After the split decision in Iowa and New Hampshire, when it became abundantly clear that the race for the Democratic nomination would be tighter than any in recent memory, the pundits and news analysts begin doing a lot of math. The dominant conventional wisdom was that this contest was going to turn into a fight for every delegate, both the super kind and your average, everyday kind. “It’s all about the delegates,” we kept hearing on the numerous Super Tuesdays of the last two months. In many ways this was a real departure from how primary races had been covered in the past. Over the past thirty years, the question was always, who has the momentum? Who’s got the money and the attention and the look of a winner? In the past, there was always one person who fit that bill after the first few races. This time around, though, with the two candidates switching back and forth as underdog and frontrunner, the less glamorous but more exact science of delegate counting became the lens through which the fight for the nomination needed to be viewed.
This was true of Super Tuesday and the eleven contests—all won by Barack Obama—that followed it. Even though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in the large states of New York and California, this did nothing for her chances. The focus was not on the momentum she should have accrued from these victories, but the paltry number of delegates that she ended up winning. And Obama’s frontrunner status has been a result of having racked up both pledged delegates in last month’s primaries and superdelegates who have come over to his side. He has, give or take a dozen, depending on who’s counting, about a hundred delegate lead on her.
If we kept looking at this race through the prism of delegate counts, Obama would be unbeatable. A few have commented authoritatively on this, but let’s just take the words of Chuck Todd, NBC’s political director, as quoted by Tim Russert on Meet the Press yesterday: “According to our delegate math, Clinton winning both Ohio and Texas by 52 to 48 would net her a combined five to six delegates. Yet toss in a potential Obama landslide in Vermont, and then her net March 4 haul could be as little as two to five delegates.” So, really, nothing short of a miracle for Hillary will change the reality that in the concrete terms of delegate numbers, he comes out of tomorrow night still very much the leader.
But what fun what it be to acknowledge that? So instead, the framing has shifted and the press is once again talking about this race in terms of who’s got the big mo. There’s no other reason to explain the amount of attention being given tomorrow’s elections. The only difference they could make is in changing the narrative. For example, again, on Meet the Press, Mary Matalin talked about Hillary’s prospects purely in terms of narrative-changing. After the table of political gurus, including Bob Shrum and Matalin’s hubby, James Carville, acknowledged that the numbers were against Clinton, Matalin made the point that what she would win by taking Ohio and Texas will be the chance to impose a new story-line on Obama: “She may not have a compelling narrative for herself, but she will create a compelling non-narrative, a negative narrative for him. ‘He can’t close the deal.’”
Examples of momentum talk abound, including the headline of a New York Times piece today, “Clinton Campaigns as if Momentum is Hers.” The Clinton people certainly want everyone to take their eyes off the numbers and focus instead on perception. “Penn Credits ‘3 AM’ Ad with Momentum,” screams a headline on The Washington Post blog, The Trail. Obama’s people have no choice but to talk about momentum as well, but negatively, as in, a win by Clinton should not be played as a giant success. “It is clear that narrow popular vote wins in Texas and Ohio will do very little to improve their nearly impossible path to the nomination,” wrote David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, in a memo today.
This shift of attention to momentum certainly helps Hillary. Since Plouffe is right and she has nearly insurmountable odds when it comes to the delegate count, this type of talk can help her to convince people to ignore the math and choose a winner. It brings her into the conversation, allows these races to be presented as a “showdown” of two candidates who each have as much to win or lose.
But reverting to momentum also helps the media. It makes the race seem like a nail-biter for a few more weeks, gives the graphics department at MSNBC and CNN another chance to come up with an even more bombastic Super Tuesday promo, promises another evening of high ratings. In short, it’s good for business. Reporters love the drama of it all, and were kind of bummed when it seemed the whole race was going to hinge on who could wrangle together more superdelegates. So keeping it alive—which only a focus on momentum could achieve—pumps more blood into the race, maintaining an exciting news story for a few more days.
The real question is what happens tomorrow night when momentum crashes up against reality. Even if it is a big night for Hillary, the game board will still read hundred points more for Obama. Then the real complications start. Does the press return to seeing this as a race for delegates or does it continue to be seen, as it has the last few days, as a contest for who has the strongest wind at their back?Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.