If Pennsylvania Sends a Message, Who Will Listen?

It feels like we’re counting down to something momentous in Pennsylvania. The candidates have practically moved into the state, each new day brings at least one new poll, and Ed Rendell is on one of the cable news channels every 12 minutes or so.

“I keep being told by the press that you people are going to decide this thing,” Stephen Colbert, broadcasting from the City of Brotherly Love, told Mayor Michael Nutter on Monday night. “Do you think that one state should have that kind of power?”

The mayor, a Clinton backer, smiled and replied, “Yeah.”

But Pennsylvania doesn’t have that kind of power—just the illusion of it. The dirty secret is that, for all the suspense over the final result, the outcome of next Tuesday’s primary won’t be determinative. If Barack Obama somehow wins, he’ll be the nominee. But in all likelihood, he’ll lose. And in all likelihood, he’ll be the Democratic nominee anyway.

The problem is that Hillary Clinton, to have any chance at the nomination, must finish the primary season, which will wrap up on June 3, with more pledged delegates or more cumulative popular votes than Barack Obama—and there is no realistic way for her to do this, no matter what happens in Pennsylvania.

Tthe pledged-delegate-popular-vote criteria are hardly official, and there is no official rule that commands that the Democratic nomination be handed to the leader in these categories. And it’s also true that the primary season is likely to end with Obama short of the 2,024 or so delegates required for a first ballot nomination. So Clinton and her supporters can cling to the theoretical truth that the 250 or so remaining uncommitted superdelegates can and will ultimately be persuaded of the wisdom of nominating her, allowing her to nip Obama at the wire.

But there’s no reason to believe that’s going to happen. One by one, superdelegates—including some who now support Clinton—are making it clear that they will embrace Obama should he win the pledged delegate and popular vote races. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, who each lead chambers filled with Democratic superdelegates, have hinted that they’ll lead the charge as soon as the final ballots are tallied on June 3. Clinton’s candidacy, should it last until then, won’t last more than a day or two once the primaries are over.

To understand how unlikely the notion of a last-minute wave of superdelegate endorsements for Clinton is, just consider the trend. Since February 5, when Obama began to edge ahead in the popular vote and pledged delegate categories, he’s picked up nearly 75 new superdelegate endorsements. Clinton is right where she was.

As Obama’s position has strengthened, the trend has only intensified. The notion that 200 superdelegates will suddenly flock to Clinton in early June even after she falls short in the pledged delegate and popular vote categories is not realistic.

That means that her only hope rests on somehow surpassing Obama in one of those two critical categories between now and June. But that’s not going to happen either, no matter how Pennsylvania goes down. Obama’s pledged-delegate advantage is iron-clad. Not even Clinton’s most loyal supporters believe she’ll catch him in that category—even if a delegation based on Florida’s illegitimate January primary were to be seated, thus producing a net gain of 35 delegates for Clinton.

Her popular-vote prospects are bleak to non-existent, too. She trails by more than 700,000 now—and over 800,000 if you count estimates from caucus states that don’t keep official popular-vote tallies. Clinton figures to narrow this gap between now and June, mostly through expected victories in Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico (and perhaps Indiana). She will also argue that Florida’s results should be included in the national tally, which would shave about 295,000 votes from Obama’s overall edge.

But there are also some Obama states on the calendar between now and June, most notably North Carolina and Oregon. Obama should also roll up sizable margins in South Dakota and Montana on June 3, undoing most of the gains Clinton stands to make in West Virginia and Kentucky in May.

The Obama and Clinton coalitions are pretty much locked in place. The idea of momentum carrying over from one state to the next, a staple of past nominating contests, has been discredited after about 40 primaries and caucuses this year. Both candidates have large, loyal and mostly immovable followings. All of the money, campaigning, and news coverage being devoted to Pennsylvania can and will sway some voters, but not many. The same is true in every other state yet to vote.

What all of this means is that the nomination is not at stake next Tuesday. Pennsylvania can more accurately be viewed as a referendum on the duration of Clinton’s campaign: If she wins big, she soldiers on; if she loses, she heads for the sidelines.

If Pennsylvania Sends a Message, Who Will Listen?