4.27.2008

State of the race: What are Clinton's chances with superdelegates?

With Hillary Clinton getting no closer to Barack Obama in terms of pledged delegates, her only path to the nomination is to convince a large majority of the remaining uncommitted superdelegates that Obama is too big a risk for the fall campaign. If the pledged delegate margin stays where it is now, Clinton needs more than 70% of the remaining uncommitted superdelegates (using NBC's superdelegate count). Of course, that is a big if as the margin of pledged delegate will evolve depending on how well Clinton fares in the last batch of contests; not to mention that we are waiting for the outcome of various FL and MI challenges (it looks, for instance, like the rogue states' superdelegates could be seated even if the pledged delegates are not). But the point remains that Clinton needs to benefit from a massive movement that would likely necessitate some major event to hurt Obama.

The first problem the Clinton campaign needs to address is find a measure behind which superdelegates that want to vote for her can hide to not fall victim to accusations that they are disregarding the will of voters. Virtually assured of trailing widely among pledged delegate, the Clinton campaign is working to find a way to count the popular vote that puts them ahead in a credible manner; the only method in which Clinton is leading right now consists in counting the votes she obtained in Florida and Michigan without giving any of Michigan's "uncommitted" votes to Obama and without fully counting the caucus states; needless to say that this count cannot be very credible even if it is only meant to protect Clinton's superdelegates.

Clinton got some unexpected help from Howard Dean earlier this week. Her supporters have been angry at the DNC chairman for not resoling the Michigan and Florida mess but Dean unexpectedly endorsed Clinton's argument to superdelegates in an interview to the Financial Times. Superdelegates, he said, "have every right to overturn the popular vote and choose the candidate they believe would be best equipped to defeat John McCain in a general election." He added, "If it's very very close, they will do what they want anyway... I think the race is going to come down to the perception in the last six or eight races of who the best opponent for McCain will be."

Another problem Clinton faces in her quest for a super-majority of remaining superdelegates is that a significant portion of this group are add-ons that have not even been named yet. There is a total of 79 add-on superdelegates that are selected by the state parties according to various mechanisms, and many of the add-ons that are selected already back a candidate. Just yesterday, for instance, Clinton added an add-on in New Hampshire and Obama added one in Arizona. This means that not all of the 290 superdelegates who have yet to make up their mind are genuinely uncommitted.

Furthermore, there is good reason to question the genuineness of some of the superdelegates whose identity is known but who refuse to endorse. There is little doubt, for instance, that Speaker Pelosi would cast her ballot for Obama were the fight to actually get to the convention floor. Earlier this week, the comments of House Democratic whip James Clyburn launched new speculation that many uncommitted superdelegates have long since settled for Obama: Calling Clinton's campaign "scurrilous" and "disingenuous," Clyburn added:

I heard something, the first time yesterday (in South Carolina), and I heard it on the (House) floor today, which is telling me there are African Americans who have reached the decision that the Clintons know that she can’t win this. But they’re hell-bound to make it impossible for Obama to win.

Is it really plausible that Clyburn is considering to endorse Clinton after such comments? Many of the superdelegates who are still on the fence (like Sen. Harkin and Rep. Emanuel) seem to be hoping to weather the storm, clinging to the hope that one of the candidates drops out before they have to make a choice. And if we trust the insistent speculation that there is a whole batch of superdelegates just waiting for the opportunity to jump on Obama's bandwagon, the pool of truly undecided superdelegates Clinton can appeal to is dangerously small.

Yet, the Clinton campaign has been remarkably effective at keeping superdelegates in the past few weeks; considering how close Obama is to the nomination, we could have expected superdelegates to rush to his side, especially if he has a group just dying for the opportunity to rally behind him. The point is that they have not. Until they do, there is no reason to believe that stories of privately-committed superdelegates are anything but spin.

After all, there have been now been a lot of instances of stories reporting that Obama is about to get a large number of endorsement... with nothing happening: Obama was supposed to get a bloc of 50 superdelegates after March 4th, the collective endorsement of the North Carolina congressional delegation never materialized and neither did the wave of endorsements that were supposed to follow the Pennsylvania primary. Echoing the 1992 campaign in which superdelegates were reluctant to endorse Bill, a sufficient number today seem worried enough about an Obama candidacy that Clinton's path to the nomination is still alive.

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