After she scored a lopsided victory in Sunday’s Puerto Rico primary, Hillary Clinton attempted to frame her campaign against Barack Obama, which will conclude with primaries in Montana and South Dakota on Tuesday, as a draw.
“I will lead the popular vote,” she said. “He will maintain a slight lead in the delegate count.”
It’s hard to imagine, at this point, that she believes what she’s saying.
The race is not a toss-up. Obama, after yesterday’s ruling on the status of the Florida and Michigan delegations, will be no more than 25 delegates shy of the nomination come Tuesday night – and maybe much closer, if more superdelegates flip to him between now and then. Clinton will be about 160 short. Given that there are now fewer than 200 uncommitted superdelegates, this is not a slight advantage for Obama – it is overwhelming.
And then there’s the popular vote. While the margin of Clinton’s victory in Puerto Rico is impressive by any standard – and downright stunning in the context of Puerto Rican politics, where elections are almost always single-digit games – Sunday’s result actually makes it virtually impossible that she will be able to claim a popular-vote victory after Tuesday.
The reason: Low turnout. By early Sunday evening, 93 percent of the vote had been tabulated and the likely final turnout was on pace to be about 375,000. Given Puerto Rico’s size, this isn’t bad on its face, but it is lower – far, far lower – than what respected U.S. political analysts based projections on and what the Clinton campaign hoped for.
If we assume a final Puerto Rico turnout of 375,000 and give Clinton 68 percent of that (her share of the vote with 93 percent of all ballots tabulated), then she will finish the day trailing Obama by 288,285 votes in the overall popular vote. This count includes every U.S. state and possession that conducted an authorized primary or a caucus in which an exact popular vote tally was maintained.
But this figure now needs to be adjusted, in the wake of Saturday’s meeting of the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, which voted to seat a convention delegation from Florida based entirely on the results of that state’s January primary – in effect, granting recognition to that contest. At the same time, the committee did not grant similar recognition to the January primary in Michigan, which was much more deeply flawed (two of the three major candidates in the race weren’t on the ballot) than Florida’s. Instead, the R.B.C. voted to seat a delegation from Michigan based on a compromise formula – and not based solely on the January primary.
It is, therefore, reasonable to now add Florida’s primary results to our national popular-vote tally, but to leave Michigan’s (in which only Clinton received actual votes) out. And with Florida and Puerto Rico both factored in, Clinton actually does take a tiny lead of about 6,000 votes.
But that 6,000-vote margin will not last long. Obama is widely expected to win Montana in a rout on Tuesday and is the heavy favorite to prevail in South Dakota, though not by as wide a margin. Between the two states, he can be very conservatively expected to net an additional 25,000 popular votes – and possibly many more, if he does post a blowout in South Dakota. Clinton’s popular-vote edge will not survive Tuesday.
Moreover, this popular-vote count does not include four states – Iowa, Washington, Maine and Nevada – that held fully legal and authorized caucuses in which no exact popular-vote tally was maintained. Obama won three of these four states (losing only Nevada, and narrowly) and, according to a widely accepted estimate, received about 110,000 more votes than Clinton between them.
Without these four caucus states factored in, Obama will finish Tuesday with a narrow – but undeniable – victory in the popular vote. If you do factor the caucus states in, his margin will only grow. But either way, Clinton will not be able to credibly argue that she has won the popular vote. She may still make the claim, but it will be based on specious math: crediting herself with, in essence, 328,000 bonus votes from Michigan’s discredited primary, where Obama technically received zero. Under any other formula, she will fall short.
That’s why the Puerto Rico result has to be so disappointing for the Clinton campaign. Bullish forecasts of a turnout of one million (based on the high turnout typical in intra-commonwealth elections) created hopes of a plurality of 200,000 votes or more. And if she had netted such a margin, it probably would have been enough to give her an overall popular-vote victory. But because of the low turnout, she will only net 140,000 votes out of the island, and that just isn’t enough.
Nor should it be much of a surprise that the number ended up well short of what was needed. We got frequent updates in the past few weeks from Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, a Puerto Rican elections expert who said he was mystified by the expectations of high turnout. Residents of the commonwealth, he told us, don’t really care about mainland politics, unless the issue of status is involved – which it wasn’t in the Clinton-Obama race. He suggested a turnout of about 500,000 to 600,000 would be more likely – and even that, he cautioned, might be on the high end. (It was.)
Puerto Rico gave Clinton one last chance to celebrate a victory in this campaign. But it didn’t give her nearly enough votes to ward off the inevitable conclusion.