The March 4 Stakes for Hillary

030408 hillary1 web The March 4 Stakes for HillaryTwo things are obvious: If Hillary Clinton can somehow win both Texas and Ohio, she stays; if she loses both states, she’s tuna fish.

A third possibility—a split decision—will present Clinton the justification to push on if she wishes to, but without any clear way to win.

Let’s say Hillary wins Ohio (as the latest polls suggest she will) and falls just short in Texas (as polls also indicate). For the sake of it, let’s also say she wins Rhode Island, where the lower-income white Catholic voters among whom she has done so well elsewhere predominate, and fails in Vermont, a state rich with the reform-minded progressives who are so taken with Obama. In other words, let’s say Tuesday produces a tie—in states won, total popular votes, and delegates accrued.

For all practical purposes, such a tie would go to Obama, who now leads Hillary by more than 100 delegates. Winning Texas, the second-largest state in the union, would keep Obama’s national momentum going, and to catch him in the delegate race, Hillary would need to win the remaining states by margins of about 30 points. When you’re the front-runner, not losing is just as good as winning.

But Hillary Clinton is unlikely to give up that easily, walking away from what is probably her one and only shot at the presidency. With a win in Ohio, the state that decided the last election and that could decide this one, the temptation to press ahead would probably be irresistible.

Sure, she could reason, catching Obama in the hard delegate count this spring would be out of the question. But if she could roll her Ohio success into a late primary winning streak (starting with Pennsylvania on April 22), maybe she could draw close enough that the 350 or so superdelegates who are still uncommitted would conclude that the primary season hadn’t produced a clear popular verdict for either candidate, thus giving Hillary at least a theoretical chance to win them over and reverse Obama’s pledged-delegate advantage.

The other potential equalizer would be Michigan and Florida. Both states hosted outlaw primaries that Hillary “won” (Obama’s name wasn’t on the Michigan ballot and the candidates refrained from campaigning in Florida, where turnout was substantially lower than in other states). Right now, pushing for these pro-Hillary delegations to be seated at the convention is politically poisonous for her campaign, something they have been slowly recognizing.

But what happens if there’s buyer’s remorse among Democrats who have rallied to Obama? The Democratic convention is still more than five months away, but already Republicans are aiming their attack machine at Obama. What if their broadsides start to dent his armor—if he proves as vulnerable on the “experience” question as Hillary has warned, and if in defending himself he does start making costly rookie mistakes? Maybe then the party would embrace Michigan and Florida as their salvation from handing their nomination to a doomed candidate. Buyer’s remorse could also weaken Obama in the late primary states, giving party leaders even more cover to turn on Obama.

In reality, of course, this isn’t much for Hillary to cling to. Obama has already proven himself adept at responding to her attacks and has only reinforced his supporters’ affection for him in his early skirmishes with John McCain. The notion that he will melt down before the August convention is a doubtful one, judging by the remarkable endurance he has already shown. And many of the uncommitted superdelegates that Hillary would need to help her topple Obama have serious reservations about her own electability. Short of winning the most delegates in this primary season—a highly unlikely proposition by now—the odds of Hillary securing the nomination are slim.

But human nature suggests—and history demonstrates—that candidates in Hillary’s situation will take anything short of complete rejection from the electorate as a license to stay in the race, just in case. History also shows that the consequences of this kind of thinking can be devastating.

In 1980, Ted Kennedy fell desperately behind President Jimmy Carter in the delegate count after an early losing streak in the Democratic primaries, but wins in several big states kept him in the running through the final primary in June, after which Carter led by about 700 delegates.

Kennedy refused to abandon his effort. While Republicans rallied around Ronald Reagan, Kennedy spent the summer months fighting for an “open convention,” in effect urging delegates to junk the rule that bound most of them to the will of primary voters, a procedural change that might theoretically have snatched the nomination from Carter. The bid ultimately failed, but precious months were lost for the Democrats and Carter entered the fall campaign with a deeply fractured party base. He went on to lose 44 states to Reagan. (It also didn’t help that Kennedy snubbed Carter on national television on the convention dais, or that his attacks on the sitting president were recycled into a brutal general election ad by the Reagan forces.)

Four years later, Gary Hart also refused to give up even when the numbers weren’t adding up. Walter Mondale ended the 1984 primaries in early June about 800 delegates ahead of Carter and, after lining up a few dozen super delegates, promptly declared himself over the magic number.

But Hart spent the next six weeks acting like a candidate, pleading with superdelegates to abandon Mondale and to throw the convention open. He was boosted by polls that showed him running far better against Reagan than Mondale. Only when New Jersey officially put him over the top at the mid-July convention could Mondale and his forces finally let loose a sigh of relief and focus squarely on the fall campaign, which Reagan ended up winning in one of the most thorough routs in American history. Hart’s lingering presence in the early summer helped keep the public’s focus on intraparty politics—and not on the Democrats’ case against Reagan.

Kennedy and (especially) Hart have mostly been given passes for their roles in their party’s ’80 and ’84 defeats, mostly because Carter and Mondale were probably doomed no matter what. But 2008 is a different story. The party faithful expect to win this year, and there will be hell to pay for whoever mucks it up.