The Stakes in North Carolina and Indiana

A pair of outright wins by Hillary Clinton on Tuesday could prompt immediate chaos, with already-jittery Democrats questioning anew Barack Obama’s general election viability and Clinton potentially moving into position to run the table in the remaining contests and to reverse some of the crucial metrics that have favored Obama and sustained his perceived inevitability for nearly three months.

Conversely, a pair of outright Obama wins would almost instantly end the Democratic fight, with previously uncommitted superdelegates interpreting an Obama victory on Clinton turf as cause to step in and finish Clinton off on behalf of the party’s rank-and-file.

Both of these outcomes, it should be said, are far-fetched. Clinton will almost certainly prevail in Indiana, where her lead has spiked in recent polls into the high single digits and even into double digits in some polls. And it would take an epic upset for Clinton to dislodge Obama in North Carolina, where his lead – once nearly 20 points, just as hers once was in Pennsylvania and Ohio – has been significantly eroded, but where he remains the prohibitive favorite.

That means that victory on Tuesday night will be determined in large part by the inexact and somewhat arbitrary collective sentiments of the political news media, which will deem one candidate’s margin of victory or defeat more impressive and meaningful than the other.

Should Clinton keep North Carolina within, say, six points, the press figures to award a moral victory for cutting deeply into Obama’s early lead in the state (probably courtesy of those crucial white working-class voters we’ve heard so much about), while a double-digit win for Obama – a result that most everyone expected until about a week ago – might be taken as a sign that he has regained some of his footing after a very rough few weeks.

In Indiana, a close race (within, say, five points) will probably count as a moral victory for Obama, particularly if it’s accompanied by a lopsided North Carolina win. If Obama makes it a game in Indiana, where only 9 percent of the electorate is black, it would suggest that the Clintons’ best efforts to drive an even bigger wedge between Obama and working-class white voters have failed. But a convincing, double-digit Clinton win, especially coupled with a close call in Carolina, would indicate that their tactics are working better now than before.

This will all make for plenty of interesting primary night chit-chat, but if the debate on Tuesday night is about whose one-state victory is more impressive, the winner – in the big picture – will be Obama, because unlike Clinton, he will win the nomination if the two candidates essentially trade wins for the rest of the primary season.

If North Carolina and Indiana break as expected, it will simply reaffirm the pattern that has prevailed in state after state this primary season, with the outcome of most primaries and caucuses predicted weeks or months in advance. Clinton was supposed to win Indiana, if narrowly. Obama was supposed to win North Carolina. If that’s how it ends up, the biggest loser on the night will be – once again – momentum. And it will mean, most probably, that Obama will win primaries in Oregon, South Dakota and Montana in May and June, and that Clinton will prevail in West Virginia, Kentucky and Puerto Rico. That is how all of those states (plus the commonwealth) are “supposed” to vote.

And if that’s how the rest of the primaries play out, it will not be nearly enough for Clinton to catch Obama in pledged delegates (a metric that even Clinton loyalists now concede they won’t be able to win) or in any reasonable and widely-accepted attempt to calculate the popular vote. This will doom her slim chances of winning over the vast majority of unpledged superdelegates. She’ll probably need to nab 70 percent (or more) of them when this process ends, and to move superdelegates in those numbers, her case would need to be overpowering. Simply winning some big states in the late months of the campaign won’t be enough to convince this group to void the “will of the people.”

So if Obama sweeps Tuesday’s primaries, he will essentially win the nomination on the spot. If he notches a split with Clinton, even in a manner deemed unimpressive by the media, his coronation will be put on hold until early June.

That leaves only one scenario in which Clinton’s nomination prospects are truly reinvigorated on Tuesday night, and it’s the longest shot on the board: a two-state Clinton sweep. Were she to pull this off, some of the fundamental assumptions that have defined the Democratic race would be reconsidered, by both the media and party leaders.

For one, a Clinton sweep would mark the undeniable change in the basic dynamic of the race for the first time since the New Hampshire, with her success in Pennsylvania and her good press of the past two weeks actually translating into a meaningful boost at the polls. This would raise the possibility that Democrats are actually deserting Obama in large numbers and would potentially set the stage for Clinton to steal some or all of the three remaining “Obama states” on the primary calendar. And if she did that, she’d probably catch him in a fair calculation of the popular vote. Winning that metric, combined with widespread panic by Democrats that Obama’s support is evaporating, might be enough to produce the superdelegate tsunami that Clinton is counting on.

Under this scenario, it’s still theoretically possible to envision her winning the nomination even while losing the pledged-delegate race. Anything short of this just won’t be enough.

The Stakes in North Carolina and Indiana