Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Fat Lady Squeaks out a Note or Two?

I can't believe I'm publicly defending a Clinton on anything, least of all their right to continue an election, but I think reports of Hillary's death are exaggerated.

Well, actually that's not quite the way to put it. Two days after Indiana/Carolina, it's become hard to imagine that Obama won't be the nominee - but not, crucially, because of the results on Tuesday. It's more to do with the popular interpretation of them.

A typical case would be this piece in TIME:


But while the upcoming primaries in West Virginia and Kentucky will undoubtedly test the resolve of pundits whose eulogies for the Clinton campaign can be undone by the whiff of "momentum," we've already seen the final round.


And John Zogby:


I honestly believe that she will find a way to get out of the race before the next primaries - so as to not hurt her future and to not be blamed for hurting Mr Obama and his chances in the general election.



And John Judis in New Republic:


The Democratic primary is over. Hillary Clinton might still run in West Virginia and Kentucky, which she'll win handily, but by failing to win Indiana decisively and by losing North Carolina decisively, she lost the argument for her own candidacy.


And George Will gets really nasty, with an uncharacteristically flawed analogy about a World Series where you count total runs rather than total games won.

So it goes, commentary after commentary: the consensus is that Obama cinched the nomination in spirit, if not officially quite yet, on Tuesday.

The trouble is, I don't think he did. Here's why. It's not unreasonable to think that Clinton can take West Virginia by close to 70%. This is exactly her demographic - and if she wins by that kind of margin, she'll have reset the game, both in delegates (there are 28 - 21 for her would erase what Obama gained Tuesday) and the popular vote (in which she had a slight lead on Tuesday - and will again after West Virginia). This is followed by Kentucky and Oregon, which amounts to a repeat of Tuesday on grounds more favorable to Clinton. Kentucky will go for her, Oregon for Obama, but the delegate count is roughly even at this point, and there's a good chance Clinton will win Kentucky more decisively than Obama wins Oregon. What happens with Puerto Rico is anyone's guess (these are not the same "Latinos" that the media talks about when it talks about the "Latino vote" in the US), but if Clinton won that too, she'd be convincingly ahead in the popular vote and would have narrowed the gap in delegates at the 11th hour.

George Will's analogy is striking for its flaws. Of course he isn't actually saying that politics is like baseball, but he is saying that like any other game, politics means nothing if not played by the rules. But Clinton is playing by the rules. The rules say you need 2025 delegates to cross the threshold. Obama isn't there yet, so the game goes on, right? Going with Will's baseball analogy, it would be like a World Series where the game was a virtual tie, and as soon as one team pulled ahead they chopped off all the other innings. Not fair. The rules allow Clinton to keep going, so why shouldn't she? Indeed, things seem likely to go her way in the final rounds.

The only answer I can think of is that media coverage hasn't tended to emphasize these facts, but has instead chosen to call the game before it's over. And so the game is over - because going on to narrow the gap and pick up superdelegate votes in this kind of atmosphere will render Hillary unelectable in the general contest. Public consensus, if not a measured majority, is that she should step aside - and so I guess she has to.

But in her defense, this seems like a really hasty and emotional way for a party to choose its nominee, and the irony is that it's almost certainly making the wrong choice. I think Obama will prove to be a paper tiger in the real contest. No use counting him out, of course - he's a very good speaker, charismatic. But I don't think his fuzzy-light message of hope as panacea is going to play as well with the general electorate as it does with the Democratic Party faithful. More to the point, his core constituency of blacks and latte drinkers doesn't reach into enemy territory at all (whereas McCain, by comparison, is pretty good at picking up support from Democrats). John Judis (previous link) compares him to George McGovern. I think that comparison is apt.

So far, Zogby's predicted "30 or so superdelegates declaring for Obama" haven't materialized. That's a good sign that the DNC isn't sold on Obama just yet. But if the commentators keep talking like they're talking, the DNC's not going to have a choice but to hand it to him.

Any way you look at it, it's a mess, and the Democrats might want to seriously rethink the way they run their primaries ahead of 2012. For my part, even though I don't have a horse in this race (I vote Libertarian), I find the whole situation frustrating. I'm no fan of Hillary Clinton, but neither am I a fan of a political system where "momentum" counts more than the official measure of support. It would be better to hold judgment and let the contest run to the end. But I suppose we'll know in a day or two. If the superdelegates are going to pull plug on this one, they need to do it sooner rather than later. The night of the West Virginia primary (next Tuesday!) will be too late.

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