O.K., it’s only Wyoming. But Barack Obama’s commanding victory there over Hillary Clinton is significant for what it portends.
Clinton’s chances of winning the Democratic nomination depend on catching Obama in either the pledged-delegate count or the cumulative popular vote tally (or both) during the primary season. This would give her a moral claim to the loyalties of the undecided superdelegates who will ultimately put Clinton or Obama over the top.
But this is easier said than done, because 100-delegate gaps are not easily erased in closely contested one-on-one races, nor are 700,000-vote deficits. So when she won her surprise victories last Tuesday, Clinton’s imperative became clear: She would need to parlay her upsets into sustained momentum and rack up big wins in the remaining 12 primaries and caucuses.
With today’s Wyoming results, she’s now 0-for-1.
Unlike previous caucus states (besides Iowa and Nevada), the Clintons invested heavily in Wyoming, a tacit acknowledgement that ceding small states like Kansas and Idaho and Nebraska to Obama last month had actually cost them dearly. This time, there were five paid Clinton staffers on the ground, and many more volunteers. Bill and Chelsea made personal appearances, and the candidate herself blitzed the state on caucus eve. A radio ad was aired, as well. And then there was the “momentum” from Ohio and Texas: Surely it would sway some Wyoming Democrats to take a second look at the former first lady, right?
Actually, none of it mattered much at all. With almost all precincts reporting, Clinton was on course to secure about 40 percent, a slight improvement from her performance in other nearby caucus states (she received 32 percent in Colorado, for instance), but not nearly enough.
This says a lot about where the Democratic race is heading—and why Clinton’s “revival” last Tuesday needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
In three days, the state of Mississippi will vote, a primary that Obama is favored to win, in part because of the state’s large black population. (Jesse Jackson won Mississippi with 45 percent in the 1988 primary.) As she did in Wyoming, Clinton has stepped up her efforts in the state. But while her push might help her marginally (a poll released on Friday showed Obama ahead 46-40 percent), today’s Wyoming result suggests that Clinton’s sudden “momentum” is not significantly undermining Obama’s existing support. Clinton can not catch Obama by June if she does not start upsetting him in states where he is favored.
Moreover, the Wyoming verdict—especially if it is replicated in Mississippi on Tuesday—should dispel the notion that a Clinton win in Pennsylvania next month will somehow transform the race in her favor. After all, if her Ohio and Texas wins don’t help her measurably in Wyoming and Mississippi, why should a Pennsylvania victory have any different impact on the May primaries in which Obama is favored?
Understandably, much is being made of Pennsylvania, the largest individual state left to vote. But a total of 412 delegates will be awarded in May and June—254 more than are at stake in Pennsylvania. And in those May and June contests, Obama is, on paper, in better position to win in states accounting for 204 delegates (North Carolina, Oregon, Montana, South Dakota, plus Guam), while Clinton is the paper favorite in West Virginia, Kentucky and Puerto Rico, representing a combined 136 delegates. Indiana, with 72 delegates, is probably a toss-up.
If those May and June state break as they should on paper, then Obama will slightly increase his edge in delegates and popular votes—erasing (and then some) whatever gains in both categories that Clinton would make with even a robust Pennsylvania victory. And that would ensure that Obama will end the primary season with a delegate advantage near 100 and a popular-vote edge somewhere near the current 700,000 mark. Even do-over Clinton wins in Florida (where she could very well win by a double-digit margin) and Michigan (where the race would probably be close) wouldn’t bring Clinton even close to surpassing Obama in either delegates or votes.
Her only chance relies on winning Obama states—and winning them big. But for all her pushing, and with all of the good press she received this week, she was lucky to crack 40 percent in Wyoming.
If Obama keeps winning where he should win and Clinton keeps winning where she should win, then Obama would come out of primary season with a whimper rather than a bang. But he’d most certainly come out the nominee.
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