The Superdelegate Wall

A campaign blog.
April 10 2008 5:53 PM

The Superdelegate Wall

In this pre-Pennsylvania lull—a relative term—it sometimes feels like we’re just finding new ways to express how royally screwed Hillary Clinton is. Well, like it or not, the minds over at ABC have found yet another way. Their verdict: Clinton needs to win 80 percent of the remaining uncommitted superdelegates to secure the nomination.

The math is far from perfect (which they freely admit). It assumes that Clinton wins Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Puerto Rico, and that Obama wins Guam, North Carolina, Oregon, Montana, and South Dakota. In their model, they also put each victory at a 55-to-45 split.

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But as an experiment, the numbers are instructive. For one thing, this is a fairly optimistic model for Clinton. Given current polls in Pennsylvania, a 10-point margin would be considered a huge win for her. In other states, it’s likely to be closer as well. In the past, Obama has been able to narrow her lead by logging face time in states that favor Clinton. (See California, Texas, and, to a lesser extent, Ohio.) Certain Obama wins, on the other hand, are likely to be wide. North Carolina could well be a blowout, as many polls put him up 20 points . Even when they factor in Florida and Michigan, Clinton still needs to win 237 of the remaining 300 delegates—or about 80 percent—to get to 2025.

Using Slate ’s Delegate Calculator , we tried playing around with different scenarios to see how that number changes. Here’s the most interesting one:  

Clinton wins big. Say Clinton wins all the remaining contests by a 10-point margin. (That's impossible, barring revelations that Obama does lines on the campaign bus, but bear with us.) Obama would still be ahead in pledged delegates, 1671 to 1563. Add on their current superdelegate tallies—226 for Obama and 251 for Clinton, according to Politico —and they’d be at 1897 and 1814, respectively. Even then , Clinton would need to win 211 of the still-uncommitted 300 delegates, or about 70 percent .

This is worth restating: Even if Hillary Clinton wins every single one of the remaining contests by 10 points, she still needs to win 70 percent of the remaining uncommitted superdelegates. Given that since Feb. 5, Obama has netted 69 superdelegates and Clinton has lost a net of five, it’s fair to say the pendulum is not swinging her way (although she did get a whopping two superdelegates today).

A caveat: Superdelegates are by definition not pledged. Those who have committed can change their minds. If Clinton wins the remaining contests by big margins, surely some Obama supers would swing her way. But they would still have to grapple with the fact that Obama will have won the pledged delegate count. (A fact that's also likely to swing some Clinton supers over to Obama.)

We’ve known for some time that Clinton is relying on superdelegates to win the nomination. (Obama needs them, too, but he will have the pledged delegate count on his side.) Only now is it becoming clear how overwhelmingly she needs to sway them. There's a point at which even Rocky would cut his losses.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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