Advantage Obama?

A major development late in the night turned Super Tuesday 2008 into a near-perfect tie between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But the advantage going forward may lie with the insurgent.

Just minutes after Hillary Clinton was declared the winner in California, a powerful symbolic victory for her, media outlets reversed field and declared Missouri—which had been trending toward Hillary all night—for Barack Obama. And with that, Obama laid claim to a large state that had been expected in the run-up to Super Tuesday to fall into his opponent’s column—something he had failed to do in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Arizona and California.

Both candidates can point to numerous achievements for the day.

Hillary won the big states on both coasts, racking up victories in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and California. But she also proved viability in the South (with wins in Tennessee, Oklahoma and Arkansas) and in the West (with Arizona and, potentially, New Mexico).

Obama can boast of winning the most states and—according to NBC’s estimate, at least—probably the most delegates (by a microscopic margin). He can point to a victory in Hillary’s backyard (Connecticut) and to a string of triumphs in Republican states (Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, North Dakota and Utah), along with two big wins in the South (Alabama and Georgia), one in the upper Midwest (Minnesota) and Colorado, too. Missouri, a quintessential general election swing state that had favored Hillary right up until the polls opened, represents his marquee victory for the day.

Moreover, Obama can also make the case that California would have been much closer if it hadn’t been for that state’s liberal early voting procedures, which resulted in half of all primary ballots being cast well before Super Tuesday—back when Hillary’s lead in the state was commanding.

The results themselves represent a draw, mostly because (besides Obama’s win in Missouri) neither candidate scored a dramatic victory on what had been perceived as the other’s turf. Obama had held out hope for an upset win in New Jersey, Massachusetts or California and had been encouraged by late polling surges in all three, but fell short in each of them. (Connecticut is not considered an upset because of the state’s history of favoring insurgents and because polls had been dead even there well in advance of Super Tuesday.)

Similarly, Hillary had hoped to pick off some of the small red states Obama had targeted or to win an extra Southern states (Alabama), but she failed as well. In the end, the psychological benefit Hillary received from winning California, the biggest state of the day, was off-set by Obama’s last-minute surprise win in Missouri.

It will take some time to determine the delegate distribution from California and New Mexico (where results were only starting to come in at midnight), but NBC News estimated that Obama would likely reap at least four more delegates than Clinton for the day—a tiny but significant victory on a day when more than 1,600 pledge delegates were at stake.

The Super Tuesday dead heat may work to Obama’s advantage in the long-run because of where the race heads next: a primary in Louisiana this Saturday and caucuses in Nebraska and Washington, all states that are on paper conducive to Obama. And next Tuesday brings primaries in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. In Maryland, Obama could benefit from that state’s large black population (28 percent—the most in the North). In Virginia, he enjoys the backing of the state’s Democratic governor, Tim Kaine, and a natural constituency with the affluent Democrats in the northern part of the state. And he should have no trouble winning D.C. Hawaii (Obama’s native state) and Wisconsin (where progressives always do well) then vote on February 19.

In other words, the draw to which Obama battled Hillary on Super Tuesday may actually give him the credibility he needs to make some major scores in the coming weeks on what for him is very favorable turf. By only gaining a tie tonight, Hillary will struggle to gain the kind of momentum she’ll need to offset Obama’s advantages in the next wave of states.

The ball is now in Obama’s court. He can build a clear—but hardly insurmountable—advantage in the coming weeks, one that might prompt risk-averse super delegates to decide that he might be the “safe” pick after all.

Advantage Obama?