Hillary Clinton, Fairy Princess
Can we please stop pretending she has a plausible chance to win the nomination?
"Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen."
—former President Bill Clinton, Jan. 11, 2008. Clinton was criticizing Sen. Barack Obama's claim to have opposed the Iraq war more consistently than Hillary Clinton. This claim was, Clinton said, "the central argument for his campaign. 'It doesn't matter that I started running for president less than a year after I got to the Senate from the Illinois state senate. I am a great speaker, a charismatic figure, and I'm the only one who had the judgment to oppose this war from the beginning, always, always, always.' " (Click here for the video.)
Here's a rule I would like every political reporter, campaign official, TV talking head, and politician in the United States to follow. Go ahead and say, if you like, that Hillary Clinton retains a serious chance of winning the Democratic nomination. If you say this, however, youmust describe a set of circumstances whereby this could happen. Try not to make it sound like a fairy tale.
Yes, Obama has dropped a few points in national polls, and Clinton has picked up a few points, putting her in the lead. The Gallup Tracking Poll had it 49-45 for Clinton on April 30, compared to 50-42 for Obama on April 15. That isn't surprising in a week when Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, elaborated on his most controversial statements at the National Press Club (click here for the video), prompting Obama to distance himself more emphatically ("I will talk to him perhaps some day in the future. … Inexcusable. … I do not see that relationship being the same after this") than he had earlier in a stirring speech on race.
The only number that matters, however, is 2,025, which is how many delegates a candidate will need to secure the nomination. Obama has 1,488 primary delegates to Clinton's 1,334, according to the Associated Press delegate tracker. Add in superdelegates and Obama has 1,736 to Clinton's 1,602. Obama needs 289 more delegates to win the nomination. Hillary needs 423. There are three ways to win these additional delegates:
- In the nine Democratic primaries and caucuses that remain, in which about 400 delegates are at stake
- By winning over still-undecided superdelegates, of whom about 290 remain
- By persuading the necessary number of superdelegates and/or primary delegates among the 1,736 pledged to Obama to change their allegiances. The former will be difficult to achieve, and the latter, though permitted, will be extremely difficult to achieve
It's numerically impossible for Hillary to get to 2,025 through the remaining primaries and caucuses. In theory, Obama could get to 2,025 that way, but to do so he'd need to capture, on average, 71 percent of the vote in every remaining contest, according to Slate's "Delegate Calculator." That obviously isn't going to happen. Hence the relentless press focus on the superdelegates. They will almost certainly choose the nominee.
A great debate has taken place on how superdelegates ought to choose the nominee. Should they vote their conscience, or should they follow the popular will? We could debate that one all day. The more relevant question is: How do superdelegates choose the nominee? Answer: They tend to follow the popular will. That's why superdelegates gravitated to Clinton when polls showed she looked like a sure thing, and then to Obama when he started outpolling her. That's why more than one-third of the superdelegates remain uncommitted now. Believe me, it isn't because they haven't been paying attention, and (except for a few head cases) it isn't because, after 23 Democratic debates, they still don't know which candidate tickles their fancy. It's because they're reluctant to be out of step with the popular will as expressed through all the primaries and caucuses. The longer any given superdelegate waits to make his or her endorsement, the likelier he or she is to choose whoever ends up with a plurality of delegates. Why else wait?
The 291 undecideds have now waited a very long time.
This is an important point, so I'm going to repeat it. The longer a superdelegate waits to choose, the likelier he'll choose whoever the primaries and caucuses chose.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.