Let’s go ahead and pencil in Hillary Clinton as the winner of next month’s Pennsylvania primary. The state is a near-perfect demographic fit for her and the three most recent polls show her ahead of Barack Obama by somewhere between 14 and 19 points.
She absolutely should win Pennsylvania and, assuming she does, it’s easy to anticipate the Clinton campaign’s spin, which will center around the idea that that their candidate has generated a late burst of momentum, and that Obama is ill-suited to lead their ticket in the fall.
But that line is going to be somewhat harder to sell after Obama’s overwhelming win in Mississippi tonight, which, coupled with his similarly dominating victory in Wyoming over the weekend, confirms that his support is largely locked in place—and that his backers will not waver in the face of disappointing primary defeats and negative, panicky press coverage.
That’s what Obama has had to contend with for the last week, with the Clinton campaign and the media offering all sorts of damning explanations for his March 4 defeats in Ohio (by 10 points) and Texas (by four points). The Democratic electorate, the Clinton campaign theorized, had for the first time “gotten serious” about their choice, with the ensuing mass soul-searching accounting for Clinton’s late charge in those states. The media followed suit with extensive coverage of the supposed Obama liabilities—a weakness among working-class white voters chief among them—that had been revealed on March 4.
But that chatter didn’t amount to much. It’s not noteworthy that Clinton lost Wyoming and Mississippi, but it is significant that she fared no better in them than she did in similar states earlier in the process. Obama won Wyoming by 23 points and his final margin in Mississippi, with nearly all precincts tallied last night, was on pace to exceed 20 points. This is exactly how he was expected to fare even before his March 4 defeats.
So if (when?) Clinton wins Pennsylvania six weeks from now, it would be wise not to get too excited, because it will be followed two weeks later by another primary in another big state: North Carolina. And the Tar Heel state is suited to Obama much the way Pennsylvania is to Clinton. Polls now show Obama leading Clinton there by a high single-digit margin. Just as Obama’s Wyoming and Mississippi wins have effectively canceled out Clinton’s Texas and Ohio triumphs (because her March 4 delegate gains were wiped out by his successes last night), North Carolina stands to essentially cancel out Pennsylvania.
In fact, if anything is clear now, it’s that both the Clinton and Obama coalitions are largely resistant to perceived momentum and media hype. It started in New Hampshire, where Obama’s Iowa bounce seemed certain to produce a sizable follow-up win for him. But at the very last minute, the state reverted to its pre-Iowa preferences, handing Clinton a victory that was accurately described as an upset—but that was also consistent with virtually every New Hampshire poll taken before the Iowa caucuses.
Similarly, Obama showed that his coalition could resist perceived Clinton momentum when he thumped her by 29 points in South Carolina, a primary that followed back-to-back Clinton wins (in New Hampshire and Nevada). Clinton then reasserted the loyalty of her own coalition on March 4, winning Ohio and Texas after the press had—once again—penned her political obituary. And now, with Mississippi and Wyoming, Obama has reasserted the loyalty of his.
Both candidates have proven that they have enormous and diverse coalitions. But Obama’s, on the whole, is just a little bit bigger. It’s why he’s won more states, more delegates, and more votes—and why the same is likely to be true when the primary process is over. And it’s why the Pennsylvania results will be very interesting next month, but not decisive.