By now, Iowa seems like the most distant of memories, Super Tuesday appears like the most anticlimactic election day, and we can barely remember what all that fuss around driver’s licenses was about. It took more than five months of voting, calculating delegates, caucusing, campaigning, counting supers before Democratic voters deigned putting an end to the cruel game that they had been playing since the beginning of March by refusing to put the candidates’ out of their miseries and giving just enough to both for the race to go on unaltered. Yesterday, their verdict was more decisive.
Obama’s first two match points were on Hillary Clinton’s serve, and she saved them both. In North Carolina, Obama finally got to serve out the match, managed to do what he had not done since Wisconsin — win big when he needed to. Clinton’s Indiana win was too narrow to offset the North Carolina blowout, as Obama put an effective end to the race for the Democratic nomination.
Just like on March 4th and April 22nd, I had outlined three thresholds Clinton had to pass: (1) Will she be able to stay in the race? (2) Will her victory be credible? (3) Will it change the fundamentals of the race? Clinton’s win in Indiana (51% to 49%) and loss in North Carolina (56% to 42%) make the answers very clear: Those 2 percent in Indiana allow her to stay in the race if she so chooses but her victory was certainly not credible enough for her path to the nomination to remain viable.
Clinton needed a comfortable victory in Indiana and at worst a narrow loss in North Carolina; she also needed exit polls to tell the story she wanted, namely that Obama’s numbers among blue-collar white voters had collapsed so low that superdelegates should rally around her. None of these things happen. Obama’s total among NC white voters (37%) was lower than previous Southern states (he got 43% in Georgia, fir instance), but it was not a significant margin. And Obama managed to overperform once more among black voters, sealing Clinton’s fate. Obama’s showings guarantee that he will clinch a majority of pledged delegate and make his popular vote lead unassailable. In fact, the Obama campaign is now reportedly considering striking a deal on Florida and Michigan to take those issues off the table. That should tell us how confident they are that the race has stopped being competitive.
With very little good news out of yesterday’s results, Clinton lacks a rationale to present to superdelegates; perhaps most importantly, she also lacks a way to continue fundraising when her campaign is clearly in financial trouble (it was revealed today that Clinton had loaned her campaign more than $6 million over the past month, most of it before Pennsylvania).
Clinton is vowing to press on and let the remaining states to vote, fighting on until “there’s a nominee.” In an email to supporters in which she repeatedly references the last “28 days of voting,” she writes, “I’m going to keep fighting for what I believe in until every voter has had his or her say.” But Clinton seems to have given up on a confrontational attitude and they are unlikely to try to draw major contrasts from now on. Ben Smith reports the lack of contrasts in Clinton’s stump speech this morning. This is essentially the position Huckabee was in before he dropped out on March 4th.
The question, of course, is whether superdelegates, the media, and Democratic elders will let her go on. The Obama campaign has clearly chosen to not pressure her at all, allowing her the space to come to her decision by herself without feeling that she is being forced out. Senator McCaskill insisted that it was absolutely not time for Clinton to drop out. Rep. Clyburn, who remains uncommitted but has been very critical of Clinton recently, said the same thing.
Will superdelegates start rapidly moving towards Obama? Former presidential candidate George McGovern, a prominent Clinton supporter, urged her to drop out this morning and announced he was endorsing Obama. McGovern is not a superdelegate, but his switch could influence other Democrats. Obama already picked up four superdelegates since last night and this despite reports that his campaign is holding on to superdelegate announcements to avoid putting too much pressure on Clinton when the results speak for themselves. And Clinton actually got a new superdelegate herself as North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler announced he was backing her.
Obama is now looking to turn his attention to the general election, with his campaign announcing that he would be traveling other places than primary states in the upcoming states. But Obama should be aware that Clinton retains the ability to damage him in the weeks ahead if she stays in. Even if Clinton gives up on an intense campaigning schedule, she would remain heavily favored to win West Virginia and Kentucky big, forcing Obama to defend his appeal to blue-collar white voters once again and putting him on the defensive, however close he has to finalizing his nomination. (Marc Ambinder points out that it could be worse for Obama if Clinton drops out tomorrow and still ends up winning WV and KY; so perhaps the Obama campaign wants Clinton to stay in two more weeks, at least nominally. He also points to another reason Obama might want Clinton to stay in a bit longer: If Clinton campaigns amicably for the next month it would help heal the party and it could also allow the Obama campaign to pretend to resolve the Michigan and Florida mess while the race is still technically competitive.)
Finally, Clinton’s results last night deal a harsh blow to her chances to be Obama’s vice-presidential pick. Had she stayed in until the summer, Obama would have had no choice but to select her. Now, Clinton will not remain a powerful enough force for Obama to have to pick her. Yet, Obama will have to get to work as soon as possible to reconcile his party. Yesterday’s exit polls pointed to the urgency of his task, with less than half of Clinton supporters in both Indiana and North Carolina staying that they will vote for Obama in the general election.
But Obama can start worrying about that in a few days. For the night undoubtedly belonged to Obama. Despite all the gloomy forecasts and his supporters’ conviction that Clinton’s quest was ruining Democratic chances, the primary’s competitive stage is over with still 4 months to go before the convention. And the remaining uncommitted superdelegates who wanted to avoid picking a side at all costs (see Emanuel, Rahm) probably got their wish.