Welcome to round #3 of Obama’s attempts to clinch the Democratic nomination (#4 if you count New Hampshire’s primary on January 8th). Obama fell short on March 4th and then again on April 22nd. Yet, on neither night did Clinton get solid enough victories to meaningfully change the fundamentals of the race. The most likely result tonight is another wash — enough for Clinton to stay in the race but not enough to threaten Obama’s dominant position.
Tonight, however, is the first time that Obama has a match point on his own serve: OH, PA and TX demographics all favored Clinton but North Carolina is undoubtedly Obama country. The North Carolina primary is in many ways the mirror image of Pennsylvania. Here, Obama started off ahead by more than 20% but the race tightened considerably, with one random poll in North Carolina showing Clinton ahead just as PPP had suggested an Obama lead in Pennsylvania. Note that there is a lot of talk of the fact that polls have always understated Obama’s winning margin in Southern states (GA, SC and to lesser degree AL). However, most of these states voted in late January and February; the extent to which Obama would dominate the black vote was not yet clear and pollsters were finding Clinton to be too high among African-Americans — accounting for the huge polling mistakes. That should be less of a problem now.
This means that, unlike in PA and OH I mentioned, simply winning will not be enough for Obama to sink Clinton– he has to win big. If he does, it could be as meaningful as any result out of Indiana for it would mean that Obama has held his own better than expected among white voters — and a number of uncommitted superdelegates would surely take that as an opportunity to jump to Obama’s side. If Clinton manages to keep the race in low single-digits (and perhaps even prevail), it would mean that she has (1) benefited from heavy white turnout and (2) crushed Obama in the white vote — exactly the storyline she wants.
The situation in Indiana is more straight-forward. On April 24th, I explained that there were no expectations in Indiana; the state’s demographics favor neither candidate with large parts of the state likely to go for Clinton by huge margins but the concentration of Democratic votes in Indianapolis and in urban centers like Gary should be all Obama needs to counterbalance; also, a number of polls taken before Pennsylvania showed Obama in the lead here. This means that a any comfortable margin for Clinton would be deemed a credible one (unlike in PA or OH). To meaningfully impact the direction of the race, of course, Clinton will need to get much stronger numbers — at least double-digits. An Obama victory, finally, would probably force Clinton out of the race or be enough for the media to announce that the race has ended and for superdelegates to bring an end to it.
Thus, the situation is very similar to that of March 4th and April 22nd in that Clinton needs to pass three different thresholds:
- Will she survive? Any victory in Indiana would probably be enough for Clinton to stay in the race and vow to go all the way to June 3rd.
- Will her victory be credible and be taken seriously? To have a good night, Clinton needs to keep North Carolina in single-digits and have a comfortable victory in Indiana — around high single-digits.
- Will she change the fundamentals of the race? Given how far behind Clinton has fallen, it is difficult to assess what (if anything) can truly impact the direction of the race and give her an opening. If she wants to truly give pause to superdelegates, she would need to clearly exceed expectations in both states — winning in North Carolina (or coming painfully close) and trouncing Obama by a clear double-digit margin in Indiana.
More than the choice of late deciders, the partisan, class and racial breakdown of the electorate will determine which of these scenarios occurs tonight. As I explained last night, the proportion of black voters in North Carolina and of registered Democrats in Indiana is all we need to know to figure out who is likely to have a good night. The Indy Star already reports that there is heavy Republican turnout in Indiana, with many GOPers crossing over to vote in the open Democratic primary. Whatever Rush Limbaugh says, all signs, polls and prior elections confirm that it is Obama that stands to gain the most from a lowering of a proportion of registered Democrats.
This is likely to be the last chance Obama has of clinching the nomination before the race is over on June 3rd. Clinton is unlikely to stumble in Kentucky, allowing her to survive May 20th, whatever Obama does in Oregon. We will soon known whether Obama transforms this last opportunity.
Update: Let me also add a response to the absurd comments that blame me for artificially portraying the race as competitive and insist that Obama doesn’t need to win squat tonight: I have always been very clear in portraying Clinton’s victories (OH, PA) as credible but not at all game-changing and in explaining that Clinton’s path to the nomination is both narrow and unlikely. But it is absurd to suggest that Obama did not care about winning PA or does not care about winning tonight. Every time he fails to clinch the nomination, it prolongs the Democratic race, forces him to answer Clinton’s attacks and prevents him from turning his attention to McCain. Also, a Clinton victory in North Carolina would be of the sort that could meaningfully change momentum and give superdelegates pause, perhaps making the nomination last all the way to August. So Obama might be quasi-certain of winning the nomination, how and when he does are as important as anything else.