Hillary Clinton won Pennsylvania. She won it big. It’s a huge, “tide-turning” victory that is going to be big trouble for Obama and is breathing new life into Clinton’s campaign. It’s the first victory in the new day of the 2008 Democrat Primary, one that will certainly spell defeat for Obama and continue the Clinton legacy.
That will be the story for the next two weeks out of the Clinton camp, and the press will be remiss not to give it some legitimacy.
But if you take Pennsylvania out of the microcosm the Clinton camp wants to keep it in, and put it in the larger picture, it’s not too difficult to see why it doesn’t change a whole lot at all.
The word among the press (and to Clinton’s credit, I highly doubt this would have materialized into much more than the word among the press) is that a five point victory would have spelled the virtual end to the Clinton campaign. The “magic number”, given by people whom I fully respect (most notably Tim Russert), was about eight points, give or take a point or two. Anything over that is a resounding victory for Clinton, anything under was a resounding defeat.
Of course, Clinton won by ten.
This is certainly disappointing to the Obama camp, but I doubt they’ll lose much sleep over it. At the end of the day he still has a commanding lead. And despite the spin coming out of Clinton, she still has a long way to go before meaningfully cutting into it.
The problem is ten points doesn’t actually do much. She has gained ten delegates so far, with eighteen left to designate. When all the delegates are awarded, she can expect to win an estimated fifteen or sixteen total. Not that this gain is not meaningless. But even after you include a net gain of sixteen delegates, Obama will still be leading the pledged delegate count by an even 150. This is bad news, because out of the remaining contests there are only 258 delegates left. To break even, she would have to win 204 of those remaining delegates. Obviously that’s not going to happen. It’s not even quasi-realistic.
And it’s doubtful that this advantage will even be around longer than two weeks, when the next primaries occur. Right now Obama is enjoying a fifteen point lead in the polls in North Carolina. If he wins by that margin, according to Slate’s Online Delegate Calculator, he will win 17 delegates. So this “huge” victory will be negated in a state with less than 75% of the total delegates Pennsylvania has. And the gains she made in the popular vote (a little over 200,000 votes) will be cut into significantly, as well. Meanwhile, Indiana is still a very close race. Clinton is leading the polls right now by two points, which will net her only two delegates. So in two weeks the delegates she won last night at best would be a net of only a few (I’d say her netting ten is a stretch of imagination) and at worst she could be losing by even more than she was last night (which isn’t a stretch at all, though Obama picking up a net of ten isn’t much more realistic than Hillary doing so).
We’ve been down this road before. Remember her “game-changing” wins in Ohio and Texas? You know, the ones where Clinton only came out ahead by two delegates and even after you included her win in Rhode Island on the same night Obama had made up for her net gain within a week in Wyoming and Mississippi? Where did that get her? Exactly where she started. By the next big primary, in Pennsylvania, the general consensus, even out of her own camp, was she had to win in order to stay viable.
Except there was a big difference back then. Notably, there were a few more primaries, one other big race, and she was still operating in the black. Now she’s pretty much down to Indiana, and her campaign is operating with a $10 million deficit (Obama has $40 million in the bank, by the way). She needed a huge victory. And instead she got the same thing she got last time she had a “big” victory; a nice talking point but little to nothing in the way of delegates or popular votes to take home.
Of course, her campaign has more or less given up on winning the delegate vote, anyway. So maybe it’s a little unfair to say that, just because she’s losing in the manner by which both major political parties use to determine their candidate, it actually means she’s losing. Ultimately, the Clinton campaign is going to try and persuade enough superdelegates with the argument that she’s the more electable candidate.
