Maybe, just maybe, it’s now worth at least asking whether Hillary Clinton might wind up as the Democratic candidate for vice president.
When the chatter about a Democratic “dream ticket” began last year, it was easy to dismiss. Either Clinton or Obama would win a clear victory in the primaries and, after what inevitably would be a contentious campaign, each would want as little to do with the other as possible.
Clinton, if she emerged victorious, would instead choose some kind of national security graybeard to her political right, a retired general perhaps, or maybe even a Republican. Likewise, Obama as the presidential nominee, with his future-versus-past emphasis, would recoil at the notion of adding to his ticket a woman who serves as one of the preeminent political and cultural icons of the 1990’s.
More recently, Clinton herself actively stoked the speculation, teasing audiences with talk of a Clinton-led dream ticket. It was, of course, a transparent ploy to undermine Obama’s front-running campaign, but it did raise a practical point: Like it or not, Clinton would probably have no choice but to offer, at least, the vice presidency to Obama if she were to win the nomination, since she’d pretty much have to tear the party apart to secure the top spot. A dramatic outreach to Obama would be a pragmatic necessity.
That’s looking unlikely to matter now. When the primary season ends in early June, Clinton will trail in pledged delegates and almost certainly in popular votes, and it grows clearer by the day that the remaining uncommitted superdelegates will not move as to overrule the primary electorate and hand the nomination to Clinton anyway.
If Obama is the nominee, there’s certainly no reason to think that Obama would want to include her on his ticket, given the hard personal feelings that their nomination battle has generated. Plus, her presence —and the presence of her husband—would threaten to overshadow Obama during the fall campaign. Obama has spent more than a year urging voters to “turn the page” and to move beyond the Clintons and their comfort-food appeal. Wouldn’t it undermine his own message to add Clinton to his ticket?
The problem is that Obama, even though he is the near-certain Democratic nominee, is on pace to win by the smallest margin in the modern era. He will probably beat Clinton by around 125 pledged delegates (out of about 3,200 awarded) and perhaps 500,000 votes (out of about 30 million cast).
Moreover, it seems likely that Clinton will win multiple states between now and the end of the primary season, starting with Pennsylvania on April 22, with follow-up victories in West Virginia, Kentucky and Puerto Rico likely as well—and maybe in Indiana and North Carolina, too. The Michigan and Florida issues may go unresolved as well, leaving Clinton to shout—potentially to great effect—that she’d be on the cusp of overtaking Obama if only those two states could have their voices heard.
In that time, Obama should win his share of primaries, too, with victories in Oregon, South Dakota and Montana very likely, and Indiana and North Carolina as strong possibilities. But it doesn’t look like he’s going to win the nomination going away, like past nominees who have faced only nominal opposition in the late primary states (like Bill Clinton beating Jerry Brown in the spring of 1992) en route to clear first-ballot convention victories.
The divisions within the party could be considerable at that point. A nomination-clinching stampede of uncommitted superdelegates to Obama as soon as the primary season ends—perhaps instigated by Nancy Pelosi—seems likely, but that will leave millions of Clinton supporters bitter and resentful, especially if the Florida and Michigan issues are left unresolved.
Another problem for Obama is what seems to be a widening racial divide, both in the Democratic race and in general-election match-ups with John McCain. Clinton’s strengths—and Obama’s struggles—with working-class white voters are well documented, but are taking on a new urgency in the wake of the Jeremiah Wright controversy.
Before, a compelling case could be made that the working-class whites who have been backing Clinton over Obama were embracing Clinton more than they were rejecting Obama—and that the vast majority of them would vote the Democratic line in the fall no matter which candidate emerged as the nominee. Add in Obama’s superiority over Clinton in attracting independents and Republicans and it was easy to argue that he would run as well as—and, in many cases, better than—her in the fall in just about every swing state, even the ones he lost to her in the primaries.
Now, that’s not quite as clear. As the Wright story exploded, Obama’s numbers imploded in polls in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and North Carolina, a clear sign that a new wave of white voters was moving away from him. This damage may prove fleeting; polls in the coming days, which will measure the impact of Obama’s speech on race, should help answer this question.
But the themes that Obama’s opponents pressed in attacking him over Wright are themes that Republicans will return to throughout the fall campaign, trying to scare those same white voters into abandoning Obama and the Democrats for McCain. Obama may well be capable of preventing these defections with his own personality and message, responding to the fall G.O.P. attacks much the way he responded to the Wright controversy with a masterful and well-received speech.
But he could also reassure those skittish white voters simply by having Clinton, with her demonstrated appeal and her perceived experience, by his side on the campaign trail and on the ballot. It’s not that he’d necessarily want her there—and it’s an open question whether she’d even want to be there herself. But both of them may find the pressure from their party is just too much.