A Big Clinton Win That Doesn’t Change Anything

“It is a fact,” Clinton said in her victory speech, “that no Democrat has won the White House since 1916 without winning West Virginia.”

It’s a line the Clinton campaign has been pressing relentlessly this past week in anticipation of her blowout victory there tonight.

And it’s true that no Democrat since Woodrow Wilson has won the presidency without West Virginia. But the exact same is true about Minnesota – a state where Obama crushed Clinton back on February 5. And Minnesota is every bit the swing state that West Virginia is. (Actually, it’s more of one: In 2004, George W. Bush won West Virginia by 13 points, while John Kerry won Minnesota by three. Plus, Minnesota is worth twice as many electoral votes – 10 – as West Virginia and its five.)

So what does Clinton’s argument really mean? Based on the states-we’ve-needed-since-1916 standard, Democrats would pick up West Virginia with Clinton, but wouldn’t Minnesota then be at risk – meaning a net loss of five electoral votes?

Or maybe that’s making too much of the voting histories of both states. After all, Democrats have only won three truly close presidential races since 1916: Harry Truman in 1948, John F. Kennedy in 1960, and Jimmy Carter in 1976. The fact that Minnesota and West Virginia happened to be on board in all three of those races is more coincidental than anything else. The electoral map and the cultural and demographic trends within both states have undergone countless facelifts in that time.

The other Democratic wins in the last 92 years were lopsided – the FDR landslides, LBJ in 1964, and Bill Clinton in 1992 and ’96 – with the party carrying many states. That Minnesota and West Virginia were part of the parade of Democratic states in those elections says very little.

Of course, the Clinton campaign is now bound, for as long as it remains in operation, to try to sell the notion that there is some magical connection between winning the West Virginia primary and the presidency.

On CNN earlier tonight, Howard Wolfson explained the significance of tonight’s result by saying that although “the media has been telling everyone that Barack Obama is the presumptive nominee,” voters came out “in overwhelming number” for Hillary Clinton.

But the West Virginia result was actually entirely consistent with the media’s declaration that the race is all but over. Obama has amassed an insurmountable lead in pledged delegates and in any fair calculation of the popular vote. The steady stream of superdelegates to Obama after North Carolina and Indiana only strengthened this narrative, just as Clinton’s giant-as-expected win in West Virginia does nothing to weaken it. This was not, realistically, a take-that-you-media-bastards moment.

Even the Florida and Michigan issue, which Wolfson gamely pushed, won’t change any of that.

At best, Clinton would post a net gain of 56 delegates if both states were counted based on the January numbers (with Obama receiving the 55 uncommitted delegates from Michigan, where his name wasn’t on the ballot). Even then she would still trail by well over 100 pledged delegates, a number that could reach as high as 150 depending on the final primary results in Oregon, Puerto Rico, Montana, and South Dakota. Moreover, as we pointed out last week, even counting Michigan and Florida won’t put Clinton in any better position to claim a popular vote victory for the primary season.

And that’s the best-case scenario for Clinton. Any decision to seat Florida and Michigan will be the result of a compromise, and even some in the Clinton camp have suggested they could live with cutting in half the number of delegates Florida receives – shrinking Clinton’s net delegate gain from that state to just 19. A similar compromise will undoubtedly dilute her Michigan margin.

Wolfson contended at another point that turnout in the Florida and Michigan primaries was unusually high.

“They came out in droves – record numbers,” he said.

This effort to legitimize the results from both states is hollow. Turnout for the Democratic primary in Michigan was 594,398. In Florida, it was 1,895,275. Those numbers may sound big – Wolfson continually referred to the “millions” of people who had voted – but compared to states where legitimate primaries were held, they are alarmingly low.

Consider that in South Carolina, a solidly Republican state, 529,771 people voted in the Democratic primary – nearly the same number that voted in Michigan, as state that is more than twice as big. In fact, almost 300,000 more people voted in Michigan’s Republican primary than in the Democratic contest – bucking the trend that’s been evident in just about every other state this year of higher Democratic turnout. Again, look at South Carolina – a very red state – where 80,000 fewer people voted in the Republican primary than in the Democratic primary.

Florida was no different: nearly 200,000 more Republican primary ballots were cast than Democratic. This is clear evidence that hundreds of thousands of Democratic voters stayed home in Michigan and Florida.

And that’s not even getting into the absence of Obama’s name from the Michigan ballot. Polls in the state showed, and have shown since the primary, Obama running neck-and-neck with Clinton. So while many Obama supporters did cast ballots for “uncommitted” in the Michigan primary, the 40 percent total for uncommitted – versus 55 percent for Clinton – almost certainly understates his support in the state. Plus, his name was missing from the ballot because the Democratic National Committee refused to sanction the contest and extracted pledges from each candidate – Clinton included – not to campaign there. Obama was hardly alone in taking this step; John Edwards, whose campaign manager once represented Michigan in Congress, also had his name scratched. Clinton was the only top-tier candidate not to do this.

When Wolfson was asked about Obama’s missing name, he didn’t skip a beat.

“He took his name off the ballot, presumably because he thought he wasn’t going to win,” he said.

It didn’t look like he was kidding.

A Big Clinton Win That Doesn’t Change Anything