Obama Can’t Win The Big States?

The argument makes no sense

Ever since Super Tuesday, when Hillary Clinton won California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and her home state of New York, one of her campaign’s favorite pieces of spin (and that’s saying something!) has been that Barack Obama can’t win the “big” states. By and large, the press has done a good job of not buying into this line, but in his “analysis” for The New York Times today, Patrick Healy gives it a lot more respect than it deserves.

Healy writes:

The nomination is not determined by the number of states won, but Mr. Obama’s inability to win major battleground states beyond Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and his home state, Illinois, is a concern of some Democrats - especially since Ohio and Florida have become must-wins in presidential elections.

Healy doesn’t say which Democrats are concerned about this-or, indeed, whether there are any who aren’t affiliated with the Clinton campaign. But leaving that aside, let’s consider how much substance there is to the charge.

It’s hard to tell how the term “major battleground states” is being defined here. But the inclusion of solidly Democratic Illinois makes clear that-despite the final point about Ohio and Florida-we’re not talking about general-election swing states. It seems to mean “states with a large number of delegates at stake.” How many? Healy counts Minnesota and Wisconsin, both of which had eighty-eight delegates at stake, as “major battleground states.” So let’s say that, to qualify as a battleground, a state must have at least that many delegates.

By that definition, the charge doesn’t begin to add up. So far, there have been fourteen contests that have offered eighty-eight or more delegates. Clinton has won six of these (California, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Texas). Obama has won eight (Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Washington, Maryland, Virginia, and Wisconsin.) Even if we throw in Michigan and Florida, where neither candidate campaigned (in Michigan, Obama wasn’t even on the ballot), Clinton has won no more “major battleground states” than has Obama.

It’s true, of course, that Clinton’s wins have generally come in bigger states. But it simply makes no sense that, looking toward November, neutral Democrats would be more concerned about Obama’s losses in solidly blue California, New York, and Massachusetts, or solidly red Texas, than they would be about Clinton’s losses in swing-states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Virginia.

It makes sense that the Clinton campaign would be pushing this notion that Obama can’t win the big states. Given the harsh delegate math, Clinton’s only realistic path to the nomination is to convince the press and the party that, though she trails narrowly in pledged delegates, she’ll nonetheless be the stronger general-election candidate. What doesn’t make sense is why the reporters would buy into it.

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.