Here’s a question worth pondering: How much of this can Hillary Clinton take?
It’s hardly news that she lost all three Democratic contests on the board tonight. But it is news that she couldn’t even keep them close. In Nebraska and Washington, Barack Obama crushed her with nearly 70 percent of the caucus vote. And in Louisiana, where a primary was held, he won with well over 50 percent.
The problem for Hillary is that this may have been a preview of coming attractions. Her strength in the next big state contests—Texas and Ohio—is well established, but those won’t be held until March 4. Between now and then is a string of contests in which Obama could very easily run up victories as lopsided as tonight’s.
In this coming Tuesday’s three contests, Obama is the solid favorite in Virginia, the clear favorite in Maryland, and the prohibitive favorite in the District of Columbia. A week later comes Hawaii—Obama’s native state and also a caucus state, which plays to Obama’s advantage—and Wisconsin, with its rich progressive tradition and tendency to back reformers of the Obama mold.
That creates the possibility of five more blowout wins for Obama—on top of the three he earned tonight—before the race returns to Hillary-friendly turf. It creates an opportunity for Obama to generate the perception of major progress towards the nomination, which could potentially affect the candidates’ standing in Ohio and Texas—sort of the way Rudy Giuliani’s long, dark early and mid-January undermined his standing in Florida.
This makes tomorrow’s Maine caucuses even more important for Clinton. She has targeted the state aggressively, dispatching both her husband and her daughter to campaign for her and making a swing herself this weekend. She has the backing of the state’s Democratic governor and has fared well in the Northeast and New England so far this year. Maine is a winnable state for her—and a victory would allow her to avoid a month-long dry-spell between Super Tuesday and March 4.
Beyond that, her campaign’s survival strategy for the rest of February will involve continuing to tamp down expectations—they put out the word several days ago that they don’t expect to win before March 4, potentially amplifying the value of a Maine (or even Virginia) victory—and Hillary Clinton herself has been downplaying Obama’s successes in caucuses states like Nebraska and Washington, suggesting that the caucus participation demands a time commitment that many working-class voters can’t afford to make.
In fairness, even if she does strike out for the rest of this month, it probably won’t be nearly as catastrophic for Hillary as Giuliani’s miserable early state showing was.
There is a school of thought that the Democratic race has essentially been divided into two immovable camps. Hillary has women, older voters, working-class whites and Hispanics, while Obama’s coalition includes blacks, younger voters, affluent and educated whites, and political independents. Winning states where his coalition is stronger, under this theory, won’t produce any meaningful momentum for Obama in states where Clinton’s coalition makes her the favorite. Under this logic, the race is doomed to wrap up after Puerto Rico in early June in something close to a deadlock, with the 796 superdelegates making the difference.
But Obama won big tonight. And he will probably win big many more times before March 4. And if he wins on Tuesday, he will be able to boast of winning twice as many contests as his opponent. To the extent momentum will be a factor in Texas and Ohio, Obama will have it on his side.