Democratic voters do not want this race to end. Given the opportunity to hand the nomination to Barack Obama, they rallied behind Hillary Clinton and made sure the race would go on until — at least — April 22nd. So however burned out you feel, prepare for more debates, more Election Nights, more primary polls and more delegate counts. We are in this for the long haul.
There were two separate questions to be answered last night: First, would Clinton be able to survive and stay in the race? Second, would she be able to change the fundamentals of the race and win comfortably enough to get herself back in the nomination battle? The answer I offered yesterday to the latter — more interesting — question was that she needed “to triumph in Ohio by double-digits and win Texas comfortably enough to get a delegate lead (and probably win Rhode Island as well). A tall order for the New York Senator.”
Incredibly enough, Hillary pulled that off: She won Ohio by 10%, posted an unlikely triumph in Rhode Island (by a margin bigger than in New York) and while she only won the Texas primary by 4%, she managed to pull out a delegate lead thanks to unexpectedly strong numbers in a handful of border districts where she managed to gain 3 out of 4 delegates. Boosted by those very strong results, the Clinton campaign powers on.
So this means that Clinton now has a stronger chance to become the Democratic nominee, right? Not so fast, things could never be that simple in this Democratic primary. Campaign Diaries’s count prior to March 4th gave Obama a 148 pledged delegate lead. The compilation of yesterday’s results shows that Clinton netted between 15 and 19 delegates — without counting the Texas caucuses since results are still unknown at this hour. That’s a much larger number than was expected, and credit goes to the Clinton campaign for having pulled that out. It is also the first Election Day in which Clinton nets a delegate gain (New Hampshire splits its delegates equally and Obama got one more in Nevada)! But those numbers also mean that Clinton was only able to cut into a very small fraction of Obama’s overall lead.
The math is overwhelmingly against the Clinton campaign: They have to count on huge margins in all upcoming states (starting with Pennsylvania) and prevent falling behind in states that Obama is heavily favored in (such as Mississippi). Clinton simply does not have a path that gives her a pledged delegate lead right now. Now, the campaign will push for revotes in Florida and Michigan. Adding those states to the mix would give Clinton a reservoir of delegates to still be awarded, increasing her chances of cutting into Obama’s lead.
This is what has made the Democratic contest into such 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.
To make matters worse for Obama, yesterday’s vote uncovered a certain number of weaknesses that the Clinton campaign will point to in the coming days in an effort to freeze the superdelegate migration towards the Illinois Senator. The exit polls showed that Clinton held her demographic group very well. She won the Latino vote in Texas nearly 2:1. In Ohio, the groups that had abandoned her in Wisconsin were back in her corner: She won by 18% among those with no college degree, triumphed among the female vote and regained a significant edge among white males. And this time, she cut into Obama’s demographics groups: She won the male vote by 3% in Ohio, forced a tie among Republican and independent voters, as well as among the high-income electorate. Obama’s demographic coalition was the one that trembled, and his weakness among blue-collar voters and Latinos was once again on full display. This will be Argument A in Clinton’s case to superdelegates.
Finally, there is the question of how Clinton pulled this off. In New Hampshire, she had benefited from a last minute boost among the female vote. In Ohio and in Texas, her comeback was fueled by last-minute deciders as well, as she posted some massive leads among those who had decided in the past 3 days. The two stories that dominated the last few days of campaigning were first the questions about Obama’s national security credentials (fueled by the red phone ad) and second the controversy surrounding Obama’s stance on NAFTA.
Which of these factors was determinant in yesterday’s vote? The one hint we have is that Clinton’s victory was more overwhelming in Ohio than in Texas, pointing to the NAFTA story being more important. And the Obama campaign should use that as a lesson in crisis control, as they messed up their response to Canada’s allegations, not settling on a coherent defense for long enough to make the story even more damning than it was.
The Clinton campaign, however, will probably point to the red phone ad and the spot attacking Obama’s Senate record as factors as well. They will take comfort in the late decider breakdown and take that as encouragement to step up attacks on Obama’s credentials. Last night’s results could prompt Clinton to go much more negative than she has up to now. Given that the press is turning the spotlight increasingly on Obama, the Illinois Senator could be in for a rough 6 weeks.
And this is why Obama will regret yesterday’s results for a long time to come. He is still the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination, and should only increase his delegate lead next Tuesday in Mississippi. But instead of turning his attention to John McCain, he will spent the next 6 weeks being questioned by the media and attacked by Clinton. And keep in mind that she is as trapped as her rival is: She must realize how unlikely her path to the nomination is, but she cannot possibly drop out with this kind of results.
Two months after Iowa, Democrats are continuing to go through the motions of a competitive race that could take the intra-party fight all the way to Denver in late August 2008. By all measures, it is difficult to identify a scenario in which Obama loses the nomination. But it is as difficult to see how he can put an end to this race any time soon.