Press Declares Victory, Even If Obama Won’t

What, exactly, happened in Iowa last night?

On Sunday, The New York Times, published a piece entitled “Obama to Return to Iowa, Possibly to Declare Victory.” It reported that at the just-announced event, Obama “could end up with enough pledged delegates to proclaim, without fear of contradiction, that he is now the Democratic nominee for president.”

The next day’s paper carried a correction, acknowledging a clear goof: barring a pre-voting avalanche of superdelegates, the best Obama could hope for on Tuesday night would be to cinch a majority of pledged delegates—those decided through caucuses and primaries.

That’s a victory, perhaps. But not, just yet, “victory.”

As the Times demonstrated, this was a sticky point for the press.

Back on May 8, The Politico quoted an “Obama senior advisor” saying the campaign planned to “declare victory” on May 20. That set the table for a big night. When the campaign’s schedule was e-mailed to reporters on Saturday, the occasion’s venue—an outdoor street rally in Des Moines, the city where Obama had celebrated his victory in the Iowa caucuses over five months ago—made the symbolism seem clear. “We thought it was a terrific way to kind of bring things full circle,” Obama told reporters in Oregon. Iowa would be the alpha and the omega, if you will.

But the text of Obama’s speech last night was somewhat more circumspect.

Fifteen months ago, in the depths of winter, it was in this great state where we took the first steps of an unlikely journey to change America… And tonight, in the fullness of spring, with the help of those who stood up from Portland to Louisville, we have returned to Iowa with a majority of delegates elected by the American people, and you have put us within reach of the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.

For Obama, that omega is “within”—but still just out of—“reach.”

Before Obama spoke, Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s spokesman, raised hell with reporters in an e-mailed release and on a conference call, warning that any Obama declaration of victory would be seen as “a slap in the face” to Clinton’s supporters. The Obama campaign dialed back, as they tried to thread the needle of moving on to a head-to-head contest with John McCain while seeming to allow Clinton to leave the race on her own terms and thereby not alienating her supporters.

Luckily for the Clinton campaign, on last night’s to-declare-or-not-declare question, the math is technically, if just barely, with them.

The press followed suit, in part, taking care to note that Obama’s speech was missing an explicit declaration of victory.

But the Obama campaign was still able to highlight the symbolic importance of crossing the majority line of 1,627 pledged delegates. Given that marker, there was a conspicuous absence from last night’s cable commentary, and from this morning’s coverage in the Times and The Washington Post: any mention of the handful of unannounced superdelegates (the tip of the iceberg, in all likelihood) who have publicly said, in one way or another, that the superdelegates should support the candidate who wins the pledged delegate count.

Obscurity is not an excuse. The most prominent among these remaining superdelegates is some guy from Georgia named Jimmy Carter. There’s also Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House who will chair the Denver convention. (It’s worth noting that almost a quarter of the undeclared superdelegates are House Democrats—in other words, Pelosi’s charges. A subset are members of Pelosi’s leadership team.)

Even without this straw, after Clinton’s squeaker in Indiana two weeks ago, the press at last concluded that the camel’s back was broken. And laudably, last night, reporters and pundits continued to note that the math virtually dictates that the nomination is out of Clinton’s reach, despite mammoth victories in West Virginia and Kentucky.

Just before Obama took the stage, Chris Matthews and Tim Russert were speaking on MSNBC. Russert reiterated his conventional wisdom-ratifying declaration that, after North Carolina and Indiana, everyone knew Obama would emerge the nominee.

Matthews followed up with this plaint:

I wonder if there is any other way to report what you just did, Tim, objectively, because if the media did not offer up the mathematical reality and simply continued reporting as if the contest was still, in effect, as if there was still a doubt to its outcome. I wonder how that would be received by either side in this conflict?

Russert responded:

That what it means to report. It’s intellectual honesty. It is gathering all the data, all the facts, and then discussing them with people involved in the process, to make sure, to confirm what you’re finding. And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for the last several weeks. Now some people may not want to accept that, or to deny it.

He was talking about Clinton supporters, who earlier that night in Louisville had booed along with Clinton as she attacked analysts and pundits who would dare to count her out.

But last night, at least, Obama chose to play down the math, too.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.