Rejecting Post-Rationality

The press finds the faith to find the math

This morning, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough—and much of the press—seemed to be of two minds about what last night’s results would mean for Hillary Clinton. “She needs a miracle,” he said. And then, twenty minutes later, as if almost by force of habit: “It’s too early to count her out.”

A race, it seems, is a terrible thing to quit.

Here’s the contest’s fresh terrain, as conventional wisdom sees it: nothing short of a miracle can bring Clinton the nomination. But you still can’t count her out. Entirely. Yet. Maybe. Well, probably.

But don’t take the press’s somewhat confused word for it. At least one Clinton-backer is clearer on the long, long, odds, according to this quote in today’s Washington Post:

Absent some sort of miracle [on Michigan and Florida at the Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting] on May 31st, it’s going to be tough for us,” said a senior Clinton official who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be frank. “We lost this thing in February. We’re doing everything we can now… but it’s just an uphill battle.

Look at the numbers. Clinton would, in a sense, be right to borrow a line that the Obama campaign used after his nine-point loss in Pennsylvania, and point out that, on the math, this is a fundamentally unchanged race. Obama’s commanding victory in North Carolina and his near-tie in Indiana merely means we’re back where we were on the morning of April 22, in both the popular vote and the pledged-delegate count. And, as our “frank”-but-anonymous-source acknowledges, that’s roughly where we’ve been since February.

There is one big-seeming math difference since the day before Pennsylvania: 345 more pledged delegates are off the table (advantage Obama) which makes the numbers look a lot worse for Clinton. But barring “an exogenous variable,” as Chris Matthews put it, we’ve long known the campaigns would more or less split those delegates, and all the other remaining pledged delegates.

Still, it was only last night that Tim Russert rather famously declared, “we now know who the Democratic nominee’s gonna be, and no one’s going to dispute it.” (And unless David Broder finds a way to disagree, that about does it, as far as the Beltway consensus goes.)

In one night, it seems that nothing has changed, and everything has changed. For months, the press has been reluctant to call it quits on Clinton, a candidate who is running a campaign, as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow puts it, that is “post-rational” in its approach to the nomination. All to often, math and momentum were allowed to be non-overlapping magisteria.

Granted, there’s some nuance here. Reverend Wright looked like a speed bump. Michigan and Florida hovered. And Clinton and her allies could always claim coming salvation from the (always dwindling) count of undeclared superdelegates. In theory, they could go anyway they wanted. Dan Abrams, who from one o’clock onward helmed MSNBC’s “After Hours” election coverage—with a house band, lounge music, and no tie—sized up their decision-making this way:

When it comes to superdelegates you’re dealing with a group that is not necessarily dealing with numbers. They’re dealing with momentum, they’re dealing with sentiment, they’re dealing with a gut reaction, they’re dealing with how big a deal is this Reverend Wright thing gonna… whatever the issue is. These superdelegates are dealing on another level.

Agreed—the math isn’t all that mattered to them. But there’s a difference between undeclared and undecided. (CNN’s Donna Brazile, a DNC member and a superdelegate, testily reminded us of that last night.) And many supers—junior House members, candidates fundraising for upcoming elections, leaders from divided states and districts—wanted nothing so much as to keep their heads down.

Anonymity and complexity made all that hard to report. But it was easy to sum up and report the Clinton camp’s arguments about why they might still win enough supers. So that’s what we heard.

Last night, all of those arguments met an ungracious, drawn-out death as the nail-biting Lake County finale—marked by Matthews and Keith Oblermann’s schoolboy belting of The Music Man’s “Gary, Indiana”—highlighted Clinton’s electoral failure. She didn’t meet poll-driven expectations, nor did she dent Obama’s enduring demographic mix. He again overtook her in the popular vote, no matter how you count it. She lost her chance to start a string of last-minute wins to claim late-breaking momentum and general election viability.

In other words, the underpinning of her post-rational candidacy, a set of desperate arguments to a somewhat-specious body of supposedly undecided superdelegates, fell out. And that left the press with just the math.

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