Ultimately, Clinton’s victory (as it impacts her ability to receive the nomination) is three fold. First, one of the big arguments coming from Clinton is that Democrats need states like Pennsylvania to win the general election. Her victory here seems to prove her case that she’s the most electable in the general election because she can carry these states. But the argument that since Obama lost Pennsylvania to Clinton means he’ll lose it to McCain is specious. First, it’s not sensible to think that all the people who voted for Clinton are going to defect to McCain. As the drama in the GOP nomination pointed out, as soon as one candidate is picked, the party will rally around them. Clinton admitted that herself. But more to the point, Pennsylvania is a closed primary, which means independents don’t get to vote. And left-leaning Republicans don’t get to vote. Much has been made of the turnout in the Pennsylvania. Which is good; it was a record turnout and that’s something both candidates should be proud of. Over 2.3 million people cast votes in the primary last night. But over 5.7 million people voted in the general election in 2004. Bush, who lost the state, received almost half a million more votes than the total Democrats who voted in the primary. Only about 40% of the total populace voted last night, and many of those were first time voters (ever, not just in the primary) who everybody agrees Obama received the majority of. So Obama has a lot of room to make up votes by November, and millions of voters who didn’t participate last night to work with.
Secondly, it cuts into Obama’s popular vote lead. This dent in Obama’s lead should be lessened by the vote in North Carolina. At this point he’s winning by over 500,000 votes, which is a lot with only nine contests left (especially considering there are some small contests in those nine). But of course, she argues that this lead is even less if you count Florida, and even less still if you count Florida and Michigan. In fact, if you count both those states, then Hillary Clinton is actually leading by just under 122,000 votes. But Obama has a pretty good counter for that argument. First, I would expect him to make up that 122,000 margin by the end of the campaign. But right now those vote totals aren’t counting the caucus states of Iowa, Nevada, Maine, and Washington. Since Clinton is the “every vote should count” candidate, I’m sure she has no problem counting the vote totals in those states. If those votes are counted, he’s still winning by just under 195,000 votes. And if you don’t count the Michigan’s votes, since he wasn’t on the ballot there won’t be a lot of people outside the Clinton camp that do, he’s still winning by over 300,000 votes. So the popular vote is not really in Clinton’s favor unless she counts two states she agreed not to count when she thought her nomination is inevitable, and ignores four states with caucuses, three of which just happened to lose.
The final big talking point to the superdelegates is that Obama can’t “finish her off.” If he’s such a great candidate, she will ask, than how come he can’t wrap up the nomination? Again, Obama can argue that if she’s such a great candidate, why can’t she make any meaningful impact when she’s winning these supposedly game-changing contests? It also places emphasis on certain contests. She argues that he can’t win because he narrowly lost in Texas and lost by ten in Ohio and Pennsylvania. But the argument ignores the huge inroads Obama made in those two states (gaining over ten points in both) and also places the burden of Obama winning in states which the Clinton camp thought was an inevitable victory for her, without placing any pressure on her to win in states which Obama had an even moderate lead (which she has been unable to do, save New Hampshire. Remember New Hampshire? That was like, forty five states ago.)
So all of these arguments have their faults. And as evidence, the very morning after Clinton’s “game-changing” victory, Obama picked up yet another superdelegate.
I did see yet another new way to view the primary season on Morning Joe (which I was unfortunate enough to wake up to. I really, really don’t like Joe Scarborough, and need to remember to set my DVR to switch to Cartoon Network in the mornings. The Mr. Men Show is the best children’s program since Sesame Street.) After she said that “this is an election, where people get to choose” (well, the superdelegates get to choose, the people just get to keep it close enough to let them), she told us we need to look “at the election backwards.” This really gets to the root of why I’m not worried about the superdelegates. Obama is going to get to point at the primary and say “look, I won the most states, the most delegates, the most popular votes. And I’ve been able to win in states with open primaries, illustrating that I am better at bringing in independents to the party.” Clinton, meanwhile, will be saying, “But if you don’t count the small states, and don’t count the caucus states, and don’t count the red states, and place more emphasis on certain large states, and then look at it all backwards, I’m obviously the winner!! After all, this is an election, where [certain] people get to choose!” Give me a break.
The win wasn’t wholly unimportant. It does give her a reason to continue the race, when a loss would have made her sticking around very, very unpopular. But if this was football game, then she’d be down by two touchdowns late in the fourth quarter, and she just scored a field goal. It helped, but she’s still down by two scores.