The losing streak has hit eight for Hillary Clinton, but that’s hardly the worst news to come out of Chesapeake Tuesday for the former first lady.
Nor is the fact that she now trails in most every independent delegate count—even the counts that include the non-binding pledges of superdelegates. And nor, for that matter, is the likelihood that her skid will reach double-digits a week from tonight, when Wisconsin and Hawaii vote.
No, the most troubling development for Hillary Clinton is that—for the first time—Barack Obama has demonstrated an ability to eat significantly into her base of support while retaining his, creating the possibility that the Democratic race is shifting decisively in his favor and that it is no longer a clash between opposing and immovable coalitions.
Before tonight, Democratic primary voters had seemed to divide themselves along economic, gender, geographic, ethnic and age lines. Obama monopolized the black vote, scored much better among white men than white women and attracted voters who were younger, more affluent, more educated and more politically independent. Clinton’s coalition was comprised of women, older voters, Hispanics and lower-income voters.
With those voting habits seemingly locked in, the Democratic race appeared destined for a split verdict in the primary season, with both candidates winning about the same number of delegates and popular votes and with the 800 or so superdelegates then being empowered to break the tie.
That outcome may still come to pass, but there are clues in tonight’s results that suggest something very different may be happening.
In Virginia and Maryland (no exit polls were conducted in the District of Columbia), Obama performed very well with his usual constituencies, even boosting his share of the black vote (to 90 percent in Virginia).
But he also won—overwhelmingly—lower-income and less-educated voters, who before tonight have formed the backbone of Clinton’s coalition. Among white men, Obama beat Hillary 55 to 43 percent in Virginia. On Super Tuesday, white men were evenly split. Obama also won Hispanic voters in Virginia and Maryland, a group that until now has lopsidedly backed Clinton—that was the main reason for her Nevada victory last month. In Maryland, Obama narrowly won among voters over 65 years old and also carried white Catholic voters, two more typically pro-Clinton constituencies.
Poaching Clinton’s base translated into two of Obama’s most dominating performances in primary states. In Maryland, where he’d been expected to win by somewhere between 15 and 20 points, his margin was 15 with about 15 percent of precincts reporting, and likely to climb higher. And in Virginia, where Clinton’s campaign had held faint hopes of an upset victory, his margin was an astounding 29 points with nearly every vote tabulated. (He also won D.C. by more than 50 points, although a blowout Obama win there had always been expected.)
The Clinton campaign is facing must-win primaries and Texas and Ohio on March 4, states where they still hold sizable leads in polls. But with tonight’s bad news, and the likelihood of more to come next Tuesday, Clinton’s support may begin to erode—something that apparently happened in Virginia and Maryland in the wake of Obama’s victories over the weekend.
For the first time since his Iowa triumph, Obama now has his opponent on the ropes. If he can win as he is expected to do next week and then steal Ohio and Texas from her in three weeks, the nomination will be his. Right now, he trails in the polls in those two big states, where Clinton’s coalition is stronger than his. But what he proved tonight is that he has the ability to win over big chunks of Clinton’s coalition. If he can do the same thing again on March 4, that may be the end of it.