Bill and Hillary Clinton often say that you can learn more about people from their failures than you can from their successes. If that's true, then boy, are we getting to know Hillary. Tonight she lost primaries in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, extending her losing streak to eight states. Overall, Barack Obama has won 23 of their 35 matchups. He now leads in the total delegate count for the first time since Iowa.
Clinton lost in Virginia and Maryland by more than 20 percentage points. Obama maintained his coalition of young voters, the well-educated, and African-Americans. More importantly, he added to it by eating into the durable coalition that has been Clinton's bulwark against Obama's momentum. Obama won among all income groups, including the lower-income voters he's had trouble attracting even in states he won. The only voting bloc Clinton held onto was white women.
When the bad news was announced, Clinton was in Texas trying to change the story. Never mind these losses, her aides say: Focus on the March 4 Texas and Ohio primaries and the April 22 Pennsylvania one. The Clinton team's argument has narrowed to this: Obama cannot win in big primary states where large African-American populations don't dominate the electorate.
The puzzling thing, given this claim, is that Clinton isn't fighting hard for the Wisconsin primary next week, a state that should fit the Clinton model. It doesn't have a big African-American population, is home to lots of working-class voters, and was won twice by Bill Clinton. Independents and Republicans can vote in the Wisconsin primary, which favors Obama, but it's hard for Clinton to argue that winning with the aid of independents and Republicans is a bad thing. They'll be key to a general election matchup against John McCain.
With each previous Obama victory, the Clinton team tried to attach an asterisk. He won because the electorate had too many African-Americans or because the contest was a caucus where party activists dominate. These were attempts not only to explain away Clinton's losses but also to suggest that Obama could never win in a general election in which broader coalitions are required. As he makes inroads into Clinton's base, those asterisks fall away. If Obama wins the key general election swing state of Wisconsin, he'll be in an even stronger position to argue that he can win among working-class whites. These victories give Obama ammunition for future states because they show he can build a coalition across race, gender, and income for the general election.
After the Obama sweep, one Democratic strategist who backs him speculated (salivated) that a big-name Democratic official would call on Clinton to pack in her campaign. Do it for the sake of the party, such a pooh-bah might argue, so that Democrats can avoid an ugly and protracted primary fight and unite against John McCain. Such a person probably won't be able to make the case. The party isn't in peril—Democrats tell pollsters they'll be happy with either nominee—and with Huckabee interfering with McCain's cakewalk, the fear of an organized GOP offensive is diminished.
Clinton is going to have to endure lots of this kind of speculation in the next three weeks before the Texas and Ohio primaries, as well as recriminations and finger-pointing from erstwhile supporters, anonymous quotations from within her campaign, and the daily publishing of her obituary in the newspapers. Oh, and there will be a drumbeat of superdelegates bailing on her. This is the bounty that comes from political setbacks, and Hillary knows it well as a veteran of her husband's tough campaigns and his administration's scandals. She's gone from inevitable to embattled, and now she'll have to grind her teeth as she did during those past fights, waiting three long weeks until she has her best chance to get another win. Now she just has to hope that voters give her some credit for it.