Hillary Clinton abandons the arithmetic faith.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
April 23 2008 3:29 PM

Hillary Clinton, Ex-Arithmecrat

Enough with the fake metrics.

Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand.
Hillary Clinton 

Hillary Clinton has every right to stay in the primary race for as long as she wishes. She would enjoy that right even if she hadn't won yesterday's Pennsylvania primary. The reason she enjoys that right is that Barack Obama is still 544 primary delegates shy of the 2,025 delegates he needs to nail down the Democratic nomination for president, according to the Associated Press'delegate tracker. (Please note: Estimates of pledged delegates vary, and even AP's count will fluctuate as better information becomes available.) Unpledged superdelegates, who are harder to keep track of and can change their affiliations at any time, narrow Obama's nomination deficit to somewhere in the neighborhood of 310 delegates. Clinton's nomination deficit is 694 primary delegates, according to the AP. If you count superdelegates, her nomination deficit narrows to around 436 delegates. Given there are only 11 primaries left, none of them in delegate-rich states, it is very unlikely that Clinton will acquire the necessary 2,025 delegates before Obama does. Still, it's an arithmetic possibility. Arithmetic pedantry is practically the only friend Clinton has left.

Which makes it all the more baffling that Hillary is now quitting the arithmecracy. "We don't think this is just going to be about some numerical metric," Clinton strategist Geoff Garin told Dan Balz in the April 23 Washington Post. "When we get to those days after June 3rd, we think the real choice is who's proven themselves to be the best candidate." At first I thought perhaps Garin was merely pandering to Balz, who at heart is a momentucrat. But today Clinton herself is speaking the momentucrat dialect. "The tide is turning," she said this morning on CNN. "Thank You Pennsylvania," reads the banner headline today on Clinton's campaign home page. "You turned the tide. Keep the momentum going!" The message is emphatically not "You showed Obama's momentum doesn't exist," but "You showed that we've got the big mo!" Even if you believe in momentum as the organizing principle of presidential primary victories, though, you have to have some concrete idea about where that momentum can carry you. According to Slate'sDelegate Calculator, Clinton would need 80 percent of every remaining vote to catch up with Obama on pledged delegates. There's no chance anyone inside the Clinton campaign believes that is going to happen. It can happen, arithmetically, but the Clintonistas no longer believe in "numerical metrics."

Advertisement

Perhaps Garin read an earlier Chatterbox column ("Agony of the Arithmecrats"), in which I argued that if the delegate counts got really close, precise numbers wouldn't matter anymore. The trouble is that the delegate counts aren't getting really close and don't seem likely to in the future. Indeed, it's hard to know what "really close" would even mean, since political reporters and TV talking heads aren't even trying to hammer out a consensus on that question.

Anyway, it isn't completelytrue that the Clinton campaign no longer believes in arithmetic benchmarks. It would be more accurate to say that it no longer believes in the ones that matter. Clinton is still more than happy to sling irrelevant metrics. And the damned things keep changing! When Hillary started falling behind in primary delegates, her campaign emphasized her lead in superdelegates, the cigar-chomping party pros of yore who know a thing or two about electability. They gave that up when superdelegates started drifting Obama's way. (At the moment, Hillary has only 25 more superdelegates than Obama.) Then the Clinton campaign started arguing that you can't nominate for president someone who lacks a popular-vote majority in the primaries. They're starting to give that up because Clinton now has little chance of surpassing Obama in the popular vote. (That's just as well, because as Christopher Beam has pointed out in Slate's "Trailhead" blog, the caucuses screw up popular-vote counts as a reliable measure of candidate support. For what it's worth, Obama's ahead in the popular vote by somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000.)

As Clinton's prospects dim, her preferred metrics grow more rococo. The Democrats, Clinton now argues, can't afford to nominate someone who can't carry the big, industrial states that matter in the Electoral College. Never mind that, after the 2000 election, Clinton said the Electoral College should be abolished (she never followed through, alas), or that in the midst of an economic recession, it's hard to imagine Clinton supporters in hard-hit places like Ohio and Pennsylvania voting for the party in power. Obama's on the ropes, Clinton argues, because he spent three times as much as she did and still lost Pennsylvania to her by 10 points. But that's just another way of saying that Obama's campaign is flush and Clinton's is strapped for cash. And anyway, as long as we're being arithmetic, Clinton did not win Pennsylvania by the much-fetishized target margin of 10 points. She won it by 9.2 points, which rounds down to nine, not up to 10. Hillary's weirdest metric is that, if you count the primaries in Michigan (where Hillary was the only major candidate on the ballot!) and Florida (where neither Hillary nor Obama campaigned), she has won more primary votes than any previous Democratic nominee. So what? The Democratic National Committee refuses to seat the delegates from these states because they didn't follow party rules (a position Clinton had no problem accepting back when she had much more clout to change it; see "Fair-Weather Wolverine" by S.V. Dáte).

This isn't arithmecracy. It's arithmetic idolatry—the worship of irrelevant numbers. One can only assume that Clinton has decided the real numbers are too depressing. Does that mean the end of her campaign is near? I'm beginning to suspect so. Hand me that slide rule …

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.