Barack Obama needs Nevada more than Hillary Clinton does.
This is not to say that Saturday’s caucuses are do-or-die test for Obama. Even in defeat in Nevada, Obama would be in a strong position to win in South Carolina, the final official Democratic test before February 5. In other words, Obama would still be able to enter “Super-Duper Tuesday” with wins in two of the first four contests, making him plenty viable in the nearly two dozen states that will vote that day, and the likely winner in at least a handful of them.
But that might not be good enough. It’s important to keep in mind that Obama is the insurgent candidate in the Democratic race; vastly better funded than any previous insurgent and a genuine celebrity to boot, but the insurgent nonetheless. Denying the nomination to Hillary Clinton will require more than trading primary and caucus wins through the winter and early spring.
In Democratic politics, a tie goes to the establishment favorite, who can count on hundreds of extra votes at the party’s convention, courtesy of the elected officials and party leaders who are automatically awarded delegate choice and who are magnetically attracted to the safe, “inevitable” candidate. Not surprisingly, early surveys of these “super delegates” from the Associated Press finds them lopsidedly favoring Hillary.
To win, then, Obama must turn the prevailing narrative of the Democratic race on its head. He must deal Clinton an unrelenting series of defeats in the early primaries, generating enough momentum for himself to build clear leads in national and key state polls.
History is clear: When one candidate wins successive “major tests,” a giant chunk of the party’s rank-and-file falls into line. States in which that candidate previously trailed badly become dead even. And in states that were already even, that candidate becomes the clear favorite. John Kerry and Al Gore witnessed this phenomenon after each pulling off the Iowa-New Hampshire one-two punch. And Bill Clinton’s back-to-back big days on “Junior Tuesday” and Super Tuesday in 1992 made him the runaway favorite for the nomination.
Obama had a chance to join their ranks two weeks ago in New Hampshire, only to let it slip through his fingers. How close he came is instructive: Throughout 2007, he trailed Clinton by about 20 points in national polls, the result of the masses of rank-and-file voters who accepted Hillary’s campaign as little more than a coronation. This is also why she has consistently led by similar margins in the major states—like California—that will vote later in the process. But one upset win in Iowa, coupled with Hillary’s third place showing, tightened those numbers dramatically. And one more, in New Hampshire, would have made him the odds-on favorite—and the establishment types who have favored Hillary because she is supposed to win would have begun defecting, overtly or subtly.
But by winning New Hampshire, Hillary stopped the bleeding and provided reassurance both to the establishment and to the fickle masses of the Democratic electorate who like nothing better than falling in line behind whoever looks most like a front-runner.
Which brings us back to Nevada. There are only two contests between now and February 5. Obama is already being penciled in as the South Carolina winner, so he won’t get a major boost out of a win there. But a victory in Nevada, which the media is treating as an even match-up, would be a different story. Clinton led in the state by large margins until recently and has contested the caucuses vigorously.
Even Nevada and South Carolina wins wouldn’t put Hillary on the ropes the way Iowa did. It will take more than one surprise loss for the establishment (and the media) to write her off now. But it’s Obama’s best—and only chance—of turning February 5 into something other than a fatal draw.
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