Clinton Facing Obstructed Path to the Nomination

A campaign blog.
March 20 2008 1:49 PM

Clinton Facing Obstructed Path to the Nomination

Today's the New York Times A1 piece on Hillary Clinton, "Clinton Facing Narrower Path to Nomination," is an exercise in understatement. It nudges the candidate ever closer to the cliff but, maybe because of politeness, or business savvy, or maybe even a perceived need for objectivity, refrains from pushing her over.

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Adam Nagourney writes that to secure the nomination, Clinton now needs 1) to "defeat Mr. Obama soundly in Pennsylvania," 2) to "lead in the total popular vote after the primaries end in June," and 3) "some development to shake confidence in Mr. Obama so that superdelegates … overturn his lead among the pledged delegates." For these reasons, her long-shot candidacy has "grown a little longer."

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That’s putting it mildly. The fact is, of the three scenarios Nagourney lays out, only two are even possible, seeing as Clinton can no longer win the popular vote. And of those, only one—some deeply confidence-shaking incident—could actually result in Clinton having a shot at the nomination. Let’s take these one by one:

1) Yes, she will probably defeat Obama soundly in Pennsylvania. But that’s only going to prolong her suffering. Clinton supposedly had momentum coming out of Texas and Ohio, but Obama quickly erased her delegate gains with his victories in Wyoming and Mississippi. The same thing could happen if Obama wins North Carolina and Indiana. And however much Clinton thinks a Pennsylvania win makes the case that she can win big states in the general, there’s no evidence that one leads to the other

2) Now that revotes in Florida and Michigan are off the table (Michigan’s legislature is mere hours away from recessing), Clinton is not going to win the popular vote. Period. Obama currently leads by 700,000 votes, or more than 800,000 if you count caucus estimates. For Clinton to close that, she would have to win the remaining states by consistently large margins. Clinton netted about 300,000 votes in Ohio when she won 55 percent of the vote—a performance she could re-create in Pennsylvania but which will likely be her biggest victory in the remaining states. (Plus, the popular vote is itself an unreliable metric .)

But here’s the catch: Clinton’s camp has its own way of counting. Just as they at one point refused to count only pledged delegates—they always lumped them in with "automatic delegates," a count in which Clinton still leads—they will insist on including Florida and possibly even Michigan in their popular vote tally. "The popular vote is the popular vote for all to see," Clinton adviser Harold Ickes told the Times . "For people to claim that because the delegates weren’t seated you can’t count the popular vote seems somewhat goofy." If you factor in Florida, Obama’s current lead is only 400,000. If you count Michigan as well—an audacious move, given that Obama wasn’t even on the ballot—his lead narrows to 70,000. So if you inhabit the Seussian world of Clinton math, then yes, she can win the popular vote.

3) The last scenario—that Obama gets somehow tainted in the coming months—is still possible. He appears to have weathered Hurricane Wright, but we won’t know the long-term repercussions until voters hit the polls. However, the Wright flap may have planted a seed that could become a larger case against Obama. If more inflammatory sermons emerged, for example, or if other allies strayed off message, Obama’s opponents could argue that Wright wasn’t an isolated case.

However : None of this changes the fundamental fact that Clinton can win only by overturning Obama’s pledged delegate lead—a truism that still has not gotten the traction it deserves. Ominous warnings about 1968-like riots aside, the prospect that Clinton would accept the nomination over the head of the people is fundamentally at odds with everything the party represents. She talks about wanting to enfranchise the people of Florida and Michigan. But then, inevitably, she would turn around and seek to revert the people’s decision, expressed through the pledged delegate count. Call me naive, but I find it inconceivable that the party would want this to happen, or that a candidate would want to win that way.

All this being a long way of saying, Hillary’s path to the nomination is not "narrow." It’s barricaded. Yet still there seems to be a hesitation among the media to declare Clinton dead. Maybe it’s her zombielike ability to rise again—first in New Hampshire, then in Nevada, then most recently in Texas and Ohio. But people have to understand there will be no knockout blow, no head shot. Rather it will be a long, slow exit that causes pain to everyone involved .

The question is, who is going to tell Hillary it’s over? Certainly not Bill. Certainly not her aides. Only the superdelegates matter. Given that, Gov. Philip Bredesen’s proposal for a superdelegate primary in June—a manufactured knockout blow—seems like a remarkably good idea.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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