When Does a Never-Ending Primary End?

Officially, Hillary Clinton is as “in to win” as ever, ready to take her quest for the Democratic presidential nomination all the way to the party’s August convention in Denver.

“I have no intention of stopping until we finish what we started,” she recently declared.

But her confident posture hardly calls to mind that of a winning candidate entering the stretch drive of a campaign. If anything, Mrs. Clinton sounds increasingly like Rudy Giuliani in the days before Florida made his demise official, acting like everything was going according to plan as his campaign took on more and more water.

This is the game that every doomed candidate who is still technically viable plays. Howard Dean did it four years ago after falling flat on his face in Iowa and New Hampshire (remember all of the states he promised to compete in during his famous “scream” speech?), and so did Bill Bradley when he came up short in New Hampshire in 2000.

They do it because, in politics (like in any other endeavor), anything is possible – who knows what scandal or gaffe or other surprise might suddenly trip up the front-runner? But short of that, there really isn’t much for them to latch on to.

And so it is for Mrs. Clinton. Her public position is that she will play out the remaining primaries, vigorously pursue whatever uncommitted superdelegates remain after that, and – if need be – force a floor fight at the convention over the Michigan and Florida delegations.

But the reality for her is far different. Barring some sort of catastrophic revelation that topples Barack Obama, Mrs. Clinton will have no choice but to end her candidacy long before the Democratic convention is gaveled to order. In fact, it’s almost certain that her campaign will end at one of three specific points over the next two months.

The first stopping point is the most obvious. Should Mrs. Clinton lose the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, it would be impossible for her to press ahead. This, however, is a highly unlikely outcome. Polling has been all over the map– one day, it seems, Mr. Obama has pulled within striking distance, while the next day Mrs. Clinton is back ahead by double digits – but the state’s demographics are ideal for Mrs. Clinton and the loyalty that her supporters showed in Ohio and Texas suggests that pro-Clinton Pennsylvanians probably won’t be deterred by talk that she can’t win the nomination.

If she does pass the Pennsylvania test, it may only extend her campaign’s life by two weeks, until the May 6 primaries in North Carolina and Indiana. North Carolina, it is growing clearer by the day, is probably a lost cause for Mrs. Clinton, making it imperative that she score a solid win in Indiana, whose Rust Belt demographics are more suited to her strengths. A May 6 wipeout, like an April 22 loss in Pennsylvania, would very likely do in the Clinton campaign, radically amplifying the already audible calls for her exit.

Mrs. Clinton is, for now, favored to win Indiana. And assuming she does, that would bring us to the most likely end date for her campaign: early June, immediately after the final primary votes are cast in Montana and South Dakota. Chances are that Mrs. Clinton will lose both of those states, a fitting end to a primary season in which Mr. Obama’s dominance in small Western states has accounted for much of his edge.

At that point, Mr. Obama will almost certainly have more pledged delegates – by a margin of about 150 – than Mrs. Clinton. He will also have an advantage of about 500,000 in the cumulative popular vote, an unofficial but significant benchmark. He will, however, be short of the magic delegate number, leaving it to the remaining superdelegates to provide the winning margin.

But this is looking more and more like a formality. Mrs. Clinton will be much shorter of the magic number than Mr. Obama, meaning she’ll have to convince nearly all of the undecided superdelegates to go with her. The recent trend suggests this will be a doomed mission. Since February 5, Mr. Obama has picked up 69 superdelegates, while Mrs. Clinton has lost two.

Expect a flood of superdelegate endorsements for Mr. Obama as soon as the primaries end, one that will quickly push him over the magic number and force Mrs. Clinton to fold. Sure, she’ll demand some kind of face-saving accommodation for Michigan and Florida as part of her withdrawal, but such an arrangement – even seating delegations based on the flawed January results in both states – will be easy once it’s clear she’s on her way out.

 

When Does a Never-Ending Primary End?