Finally, Pennsylvania Votes. Now What?

Thank God it’s just about over. The 42-day gap between Mississippi’s March 11 primary and today’s contest in Pennsylvania has taxed the patience and energy of even the most dogged political junkies, mostly because, when all is said and done, so little is actually at stake.

Obviously, if Barack Obama were somehow to engineer an outright victory, then something very significant will have been decided in Pennsylvania: the Democratic primary. But that’s not likely.

Instead, the overwhelmingly probable result of the Pennsylvania vote will be a continuation of the state of limbo in which the Democratic race has been suspended since March 4, when Obama missed his first chance to flush Hillary Clinton from the running once and for all. When Clinton won Ohio and Texas that night, she had ample justification to press ahead with her bid, even if the overall numbers—thanks to the 11 almost uncontested landslides that Obama racked up in the weeks before March 4—indicated she had little real chance of claiming the nomination.

Nothing in the month-and-a-half since Ohio and Texas has changed that reality. In fact, it’s only been reinforced.

Obama’s win in Wyoming and Mississippi in the days after Ohio and Texas showed—yet again—that momentum is not much of a factor in this Democratic contest. It is instead a battle between two massive and wildly different coalitions. In some states, Obama’s coalition is more prominent; in other states, Clinton’s is. Overall, Obama’s is slightly larger, accounting for his 700,000-vote edge in popular votes (or more if you were to factor in the caucus states where official vote counts weren’t conducted) and his lead of 166 among pledged delegates.

This pattern makes Pennsylvania perfectly tailored to demographic perfection for Clinton. But it also means almost-guaranteed Obama wins in North Carolina, Oregon, Montana and South Dakota, states that will vote in May and early June (just as it means Clinton likely wins in West Virginia, Kentucky, Puerto Rico and possibly Indiana). Simply put, Obama has too much built-in support in the remaining states to squander his 700,000 popular vote advantage. And there is no reasonable chance Clinton will overcome—or even dramatically eat into—Obama’s pledged delegate lead either.

This is highly significant because the importance of the popular-vote tally and the pledged-delegate count has become clear in the run-up to Pennsylvania. Clinton’s only hope of wresting the nomination rests on an overwhelming share of the remaining 300 or so undecided superdelegates decisively breaking her way. Technically, they are free to vote for anyone they wish, for any reason. But the superdelegate issue is more sensitive this year than ever before—much more so than in 1984, the last time they were poised to play kingmaker. Simply put, there is profound sensitivity among party leaders—i.e. superdelegates—about arousing the cries of disenfranchisement that would come with overriding “the will of the people.” Therefore, to have even the pretense of a moral claim to the remaining superdelegates, Clinton must win the cumulative popular vote.

That seems like a lost cause. The momentum-less pattern of this primary season described above ensures that, even with a healthy win in Pennsylvania, she can’t catch Obama. And her hope for a re-vote in Florida, where she’d stand to reap a net gain of several hundred thousand votes, now appears dead. The best the Clinton campaign can do now is to finish the primary season close enough behind Obama in popular votes to claim that the margin would have been erased with a new vote in Florida. (Michigan is a different matter, since a re-vote there would likely produce a close race, with neither candidate gaining or losing much in terms of popular votes.)

As it is, the writing is on the wall: Since Super Tuesday, Obama has picked up more than 70 new superdelegate endorsements, while Clinton has added fewer than five.

In Pennsylvania, there have been countless polls over the last few weeks, and the results have been all over the map. One will show Clinton ahead by 15 points, another will have her lead dwindling mid-single digits—on the same day! Pennsylvanians could make things very easy for the Democratic Party by handing Obama a win, something that would compel Clinton to drop out (or at least to “suspend” her candidacy—allowing her to hold onto her delegates, in case something yet unforeseen sinks Obama). They don’t seem inclined to do so, though: The margins vary radically, but almost all polls agree that Clinton is ahead, and the results in other large industrial states suggest her coalition is just too well-represented to lose the state.

Because of this, much attention is being paid to the margin of her victory. If it’s a squeaker, some say, Obama will be able to declare a moral victory—“I should have lost by 20!”—and the pressure on Clinton to withdraw will mount. Even if this happens, though, there’s no reason to believe she’ll play along. A win is a win, she’ll say, and no one drops out after a win. Then it’ll be on to Indiana, another state where she has a demographic advantage (although not as pronounced as in Pennsylvania) and where—as in every other contest—the perception won’t really matter.

And if she wins Indiana, it’ll be on to West Virginia and Kentucky. And if she takes those, then to Puerto Rico in early June. And then she’ll make noise about fighting on to the convention. Two things can put a stop to this: 1) a Clinton loss in a state she is supposed to win, or 2) the mass movement of undecided superdelegates to Obama, thereby removing Clinton’s only remaining route to the nomination.

Tonight, she’ll probably get to deliver a victory speech. But it will be, for all practical purposes, just words. Finally, Pennsylvania Votes. Now What?