Why Hillary Carries On

033108 clinton web Why Hillary Carries OnWhen you’ve got a 42-day gap between primaries, you’ve got to fill it with something. So now we’re talking about whether Hillary Clinton should drop out.

In reality, the Clinton-Obama contest has basically been frozen in place since Clinton’s March 4 mini-revival. Obama leads in the pledged delegate race and the popular vote race, and will almost certainly lead in both categories when the primary season wraps in early June. But his margins are close. If Clinton was justified in pressing ahead on the morning of March 5, why is there a sudden urgency for her to quit three weeks later, when nothing has really changed?

Thanks to Obama surrogates like Pat Leahy, recent news coverage has been filled with stories about whether Clinton ought to just cut her losses and drop out. Officially, the candidate himself is keeping a distance from such comments—“Senator Clinton can run as long as she wants,” he magnanimously allowed over the weekend—but that’s largely immaterial: Leahy’s suggestion was more than enough to set off the round of media speculation that the Obama campaign was looking for.

There really is no precedent for demanding that Clinton withdraw at this point. If Michigan’s and Florida’s delegations remain unseated, there will be approximately 4,047 delegates at the August Democratic convention, making 2,024 the magic number for either candidate. Right now, Obama has 1,631 (including superdelegates), to Clinton’s 1,499—a difference of 132 delegates. And in the officially meaningless but symbolically important cumulative popular vote, Obama leads Clinton by just over two points—a margin that is basically cut in half when Florida is included.

This is—easily—the tightest Democratic nominating contest in the modern primary era. Never before has a race lasted this long without one candidate building an overwhelming advantage in delegates, popular votes, or both. And in none of those previous contests did the second-place candidate hear such loud and early calls to exit the race.

Take 1984, the last time a Democratic race stretched more than a few primaries without a clear winner emerging. The calendar was more spread out back then, but at this point in that year’s Gary Hart-Walter Mondale fight—that is, at the point in the primary process when about 75 percent of all delegates had been awarded—Mondale had amassed a seemingly insurmountable edge over Hart, 1,518 delegates to 886, with 339 officially uncommitted and 303 for Jesse Jackson. That left Mondale just 451 delegates from that year’s magic number, with primaries in big states like New Jersey and California still remaining. It was clear that he would either hit that number or come within inches of it on the last day of primaries in early June, in which case he’d only need a handful of superdelegates to go over the top. (It was the latter scenario that ended up playing out.)

But despite trailing by well over 600 delegates, the calls for Hart to withdraw were muted at best. He also lagged behind in the popular vote, a metric that didn’t receive nearly as much attention (and that wasn’t as easily calculated) in ’84, by about 500,000 votes. His campaign pressed ahead, arguing that a strong finish would sway superdelegates and uncommitted delegates.

It was no different in 1980, when Ted Kennedy was walloped by Jimmy Carter in most primaries. But Kennedy won just enough big states to maintain a sense of viability. At this point in the ’80 race, Kennedy was nearly 1,000 delegates behind Carter. He, too, argued that a strong finish to the primary season would send uncommitted delegates, and those previously committed to Carter, stampeding his way. And like Hart, he faced no concerted effort to push him out of the race before the last primary in June.

Clinton is pursuing the same basic strategy as Hart and Kennedy did, except the deficit she faces is far less imposing. In fact, there is universal agreement that Obama will end the primary season short of the 2,024 delegates needed for a first ballot nomination, and that he—like Clinton—will rely on superdelegates to nudge him over the top. By contrast, it was clear at this point in 1980 that Carter would secure enough delegates in the primary process to win on the first ballot, and that Kennedy’s only hope was to pick off already-committed Carter delegates (there were no superdelegates back then). And in ’84, it was considered likely that Mondale would claim a first ballot majority in the primaries, although he ended up falling a few dozen delegates short (a problem he remedied with some frantic phone-calling to superdelegates the morning after the final primaries).

And yet Clinton is being forced to justify her continued candidacy in a way that Hart and Kennedy never had to. There are several explanations for this this. For one, our understanding of the process is far savvier now than it was a quarter-century ago, when an extended primary season was still a new phenomenon. This may explain why so much attention has been paid this year to the potential of superdelegates to overrule the “will of the people” (as expressed by the popular vote and the pledged delegate count), even though this issue was never really raised in ’84 and ’80.

And it is the currency of the “will of the people” argument that has transformed the role of the superdelegates. In ’84, it was not at all scandalous for Hart to suggest that he’d wrest the nomination from Mondale by convincing superdelegates and uncommitted delegates that he would make the best general election candidate—even after winning fewer votes and delegates than Mondale in the primaries. Making that argument in 2008, as Clinton is discovering, is far more controversial.

This means that Clinton is most likely doomed. She has no mathematical chance of surpassing Obama in the pledged delegate race and almost no shot at surpassing him in popular votes. Thus, she will almost certainly have no claim to the loyalties of the 300 or so superdelegates who will provide the winning.

But that doesn’t mean this is the time for Clinton to quit. She has won nearly as many votes and delegates as Obama, certainly enough to justify participating in the remaining nine primaries and caucuses. Maybe in that time she will catch him in popular votes. It’s not likely, but it could radically change the attitudes of superdelegates if it happened. Or maybe something else will happen. She and her supporters have earned the right to hang around and see.

If she does play out the string and—as expected—still comes up short in both key categories, there’s every reason to expect the uncommitted superdelegates will quickly flock to Obama as soon as the primary season ends. That’s when it would be time for her to go.