“It depends what your definition of ‘win’ is,” said Keith Olbermann on MSNBC last night as he watched the Ohio returns roll in. And, in a phrase, Olbermann delineated the journalistic quandary. How to reconcile what clearly looked like a win for Hillary Clinton—with the obligatory rain of confetti and triumphal speech—with the reality that her victories in three of the four primaries yesterday did not really even dent Barack Obama’s commanding lead in delegates, the factor that, more than any other, will determine who secures the nomination in Denver.
As I wrote earlier this week, the days leading up to Tuesday’s contest saw pundits moving away from delegate-counting and talking more about momentum and whether Hillary could recapture it. This was a framing of the race that clearly favored Clinton, since no matter how well she did last night, there was no way she was going to overtake Obama in hard numbers. Her last, best hope was to start looking like a winner again, even if she wasn’t any closer to reaching the magic delegate number. With tangible victories, she could spin a new narrative that portrayed Obama as unable to seal the deal and herself as more capable of beating John McCain.
But for a few caveats uttered last night, the press’s focus on momentum held. And it allowed Hillary to come out looking good.
Even John King, the numbers nerd of CNN, with his big map breaking down counties into their delegate yields, had to admit that for Clinton last night, “more than it’s about math, it’s about stopping Obama’s momentum, changing the psychology of the Democratic party.” And it’s a feat that, in the eyes of the commentators watching her popular vote victories, she managed to pull off.
Just look at some of the newspaper headlines this morning for evidence that her new “momentum” is now at the center of the coverage, with reminders of Obama’s strong delegate numbers appearing only in the body of the articles. “Clinton Victories in Texas and Ohio; Says Campaign Has ‘Turned a Corner,’” reads the home page of The New York Times Web site in a typical headline. The Washington Post is slightly more even-handed, with its “Democratic Race Unsettled,” and, further down on its home page, “Big Wins, Tough Math.” But probably the more accurate rubric for this moment would have been the one CNN chose to scrawl across its screen this morning: “What Happens Now?”
The shift to a momentum-watch favored more than just Clinton and her campaign—it’s hard to imagine what the Russerts and Blitzers would have done last night without a “win” (or a death-blow) to watch for, and then declare. It’s become the ritual of these primary evenings, one that is hard to upend. There is a neat, three-act structure: pore over the exit polls, wait for numbers, then rush to project a winner. There was no way the pundits were going to spend much time qualifying the “win” and explaining its context—that just isn’t good TV. Though, to be fair, there was a bit of this tossed into the mo’ mix.
The most important question, which Michael Crowley at The New Republic was prescient enough to ask yesterday morning in a blog post, is what happens “the day after,” that is, today? Does the press shift back to zeroing in on delegate math or does it come down to perception, which candidate appears to have the strongest wind at his or her back? As Crowley wrote, “Whoever wins that argument is what will decide whether Hillary survives to fight another day.”
Considering how much more exciting—and easy—it is to focus on momentum, especially with so far still to go until the next significant primary, in Pennsylvania on April 22, the press would be wise to keep reminding itself of the much more reality-based measure of delegate counts. Not that this is the only factor to consider; momentum, after all, could affect the decision-making of the critical superdelegates. But the math, as we are occasionally reminded, “doesn’t lie.” Or, to be a little more colorful about it, as Joe Scarborough said to Pat Buchanan last night on MSNBC after Buchanan declared that if Obama doesn’t win, “the soufflé falls”: “I don’t know if the soufflé falls, because the chef still has more butter in the pantry.”Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.