4.24.2008

May 6th: Two crucial contests, but for different reasons

Clinton having survived to fight another day, all eyes turn to May 6th contexts, Indiana and North Carolina. Both candidates are now scheduled to criss-cross the states, and Indiana is likely to be portrayed as more crucial; but both states are very important to this nomination battle, but for very different reasons. Just like on March 4th and on April 22nd, Clinton needs to have solid results to survive; but those will be defined differently.

In Indiana, there are no expectations. This is perhaps the first state since Maine in which there is no favorite going in the contest. This is due first to the absence of polls. There have only been five surveys of Indiana in the past 2 months, three of which have been conducted by SUSA. To make matters more confusing, the three SUSA polls have been very inconclusive, with one showing a single-digit Clinton lead, the second a double-digit Clinton lead, and the third a single-digit Obama lead; among other pollsters, ARG shows Clinton ahead and Bloomberg Obama. None of this is particularly helpful to define the conventional wisdom.

More importantly, Indiana's demographics make it difficult to predict the result. With Obama and Clinton holding very firmly to their electoral coalitions, almost every contest has been determined by a demographic logic and the state's racial and class breakdown. Going into Pennsylvania, Clinton was a heavy favorite for just this reason and, by performing exactly as she had in Ohio among all the same groups, she held strong. Indiana, on the other hand, is a more complex picture (perhaps not seen since Wisconsin).

Large parts of the state are likely to go for Clinton by huge margins, holding to patterns we have been seeing in places like rural Ohio and rural Pennsylvania. But don't forget Indiana is a heavily red state; a very large portion of Democratic votes is concentrated in urban Indianapolis where Obama should come in strong, and that alone should outweigh Clinton's strengths in heavily Republican areas. Also, the Northwest of the state is close to Illinois and receives Chicago television, so Obama will be fighting on his home turf in that region. Read the Politico's piece on Indiana demography for a more complete picture.

That Indiana is likely to be tight does not mean that Clinton can get away with a small victory, however. Just as in Pennsylvania, a win will allow her to stay in the race and fight on until April 22nd; but she also has to win convincingly to offset the likely Obama triumph in North Carolina. For Clinton to be described as having had a good night on May 6th, her Indiana victory needs to be impressive enough to overshadow the margin Obama gets in North Carolina. That is certainly a tall order given that the Illinois Senator is favored in the Southern state while Clinton is not in Indiana; but those are the tough playing field in which Clinton must play.

The stakes of North Carolina, then, are as crucial as those of Indiana. If Clinton does not manage to remain at a decent level, she is unlikely to receive any traction at all out of May 6th no matter what happens in Indiana. North Carolina is the biggest state that is left to vote, and its demographics are not as damaging to Clinton as those of other Southern states. If Obama scores a blowout of South Carolina's proportions or even just a convincing double-digit victory, Clinton will fall very far behind in the popular vote and she will have trouble explaining why she is staying in the race. Remember, her campaign is now premised on the argument that Democratic voters are having second thoughts and that they are denying Obama the nomination.

As important will be the breakdown of the vote in North Carolina; Obama has posted better numbers in some primaries than in Pennsylvania among the voting groups he is weakest in; in neighboring Virginia, for instance. Just as in Pennsylvania, the exit polls will be scrutinized for the vote of blue-collar voters and whites; Obama and Clinton would be well-advised to spend a lot of time courting those voters in North Carolina. If he can show that those groups meaningfully moved towards him, it could offset Clinton's argument that he is unelectable as much as any result in Indiana.

Most people are now saying that Clinton would only have to withdraw if she were to lose Indiana; but her position would become as untenable if Obama got great results in North Carolina. That said, the odds right now still favor a Clinton survival. She is in a position to win the Hoosier state and she has not collapsed in North Carolina. Some polls show her trailing by more than 20%, but SUSA's latest poll released on Tuesday shows Obama up single-digits, 50% to 41%. And in a familiar pattern, Obama's lead is pulled upward by independent voters, who support him by 22%.

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