Forget Pennsylvania—the cruel joke for the last six weeks was that it mattered at all.
Hillary Clinton’s win in Pennsylvania is worth a two-week stay of political execution for the former First Lady—and nothing more. In victory, she can justifiably proceed to Indiana, which will vote on May 6, and try to cobble together enough new cash to keep her million-dollar-a-day machine churning until then (a task not made any easier by her 10-point victory tonight).
Should she win Indiana—a much iffier proposition than Pennsylvania ever was—then, once again, she’ll have license to press on, to West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon and the final contests on June 3. Should she lose Indiana in two weeks, the pressure on her to withdraw—or at the very least to suspend—her candidacy will be immediate, enormous and intimate, courtesy of some of her most stalwart backers.
But even if she wins Indiana, wins West Virginia, wins Kentucky and wins Puerto Rico—the best remaining case scenario for Clinton—what then? She will still trail in pledged delegates (by nearly 150) and she will still lag hundreds of thousands of votes behind in the cumulative popular vote. And that means she will have no plausible claim to the allegiances of the 80 percent (or more) of the remaining uncommitted superdelegates that she would then need to overtake Obama and secure the nomination for herself.
We can be so certain of this because of the other states that will vote between now and June 3. North Carolinians, for instance, will head to the polls on May 6, the same day as Indiana. Clinton, strapped for cash and time and facing a tight do-or-die fight in Indiana, will be able to muster a token (at best) push in the Tar Heel State, where Obama has already opened a commanding double-digit lead. North Carolina is demographically ill-suited to Clinton. It is also about 75 percent as big as Pennsylvania, meaning that a solid Obama victory there will single-handedly undo—in terms of delegates and popular votes—the impact of Clinton’s win in Pennsylvania.
Likewise, Oregon, an Obama state if ever there was one, figures to cancel out Kentucky, a Clinton stronghold, when the two states head to the polls on March 20. And the South Dakota and Montana, the last two states on the calendar, should more than make up for the drubbing Obama stands to suffer in West Virginia, where the primary will be held on May 13. There just aren’t enough sources of votes for Clinton to catch Obama in the popular vote.
That means that Clinton, if she endures as a candidate through the June 3 primaries, will be left pleading with superdelegates to rally around her en masse. Without the popular vote or pledged delegate edge, she will have no moral claim to their support. All Clinton will be able to argue is that she is somehow more electable, even though polling data doesn’t support this. She will point to her success in “big states” during the primaries, a historically misleading general election indicator—and an argument that, if it carried significant weight with superdelegates, would have yielded more than the three superdelegate pick-ups that Clinton has netted since February 5.
There is not nearly enough—nor will there be nearly enough—for the Clintons to point to on June 3 to sway 80 percent of the uncommitted superdelegates to flock to her. Conventional wisdom posits that she wants to stick around in case Obama stumbles. But he has endured the worst his opponents could throw at him over the past two months.
The only office that Clinton can plausibly win by continuing to campaign is the vice-presidency. If he’s given even an inch of latitude in choosing a running-mate, you can rest assured that Obama will use it to pick Anyone But Hillary. But if Clinton were to win all of the remaining states in which she has a realistic chance of prevailing, she could very possibly deny Obama even that inch of latitude. With Clinton winning states right until the end of the primary process, Obama would be confronted with strong, possibly irresistible, pressure to offer her the vice-presidential slot on his ticket.
But the presidential nomination? Hillary Clinton is no closer to that than she was before a single Pennsylvanian stepped into a voting booth today. She is certainly free to continue with her campaign, and her supporters made it very clear today that they want her to do just that. It’s just a question of how long.