Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A Frustrating Result

Last night's election results are frustrating. For me personally because I predicted different, for Democrats because it's just barely close enough that Hillary doesn't have to stand aside, and the electorate in general because we still don't know who the Dem nominee will be.

I mean, I guess conventional wisdom this morning is that we can say with reasonable certainty it will be Obama. But here's the thing. Until yesterday, Hillary had him beat in popular vote, and she's still leading him (barely) in superdelegates. And as dumb luck has it, West Virginia and Nebraska are next, both of whch will hand her wins, West Virginia probably by a huge margin. So in less than 7 days she'll be ahead in the popular vote again - probably by about the same margin she was going in to North Carolina/Indiana. And while she won't have exactly brought the delegate gap into a statistical tie, she'll be looking better on that front by May 13th too. After that is Kentucky and Oregon, which have roughly the same number of delegates, on May 30th, which won't solve anything because Kentucky will go for Clinton and Oregon for Obama. Since Kentucky is more likely to go strong for Clinton than Oregon is to go strong for Obama, Clinton will in all likelihood make her popular vote buffer zone more convincing there, and may close the delegate gap a little more. Depending on how all that came out, she might well have been looking like the better choice for nominee by the end of May.

But there was one - and now there are two - trumps still out there. The first one, of course, is superdelegate pledges. More on that in a moment. The second one is that Puerto Rico has switched to a primary, which means it has to be held on June 1st now, and turnout and results will be less predictable. More to the point, results will be more even than they would have been under Puerto Rico's normal caucus approach. DNC rules require primaries to be proportional representation, and since the election will not have been decided by the time it rolls around, and since this is Puerto Rico's only chance for a long time to decide an American election, we can imagine that turnout will be high. And I guess it will largely go for Obama, though almost certainly not enough to put him over the top after Kentucky and West Virginia.

So here's where it gets complicated. On the one hand, the DNC will have a stake in not letting Puerto Rico decide its nominee for it. And it will definitely have a stake in not letting Kentucky and West Virginia trump Obama's current mildly-convincing lead. It will want to go into the convention with at least the illusion that the party base united behind one of the two. So this would speak for a flood of superdelegates to Obama. On the other hand, with the election this up-in-the-air, the party will essentially be unable to avoid the charge that the elite ignored the popular will and voted the way it wanted if a flood of superdelegates decides it for Obama before Clinton gets to stage her last act. People will say - and will be right - that Clinton lost because of dumb luck in the primary scheduling. If West Virginia and Kentucky had followed Pennsylvania, things would have been different, etc. Furthermore, it's hard to ignore just how Obama won North Carolina. It was huge turnout in the black vote, obviously - and winning that by 91-6. Obama's win in NC, while convincing, was hugely demographically lopsided, and still raises serious questions about his general-election viability. If he's only able to win blacks and latte-drinkers, it won't be enough. For her part, the superdelegates are simply not going to hand Clinton a victory after last night. It would look artificial, to say the least, and it would kill black support. The DNC's caught between a rock and a hard place there. The solid black support for Obama means they can't ignore it, but it's also giving a boost to him that won't be sustainable in the general election. To see why, consider that black voters are overwhelmingly Democrat. Their pull in a general election is considerably less than in the primary - and if even a small percentage of current Clinton supporters jumps party lines in frustration in November, it's enough to put McCain, who was never counting the black vote in his totals anyway, over the top. Ditto, to an only slighly lesser extent, the latte drinkers. Put simply, Obama is winning the constituencies that the Dems don't have to court in the general election because they can always count on them. Clinton's winning the Democrats more likely to end up voting Republican if it comes to that. Meaning: there's more of a danger of bleeding voters if Obama is the nominee than if Clinton is.

I don't know what to make of it all. I'm going to stand by my prediction that Clinton ends up with the nomination for now - but much more timidly than before. Because the hugely unpredictable variable in play right now is the superdelegates. This is going to end up being their decision, and there's a tension there between what's good for the party and what's good for them individually. To the extent that they think Obama has a chance in a general election, the individually smart thing to do is pledge for him early. Because that way, you literally are handing him the election and earning yourself a higher place on the pecking order in the realignment of the DNC that would follow an Obama election win. But it's risky - first because of the real possibility that Obama is unelectable in a general election contest, and second because (and this is just me, I admit) the party hacks are probably hoping for an 11th-hour Clinton win. If you pledge for Obama and lose, the Clinton machine sticks around and is now hostile to you.

Hard to say. Yesterday I thought we'd know by today. Today I think we won't know until June.

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