Tuesday was a decisive night for Barack Obama.
Hillary Clinton won Indiana, barely, giving her as many states on the day as Obama got.
But the result made clear one thing: It doesn’t matter anymore.
Ever since she fell hopelessly behind Obama in the pledged-delegate and popular-vote counts during a string of February defeats, Clinton has clung to a long-shot nomination strategy. She would not be able to overtake him in delegates or popular votes in the late primaries, but she could use them to shake Democrats’ confidence in Obama as a general-election candidate.
This would mean winning overwhelmingly in the late states where she was favored and picking off some or all of those that he had been expected to win. Only then, with Clinton making a compelling case that Obama’s supporters were abandoning him in droves, would superdelegates—loath to overturn “the will of the people” and to risk the devastating intraparty warfare that would come from thwarting an African-American who won a pledged-delegate majority in the primaries—be receptive to lining up with her en masse.
To Clinton’s credit, she strung this all out longer than many thought she could. She won in Ohio and Texas on March 4, when defeat would have meant the end for her. Then she pulled out Pennsylvania on April 22, and suddenly the wind seemed to be at her back. She began receiving a hearing from some opinion-makers on her specious “big state” argument and her questions about Obama’s seeming inability to connect with white working-class voters (something that made the coverage of Jeremiah Wright’s untimely reemergence all the more devastating for him). For the first time since January, Clinton picked up a new batch of superdelegate endorsements and when she latched onto a gas-tax-holiday plan and began bashing “elitists,” game-changing wins in Indiana and North Carolina suddenly became plausible.
So much for that.
Obama has absolutely clobbered her in North Carolina. As of this writing, the final numbers aren’t known, but it’s clear that his margin will be well into double digits. The Clintons can claim that this is an improvement from polls conducted months ago—their surrogates seem to be engaged in an informal competition to one-up each other in stating the initial size of her deficit; Terry McAuliffe said 25 points, while Governor Mike Easley went with 34—but political observers, and superdelegates in particular, know better. The North Carolina results do not suggest any significant erosion in Obama’s standing in the state during what has been a very rough few weeks for him.
This alone is enough to derail the Clinton strategy. A win in North Carolina would have been powerful evidence that Democrats are turning on Obama and that the character attacks had rendered him unelectable. A very narrow loss might have helped the Clintons make this case as well. But a landslide defeat?
The implications of the Carolina result are many. First, it reaffirms—yet again—the lack of momentum in this race. The outcome of just about every state has been predictable well in advance. This was true in the Clinton states of New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania (among others) and it proved true in North Carolina on Tuesday. For all of the poll fluctuations before all of these contests, primary day has inevitably resulted in states reverting to form. That there was no measurable momentum in North Carolina is even more significant, because Obama couldn’t have possibly endured a worse two weeks than these past two.
This means that the remaining few contests are basically foregone conclusions. Clinton will win West Virginia next week, Kentucky on the 20th and Puerto Rico on May 1. Obama will win Oregon in two weeks and South Dakota and Montana on June 3. A split, in other words—not the decisive and jaw-dropping series of late wins that Clinton absolutely had to have.
North Carolina also essentially locks in Obama’s edge in the popular vote. His margin should undo whatever benefit Clinton reaped from her win in Pennsylvania. No fair and reasonable calculation of the cumulative popular vote at the end of this process will show Clinton ahead. It is now mathematically inconceivable.
Against these realities, the Indiana results almost don’t matter. Obviously, if Obama ends up ahead when all the votes are tallied, the race will end on the spot, and Clinton won’t even have license to pursue meaningless wins in West Virginia and Kentucky. But even if Clinton hangs on, it will be for show.
Clinton’s strategy since Feb. 5 never stood much chance of working and allowed room for absolutely no slip-ups. Now it’s over.