Before last night’s voting, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter unveiled the mathematical goods—there is simply no way, short of a miracle, that Hillary Clinton can overtake Obama in the pledged delegate count.
It wasn’t a new point, or one too hard to figure out—it’s been more or less clear since Edwards left the race, and Obama held down Clinton’s Super Tuesday delegate haul with late gains in the northeast.
But having acknowledged Clinton’s impossible odds, it’s now time for the press to sharpen their knives and ask, how, exactly, does the Clinton camp plan on winning this?
The honest answer is one plural, compound word: superdelegates.
And because of the whiff of smoke-filled rooms that the term conjures, the Clinton campaign hasn’t been eager to acknowledge that fact. Clinton and her surrogates have deployed a variety of creative non-answers to parry the question.
“Terry, she’s so far behind in delegates,” MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell said to Clinton campaign chair Terry McAuliffe last night. The implication being, how can she win? McAuliffe answered:
Well, I would remind you that we’ve got 12 states left to vote. We’ve got a lot of delegates still out there We still have a lot of votes to be cast. And we should let the voters of Pennsylvania and West Virginia and Kentucky and all these other states. They ought to be able to go vote. Let’s see how it goes.
That’s true, more or less. But it isn’t an honest forecast, and is a pretty twisted piece of logic—we shouldn’t leave the race out of respect for voters who haven’t yet had a chance to vote, but on the convention floor, we’re going to call in the heavies to overturn the decision of those voters.
The facts are harsh. To overcome the pledged delegate gap, Clinton must find 150 or so uncommitted superdelegates to join her camp—or flip seventy-five-plus of Obama’s pledged delegates who are technically allowed (although unlikely) to vote anyway they like.
It would be naïve to think that there isn’t favor-trading going on behind the scenes as both camps woo the supers. (As an aside, that strikes me as a ripe area for reporting.) But out in the open, Clinton has only one option, and that’s to make a moral case that will win those delegates over.
This rhetorical battlefield is Clinton’s last chance to win. Any electoral “victories” that she can rack up by soldiering on are only arrows in her superdelegate-convincing quiver; they can’t change the fundamentals of the delegate math.
And if that war of ideas and words is the terrain of the race, the press needs to cover it at least as much as it needs to cover Wyoming, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, or, God forbid, Puerto Rico.
This is a two-theater framing battle. Clinton’s arguments focus either on questions of justice, or questions of electability. It’s about fairness and about what’s best for the party in November.
On the fairness front, Clinton’s strongest game-changer would be to win the popular vote. I can imagine many Democrats, still smarting from Bush v. Gore, at least willing to balk at the idea of Obama winning the nomination without winning the raw vote. But even after Clinton’s gains last night, Obama (excluding votes from Michigan and Florida—more on that in a bit) still holds a lead of 600,000. Until that gap is closed, Clinton’s camp will avoid making the popular-vote argument. But watch for it if things really go Clinton’s way in Pennsylvania and later contests.
Any denigration of Obama’s delegate haul from caucus states is, at heart, a fairness argument. We’ve heard talk from Hillary and Bill Clinton about the fundamental unfairness of caucuses: if you work when the caucus is held, too bad; if you can’t find or afford a babysitter, too bad. Watch for this, again, after Wyoming’s Saturday caucus, and if Obama takes the Texas caucus once the counting is done.
As far as electability goes, Clinton can make the same argument she’s made throughout the primary season—some jumble of the words “experience,” “dangerous times,” and “ready to lead”—while re-emphasizing Obama’s perceived vulnerability against John McCain on national security. The “buyer’s remorse” argument is something of a corollary. If she can make the case that voters turned against Obama in the late states, for whatever reason, that points to increasing salience on concerns about his electability in the general.