats felt sure at that point that the safe yet uninspiring Dukakis was a better choice than Al Gore... but I guess not.

    Playing it safe and uninspiring against the Republicans is a recipe for defeat. At least with Obama, we've got both a good chance of winning and an excellent chance of getting more democrats elected throughout the entire country. It's a win-win situation... and certainly not a good reason to second-guess the official process, much less encourage party leaders to override the will of the voters.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 20 March, 2008 11:42  

  • My guess is that by the time the nomination comes around everyone will see how bad obama is and not want him as the nominee, which will lead the super delegates to vote for Hillary.
    The issue is that many blacks will be extremely angry over this, and will probably choose not to vote at all.

    Choosing obama will kill the democrats, because i think the republicans have a plenty more dirt on him and are just waiting for him to be nominated.

    By Anonymous Mike, At 20 March, 2008 12:07  

  • How can you blame Michigan and Florida's issues on Obama? He has said from the beginning he is following the rules of the DNC and will do whatever they decide.

    Don't try this not so cute game of blaming Obama. Blame the DNC if you must, but the real fault is the republicans in Florida, and the Democratic party in Michigan for breaking the rules.
    It's just like the Clintons to want to bend the rules they originally agreed upon when they realized it is not going their way.
    This stinks and what the definition of is, is, is once again trying to be placed in play by the Bush Like Candidate called Hillary Rodham Clinton. I think it would better if we realized her true name is Hillary Rotten Clinton. I can't gve support to this kniving power hungry, win at all costs, monster

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 20 March, 2008 12:14  

  • Mike - how can you say the GOP ha smore dirt on Obama than Clinton. Come on Obama isn't a saint but the Clintons (and Bill will be dragged in as well) have so many scandals linked to them (fairly or unfairly doesn`t matter).

    As has been said Obama has not attacked Clinton on many of her vunerabilities because he doesn`t want to damage the eventual Democratic nominee. Just a shame Clinton didn`t feel the same way for the party (remember triangualtion - the Clinton's have no real affinity for the party).

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 20 March, 2008 12:58  

  • Anonymous said...

    Mike - how can you say the GOP ha smore dirt on Obama than Clinton. Come on Obama isn't a saint but the Clintons (and Bill will be dragged in as well) have so many scandals linked to them (fairly or unfairly doesn`t matter).

    Your right there is plenty of dirt about the Clinton's, but whatever there is already knows, so it cant affect the general opinion much. Obama on the other hand is trying to be painted as perfect and not so much is known about him.
    Someone who is already known as crook (hillary) and is popular anyway cant be damaged much. Someone who is known as a saint could very easily be damaged, thats the big disadvantage the Obama has.

    By Anonymous mike, At 20 March, 2008 13:19  

  • I agree that there is the potential for more daamge to Obama than Clinton when scandal comes out but Clinton is not popular - her favourables/unfavourables in the general public are much lower than either Obama or McCain so the worst that could happen for Obama is that he gets down to Clinton's level of "popularity" - this is hardly a success for Clinton. Since usually you want to be more popular than your opponent. Also I don't see how FOX etc can make Obama so unpopular - it took years with Clinton and they only have 8-9 months.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 20 March, 2008 14:32  




    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 20 March, 2008 15:02  

  • Stop with the lies and spin that Obama is keeping Michigan and Florida from counting or revoting. It's been VERY well documented that it's the legislature that can't reach an agreement. Hillary is even on record (audio is online) saying she knew these two contests weren't going to count. Now she's claiming she kept her name on the ballot out of principle. Give me a break.

    This is nothing but another ploy from the Clinton camp to smear and lie.

    If you all really want Clinton as your next President. Imagine what we've gone through these past six weeks and multiply it times 100. Who wants to deal with this same stuff every single day?

    Please, America, don't let these games work. We're smarter than that.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 20 March, 2008 17:27  

  • If you believe that any Americans other than black Americans are going to vote for a man who attends a racist and anti American church and whose wife is ashamed to be an American then you are nuts.White Americans whether Democratic or Republican love America and will not vote for a man whose best friend says God Damn America and preaches such stuff.Too many of their sons have dies over the years fighting such hatred and to find it still alive and well is simply a reminder to them that Obama is not a main stream Black American but a hang over from the days of the black panthers and Angela Davis

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 20 March, 2008 21:32  

  • You know, I like Obama, think Hillary is ok, though pre-election John McCain was decent. All of these polls are meaningless. The Republicans are going to throw everything they have at Obama, and he will probably lose because of that, plus the dirty tricks campaign at the end. Clinton knows she isn't likely to be nominated, so she'll happily take Obama down with her and as many democrats as possible, let McCain win, have his 4 years, and then run again in 2012 maybe as an Independent or Republican. Make no mistake, she is going to shread the Democratic party because they did not support her as the default candidate. Vindictive, spiteful, yes? But politics ain't hackysack. As for this preacher, and God damn America; most of the world feels that way about us, sorry. We attacked another country (Iraq) that had no part in 9/11. It was just as wrong as you burning a person to death because you had a fight with your wife or co-worker or whatever. The USA has taken many innocent lives, of reporters, friendly fire, Iraqi's, children with birth defects from Uranium weapons, etc. Maybe this preacher was saying the US should be damned for what it did in Iraq. What we did was an ethical and moral disaster. The rest of the world knows it, but we think we can do no wrong. The US has a great history of achievements, but has lost its way lately. We have forgotten who we are.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 21 March, 2008 03:59  

  • Please - whichever way the hammer falls, let it be a democrat in the whitehouse Santa - that's what I want for Christmas!!! That being said, I am an Obama supporter and am absolutely thrilled that Richardson has come out and endorsed Obama (about time) in what may well be a harbinger of hope for Obama's campaign that has suffered some serious blows in recent days. That, plus an apparent turn around in the polls, following the realclearpolitic link posted above is promising. I don't think Obama can have handled the difficult Wright situation any better - it has drawn him praise and acclaim around the world. Had he not responded I think the premise of this article would be correct, however in my admittedly biased view Obama has shown himself to be truly presidential and will take the nomination in the next six weeks. I believe even the DNC are coming around to the idea that it is time to face their real opponent head on.

    By Blogger Living, At 21 March, 2008 05:08  

  • The media is simply bored in the long gap between contests and can't think of anything else but to play up Obama's pastor's comments. Hillary still needs to steal a huge number of supers away to win the nomination...it is all about the supers, and it has been ever since mid-February, when the possibility of Clinton catching up in pledged delegates was already lost. This is not a contest about voters anymore, people, it is all about swaying the remaining few hundred supers.

    All the prognosticating about the general election is silly, and makes little sense. Trust me, you all will look back in October and see how silly it was to say that Democrats would fracture and go against their candidate...the presidency is way too important.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 25 March, 2008 02:46  

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