Barack Obama is winning. North Carolina is his, comfortably, and his delegate-count continues to climb ever closer to a requisite primary-ending majority.
So why has his campaign felt like a long march over broken glass?
“It is painful to watch,” said an influential Obama supporter and delegate in an interview the day before the North Carolina and Indiana primaries. “It’s exhausting for everyone involved. It’s exhausting for Barack and Michelle. It’s exhausting for all the campaign staff, and I know it’s exhausting for the supporters.”
The May 6 primaries in North Carolina and Indiana provided the campaign and its backers some long-awaited relief. Nominally, it was a split-decision—Hillary Clinton won, as expected, in Indiana—. But Mr. Obama’s thumping win on the friendly turf of delegate-rich North Carolina destroyed the Clinton campaign’s last hope for a narrative-shifting upset and may well have killed off the contest in the eyes of the remaining uncommitted superdelegates.
It’s the first good news the Obama campaign has had in what seems like an eternity.
In the past month, as Mr. Obama was thrashed in the press over the comments of Rev. Jeremiah Wright and suffered a concurrent dip in his poll numbers, he and his campaign took on a halting, almost mournful air. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, settling comfortably and unapologetically into attack mode, looked downright giddy.
Even the Obama campaign’s process-based spin—that he had an unassailable lead—went from devastating gloat to sad-sack defense. Two months ago, in the context of Obama’s string of post-Super Tuesday victories, campaign manager David Plouffe’s stark warning to the Clinton campaign that “they are going to fail and fail miserably” in overcoming the 160-odd pledged-delegate deficit was a dagger intended to convince the still-skeptical press to stop treating Hillary Clinton like a winner and to show superdelegates that they’d do well to get on board quickly. More recently, when the campaign repeated the same statistical argument, it was to convince those same superdelegates (and journalists, maybe) to ignore what was plain for them to see: that Mrs. Clinton had been getting the better of things again and again and again.
On Monday night, as Mrs. Clinton completed her morph into a Wall Street-bashing, China-baiting, whiskey-shooting populist, Mr. Obama’s campaign spokesman, Bill Burton, sent out a statement noting that with the three superdelegates endorsing Mr. Obama earlier that day, Obama was “only 273 delegates away from securing the Democratic nomination.” That was followed by a list of “The Math” and a link to maps and timelines on a “Results Center” page on the campaign Web site. Comforting stuff for Obama supporters, if not exactly inspiring.
“She is certainly working harder in North Carolina—she and President Clinton and Chelsea have been to more than 40 communities in North Carolina,” said Representative G. K. Butterfield, an Obama supporter whose district is in the northeastern part of the state. Mr. Butterfield intended this as an explanation, if not a defense, of Mr. Obama’s shrunken lead in the statewide polls in the days leading up to the election.
“So she is certainly working harder,” he continued. “The nomination doesn’t necessarily go to the one who works the hardest but the one who gets the number of delegates. And right now, mathematically, Senator Obama is going to get the required number of delegates, and I cannot imagine that the superdelegates who are uncommitted will support someone who did not succeed with the voters.”
Ed Turlington, a former adviser to John Edwards who endorsed Obama last month, said, “The math is resounding in its own way.”
It was not resounding enough, apparently, for the media, for whom Mr. Obama became the laughably plodding front-runner that Mrs. Clinton once was.
In The New York Times on May 4, Allan Gurganus—who is clearly sympathetic to the Obama cause—panned Mr. Obama’s campaign performance in North Carolina in a guest Op-Ed: “Is he fatigued? And we aren’t? He puts in his full 40 minutes. He punches a clock. That clock is 20,000 souls he knew he had already.”
By contrast, the media made much of Mrs. Clinton’s scrappy new persona. The front page of Monday’s Times featured a story about Mrs. Clintons’ “Love of the Fight” next to one with the more tepid headline “Obama Survives Furor.” Inside, a critique of their respective Sunday morning talk show appearances—Mr. Obama was grilled by Tim Russert in a one-on-one interrogation; Mrs. Clinton toyed with George Stephanopoulos in front of a sympathetic live audience—spoke of “an arresting tableau of the reversal of fortunes in the Democratic race.”
This constant drumbeat, too, had been depressing for Mr. Obama’s supporters. “There aren’t many newspapers that sell stories of ‘Obama still ahead and still likely to win,’” said one major donor to Mr. Obama with experience with past presidential campaigns. “I can’t think of a candidate who went on a consistent upward glide path to the nomination or to the presidency. It doesn’t mean it’s fun. In fact, to the contrary, it is not fun. But anything other than that would probably be counterproductive in the long run.”
Maybe. Or maybe, more precisely, the conclusion to draw from the weeks leading up to North Carolina and Indiana is that “feelings” about the election are irrelevant.
Which is the good news for Mr. Obama’s meandering campaign: The math argument, while uninspiring and joyless, is proving absolutely correct. All indications are that the candidates will continue to share the delegate spoils in the remaining contests—good for Mr. Obama, deadly for Mrs. Clinton—and the superdelegates have shown no sign whatsoever of making a collective break into the Clinton column.
Mr. Obama did seem to be rebounding somewhat, or at least refocusing, in the final days before Tuesday’s primaries. Seizing on a proposed gas-tax holiday, he reframed Mrs. Clinton as a disingenuous Washington hack and himself as the bearer of much-needed change and truth in government. His young daughters and wife made campaign appearances with him to illustrate, physically, what a normal American family guy he is. (“He’s got some Midwestern roots, and most people have families, so we relate to seeing his,” said Greg Apple, a 53-year-old construction worker and supporter who went to see him at a “family day” picnic in Noblesville, Ind.) He shot baskets and talked kitchen table issues, drank beer and asked for extra gravy with his biscuits.
And when asked, he insisted, however cautiously, that he will be the nominee.
“Senator Clinton will have to make her own decisions if she is behind in the delegate count,” said Mr. Obama at an Indianapolis press conference on the Friday before the election.
He asserted that over the final stretch of the race he intended to run a positive campaign about the strength of the American dream. “If we do that over the next month, regardless of where the polls go, regardless of the outcomes of any particular contest, then I think I’ll end up being the nominee,” he said.
And as primary day finally arrived for the voters of North Carolina and Indiana—these contests were widely touted by analysts as the last of many last chances for Mrs. Clinton to alter the seemingly inexorable Obama-ward direction of the campaign—Mr. Obama’s supporters finally sounded as if they were actually preparing to feel like front-runners again.
“Once you get past tomorrow,” said James Rubin, a New York investor and a major Obama donor, “even if it’s a split, you get back to the fact that he is an extraordinary candidate and he is winning.”
“It’s not uncommon for a nominee to lose states down the stretch,” said Representative Artur Davis of Alabama. “It’s not uncommon for there to be some last-minute buyer’s remorse that kicks in.”
Mr. Davis acknowledged that Mr. Obama had endured a very rough couple of weeks. But, he said: “The psychology of the race may change from week to week, but as a practical matter, Senator Obama continues to add to his delegate count,” while the Clinton campaign “is running out of innings.”
The math, he said, no longer left any room for doubt.
Follow Jason Horowitz via RSS.