Hillary Clinton is now down to her last out.
Faced with an opportunity in Wisconsin to halt her devastating post-Super Tuesday skid and to head into the critical March 4 primaries with newfound confidence and momentum, the former First Lady came up short tonight. Very short.
Barack Obama’s decisive victory in Wisconsin—where just six percent of the population is black—was enabled by narrow but significant pluralities among groups of voters that, earlier in the primary process, had been loyal to Clinton: women, lower-income and less educated voters, union members, and registered Democrats.
This marks the second straight week that Obama made inroads into Clinton’s base, powerful evidence of a national shift in mass opinion among Democrats. And Obama’s win came in spite of a concerted push by Clinton, who blitzed the state with negative ads and personal campaign appearances, against a backdrop of last-minute accusations of plagiarism against Obama.
None of this bodes well for Clinton as the race now shifts to Texas and Ohio, which will vote on March 4. Since Super Tuesday, the Clinton campaign has identified both states as part of their “must win” firewall, a characterization that they have clung to even more fiercely as their February losses have mounted.
But even before Wisconsin rendered its verdict tonight, Clinton’s standing in both March 4 states was imperiled. After leading both by more than 25 points for most of the campaign, Clinton in the last few days slipped into a tie with Obama in Texas and has seen her Ohio margin shrink to just over 10 points in some polls.
She badly needed to engineer a surprise victory in Wisconsin, or at least to finish close enough to Obama to declare some kind of moral victory. Now she must contend with two straight weeks of stories about her losing streak—it should reach 10 when Hawaii’s results come in later tonight—and the do-or-die stakes of March 4 for her campaign.
And the news figured to only get even worse between now and then for Clinton, because tonight’s result essentially guarantees that she will not pick up any new superdelegate endorsements in the next two weeks. No Democratic official will want to explain why he or she is jumping on board with a campaign that seems to be losing the confidence of the party’s rank-and-file. It also makes more high-profile defections from Clinton to Obama—there have been several since Super Tuesday—likely, which will further reinforce mass perception that the good ship Clinton is sinking.
Clinton is still well-positioned for Ohio, where the demographics are suited to her candidacy better than in nearly any other state. But Texas seems to be slipping from her grasp by the hour, in part because Obama also seems to be erasing her previously lopsided advantage among Hispanic voters. Now that she has fallen so far behind in the delegate count—the gap could be 150 after tonight—and the popular vote, a split verdict on March 4 might keep the Clinton campaign alive, but it wouldn’t do much else. And after March 4, there just won’t be many opportunities for her to catch Obama. Realistically, Clinton must find a way to win both Ohio and Texas.
And that means she will be mightily tempted to step up her negative campaigning, something that almost any candidate in her position would do. But her attacks on Obama in Wisconsin were louder than ever—and they seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Obama seems to be protected by the same Teflon that insulated Ronald Reagan.
No, the Democratic race isn’t over yet. But the end may be very near.