Math Versus Momentum

What mattered the morning after?

Campaign Desk’s Gal Beckerman earlier asked the following question about how the press would today process and present the results of “Junior Super Tuesday:”

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?

Beckerman counseled that while momentum “could affect the decision-making of the critical superdelegates,” “the press would be wise to keep reminding itself of the much more reality-based measure of delegate counts.”

So: How did the morning after look on television?

A few minutes into NBC’s Today Show this morning, David Gregory distilled things as follows:

Get ready for a new spin war today over what matters in this Democratic race: Is it math or is it momentum?

While “momentum” led on the network morning shows, “math” made an appearance in all the coverage, with NBC stressing it the most and CBS the least.

Hillary Clinton got the first word on NBC’s Today show, which kicked off this morning with a clip from Clinton’s speech last night — “We’re going on, we’re going strong and we’re going all the way!”—followed by Meredith Vieira declaring Clinton “back on track” and having “momentum on her side this morning.” Tim Russert called last night “huge” for Clinton “because she stops Barack Obama’s momentum,” but he noted that Obama has “all the math” on his side. Still, Russert said: “Barack Obama could have put Hillary Clinton away last night if he had beaten her in Ohio and Texas. She is now back. She’ll raise money. She’ll energize her base…”

On ABC, Diane Sawyer greeted Good Morning America’s viewers with images of “a resurgent Senator Clinton” and a “regrouping” Senator Obama and the analysis that “The fight goes on in the race for ‘08. You might say we haven’t seen anything yet” (a notion subtly reinforced —minus Sawyer’s good grammar — by the background music: You ain’t seen nothing yet. B-b-b-b-baby you just ain’t seen nothin’ yet…)

Robin Roberts got to the “math” shortly thereafter: “Now the delegate totals - the all-important delegate totals —1555 for Obama and 1449 for Clinton. The big question, whether Hillary Clinton will be able to capture the remaining delegates, enough of the remaining delegates to get the nomination.”

And then it was back to “momentum,” with Kate Snow reporting from Ohio that “the song [Hillary Clinton] came out to” before her speech last night was Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising and “that pretty much says it all. She is on the rise now…” Weighing in from Texas, David Wright declared yesterday “a huge setback for Obama” who “out-spent Clinton 2:1 hoping to win in Ohio and Texas and he failed to do that.” And then, the “math:”

WRIGHT: The silver lining…[Obama] went into last night with a healthy lead among the delegates and emerged with that delegate lead intact. He’s going to argue moving forward, even if Clinton won every remaining primary by a healthy margin, she still can’t close the gap. The math is on his side. The problem is, the momentum is now with Senator Clinton…

On CBS, viewers of The Early Show began the morning with the news that Hillary Clinton is “back” (“She’s Back!” read the chryon) and Harry Smith’s analysis that “it ain’t over till it’s over.” While CBS viewers were reminded of the latest delegate counts, Clinton’s “math” problem was not addressed as directly as it was on the other networks —and, as Clinton (and Obama) made the rounds on the morning shows, only CBS didn’t explicitly ask her about it. The closest Harry Smith got was this:

So, lots of smiles this morning. All kinds of momentum. Here’s the problem for the Democratic party. You’re not going anywhere. He’s not going anywhere. He has a lead in delegates. How far will this go, and will it — could it break the party?

From networks to newspapers: What did the major dailies do with the Mo’/math problem?

Most stories made mention of how difficult—some say impossible—it will prove to be for Clinton to close the delegate gap with Obama, even given her wins in Texas and Ohio.

The New York Times’ Adam Nagourney wrote that Clinton’s wins in Ohio and Texas “gave her, at the least, a psychological boost…But she will continue to find herself in a difficult position mathematically. Given the way the Democratic party allocates delegates, it remained unclear whether Mrs. Clinton would close Mr. Obama’s lead on that front.”

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz and Jon Cohen went the same route, writing that

Clinton still faces daunting odds in her bid for the nomination. Obama began the day with a lead in pledged delegates that will be hard for her to overcome in the 12 primaries and caucus remaining, despite the results from the four states voting yesterday. But her advisers said that the big win in Ohio alone would force a serious look at both candidates and that the race was far from over.

In another front page piece in the Post, headlined “CLINTON: Energizing Victories, But Difficult Delegate Math,” reporters Peter Baker and Anne E. Kornblut laid this out even more explicitly, writing that some in the Clinton camp have come to the realization that it would be “enormously difficult” for Clinton to gain more pledged delegates than Obama. “By some calculations, Clinton would need to win more than 60 percent of the vote in the dozen contests remaining between now and June 7 to catch Obama in pledged delegates — a steep challenge…”

The one big paper that didn’t seem to get the memo was the Los Angeles Times. The paper’s Peter Wallsten focused on the atmospherics of the race in a front pager headlined “Going negative proved positive in Clinton’s comeback.” Wallsten war-gamed strategies the Clinton and Obama camps might take now that the rhetoric of the race has gone negative. In the other election-related LAT front page story, reporter Mark Z. Barabak made several references to Barack Obama’s lead in the delegate count, without ever coming out and giving a sense of how hard it is going to be for Hillary to close the gap with him.

Yes, math is hard and — to quote Beckerman again — “Big Mo’ is tempting.” But readers and viewers need both to get the full picture.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Liz Cox Barrett and Paul McLeary are staff writers at CJR.