It was fitting that this Democratic primary, which has seemed at times designed by Willy Wonka, should head to a close in a flurry of confusion and drama. It looked like Hillary Clinton had won Indiana. Obama congratulated her on her victory. Clinton declared victory. CBS said she'd won it. All the other networks waited, though—and not just because HBO's movie on the Florida recount is coming out. Obama's strongest county had not reported, and that gave the networks pause. They were right to wait, since Obama lost Indiana by only a handful of votes.
When Hillary Clinton questioned Gen. David Petraeus last September, she famously said that to believe his description of progress in Iraq required "a willing suspension of disbelief." After the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, the same may now be true about her case for winning the Democratic nomination. It's not that she can't win, but with only 217 delegates up for grabs in the six remaining contests, the scenario for victory has become more fantastical, narrow, and painful.
Clinton won Indiana, but, as she pointed out repeatedly to Petraeus, individual victories—even a surge of them in Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania—don't change the whole story. The larger reality still holds. Barack Obama has the lead in elected delegates and the popular vote. Those leads increased Tuesday as he widened his margin by 15 delegates and roughly 200,000 more votes. For Clinton to move ahead in those numbers now, she must bring more states into the union.
Since the remaining contests are not likely to change the count, attention now turns almost exclusively to the uncommitted superdelegates who will be necessary to give either candidate a victory. Since Super Tuesday, Obama has picked up 100 superdelegates at a pace of 5 to 1 over Clinton. To win now, Clinton would have to reverse that dynamic. She'd have to take 70 percent of the remaining superdelegates and then ask them to reverse the will of the elected delegates and deny an African-American the nomination.
The picture was already grim for Hillary Clinton going into Tuesday. If she'd won in Indiana and North Carolina, it would have only minimally changed the daunting math, but victories would have given fresh evidence to present to undecided superdelegates that Obama had an irreparable flaw, that the good voters of Indiana and North Carolina recognized that and voted accordingly.
She didn't get that evidence. The exit polls give her some data to make her case, but not as much as she needs. Clinton's aides will continue to press the case that Obama has a problem he can't solve among white working-class men. He tried very hard after Pennsylvania, tweaking his message to appeal to the economic concerns of regular people and shrinking his stadium-size rallies to show a more approachable side. Still, white voters with no college degree went for Clinton 65 percent to 34 percent. "The composition of his vote remains the same," said a Clinton aide. "He didn't resolve the issues that have dogged him, namely his ability to expand his base beyond African-American voters and liberal rich eggheads."
But Obama has some facts he can use to refute the ideas that he can't appeal to downscale voters or that he's too elitist. Clinton ran hard as the blue-collar candidate, promoting a gas-tax holiday, standing in the back of pickup trucks, and repeating her mantra of "jobs, jobs, jobs" at every stop. But among those making less than $50,000, she beat Obama by only four points in Indiana. When voters were asked which candidate was most likely to improve the economy, Clinton and Obama tied. Among those who listed the economy as their top issue, Clinton won by only two points in Indiana. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, she had won those groups by vast margins.
The elitism label does not seem to have stuck to Obama, either. Obama was so concerned that Hoosiers would think he was out of touch that he devoted his final days of campaigning to explaining his values. His two-minute advertisement unveiled at the end of the campaign started with an announcer saying, "They're Indiana values. Hard work, community, keeping your word. And there's a candidate who shares those values, who thinks differently than those who've spent decades in Washington." When voters were asked which candidate "shares your values," Obama performed just a little better than Clinton.
In his victory speech in North Carolina, Obama delivered a supercharged version of the biography- and patriotism-laden stump speech he'd been giving over the weekend, referring to his grandfather's flag-draped coffin and his life's journey. "That's why I'm in this race. I love this country too much to see it divided and distracted at this moment in history. I believe in our ability to perfect this union because it's the only reason I'm standing here today. And I know the promise of America because I have lived it."
While Clinton gained no new argument to make to superdelegates, Obama's showing allows him to assert his durability. He weathered the worst week of a multiweek pounding on the hot-button topics of race, religion, and class. After the problems with his pastor, he still got 36 percent of the white vote in North Carolina.
Robbed of the evening's best result, the Clinton team is now aggressively returning to its campaign to seat the Florida and Michigan delegates stuck in limbo. Their argument, as Obama draws closer to the 2,025 magic number required to win the nomination, is that the real target for victory is 2,209. That's a tough case to make since it penalizes Obama for the behavior of Democratic officials in the two states that broke the rules.
But tough arguments are all that's left for Clinton since she didn't get the win she needed. Once again, Clinton's words to Petraeus could be read as advice to her after Tuesday's primaries: "I give you tremendous credit for presenting as positive a view of a rather grim reality. I believe that you … were dealt a very hard hand. And it's a hand that is unlikely to improve, in my view."