Hillary Clinton had a very good night on Tuesday, the first time in a while that can be said.
But for her to emerge as her party’s nominee, it will take Democrats deciding that their standard-bearer should be the candidate who won fewer pledged delegates, fewer popular votes and fewer states in the primary and caucus season.
The March 4 results weren’t nearly decisive enough for her to make headway in the race for delegates, where she still lags about 100 behind Obama. And she still trails Obama by hundreds of thousands of votes in the cumulative national popular vote.
In theory, this isn’t a huge problem: There are still 11 Democratic primaries and caucuses that have yet to be held, and more than 600 pledged delegates yet to be handed out, and a few hundred uncommitted superdelegates as well. With her momentum from Tuesday night, Clinton could—theoretically—tear through the remaining contests and catch Obama in the pledged delegate and popular vote counts. Suddenly, then, those outstanding superdelegates will be under pressure to side with Clinton, and not Obama.
But look closer.
There are a few states left that Clinton can and should win, starting with Pennsylvania (by far the largest state yet to vote) next month. West Virginia on May 13 and Kentucky on May 20 also look promising, and Puerto Rico (the last jurisdiction to hold a nominating contest, on June 7) is a possibility as well.
But there are just as many states left that Obama can and should win, starting with Wyoming, where caucuses will be held this Saturday, and Mississippi next Tuesday. Indiana (where a recent poll put him 15 points ahead) and North Carolina (a 10-point Obama lead a few weeks ago) on May 6 also look good, as do Oregon (May 20) and Montana and South Dakota (June 3). Puerto Rico isn’t a lost cause, either.
In other words, Clinton and Obama are poised to trade wins for the rest of the primary season, meaning that Obama’s edge in delegates and overall popular votes won’t erode between now and June. If anything, it will expand, since the combined populations of the states he is favored to win exceed the combined populations of the Hillary-leaning states that have yet to vote.
What’s worse for Hillary, the party’s delegate distribution rules will severely limit the value of her remaining wins. Even if she wins Pennsylvania by a solid margin (say, high single digits), she and Obama will probably split the state’s 158 pledged delegates almost evenly. It would take a thumping landslide for Hillary to win a substantial delegate majority from Pennsylvania (or any other state), but even in defeat this primary season, Obama has mostly had no trouble notching well over 40 percent of the vote—good for an almost even split of any state’s delegate pool.
Clinton, meanwhile, has often struggled in small red states, where she’s been lucky to break 30 percent of the vote. Even though the convention delegations from these states are small, Obama has won clear majorities among them, thanks to his dominating primary and caucus wins. That means that similar Obama triumphs in the upcoming South Dakota and Montana primaries, for instance, could by themselves offset a Clinton victory in Pennsylvania.
Clinton earned the right to press on with her candidacy on Tuesday, probably all the way through the primary process. But on June 8, the morning after the Puerto Rico caucuses, she will almost certainly wake up to face significant deficits in pledged delegates and overall popular votes. The silver lining: Obama will almost certainly be short of the magic number of delegates needed to win a first ballot nomination. A few hundred superdelegates will still be on the sidelines. And the status of Michigan and Florida may not be resolved.
At that point, Hillary will have two paths to victory, and each will be a long shot. The first would require those outstanding superdelegates to side with her. But it’s doubtful that enough superdelegates would play along with this. On the whole, they simply don’t feel strongly enough about Clinton and her electability to withstand the intraparty firestorm that would ensue.
Her other hope would be for a compromise on Michigan and Florida. As now constituted, those delegations cannot be seated at the convention, given the absurd nature of the nominating contests that were held in both of them. But the party will be under enormous pressure to offer them some kind of representation. New contests are possible, maybe even a primary (as opposed to cheaper, party-run caucuses) in Florida.
But even if this happens, it probably won’t affect the overall balance of power. A strong primary win in Florida for Hillary could shave a few dozen delegates off Obama’s edge, but he’d be positioned to run much better in Michigan, especially if caucuses were held there.
Don’t forget: Jesse Jackson, with a much narrower coalition than Obama, won Michigan’s caucuses by 18 points in 1988, and even with no opposition on the ballot in the state’s outlaw primary, Hillary couldn’t crack 60 percent in Michigan in January (with “uncommitted” near 40 percent). At best, Hillary might win the state narrowly, with no measurable advantage in the delegate count.
That means that what Clinton is really hoping for is some kind of dramatic stumble on Obama’s part at some point in the next few months—maybe a new Rezko development, maybe a gaffe that calls his electability into question or maybe some new revelation that might emerge from increased press scrutiny. If Obama begins to look like a weak general election candidate, she could have better luck with those superdelegates.
What became clear on Tuesday is that Obama is not going to knock Hillary out of the race with a bang. But all he has to do is outlast her, and—even with this setback—he remains ideally positioned to do just that.
Follow Steve Kornacki via RSS.