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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Is It Over?

Jonathan Alter has a thought-provoking article in the latest Newsweek. He writes:

If Hillary Clinton wanted a graceful exit, she'd drop out now--before the March 4 Texas and Ohio primaries--and endorse Barack Obama...

Withdrawing would be stupid if Hillary had a reasonable chance to win the nomination, but she doesn't. To win, she would have to do more than reverse the tide in Texas and Ohio, where polls show Obama already even or closing fast. She would have to hold off his surge, then establish her own powerful momentum within three or four days. Without a victory of 20 points or more in both states, the delegate math is forbidding. In Pennsylvania, which votes on April 22, the Clinton campaign did not even file full delegate slates. That's how sure they were of putting Obama away on Super Tuesday.

The key word is "reasonable" - as in Hillary doesn't have a reasonable chance to win the nomination. While I agree that Obama stands a much better chance of winning the nomination than Clinton, I think Alter's conclusion is hasty. If she loses either Texas or Ohio next week - the race will end. Nevertheless, let's assume that she wins both, though not by the large margins Alter says she needs. What happens next?

Neither Clinton nor Obama can expect to win the nomination by virtue of the pledged delegates alone. Obama would have to win more than 75% of the remaining delegates. Clinton needs more than are available. Thus, the nominee will have to fill the gap via the super delegates.

This is critically important. The nominee will be the one who makes a compelling argument to a sufficient number of the 795 super delegates. This is the first reason not to be so quick to declare the race finished. Do we know what these delegates are thinking? We have no survey data on them - nothing that gauges their preferences or beliefs. We can easily track how candidates are doing when their audience is the American public. That's what opinion polls are for. We have nothing of the sort for the super delegates.

Even though we do not know what these super delegates will decide, we can draw a general outline of how they might decide. Doing so should demonstrate just how complicated matters could become. Their decision will hinge upon their answers to two general questions:

(A) Which candidate is better for the party?

(B) Which candidate is better for me?

Super delegates are free to answer these questions however they like. They are also free to weigh the answers however they like. They can be selfish or sefless - whichever they prefer. That's what makes them super. This adds another dimension of uncertainty. Not only do we have few indications about their thought processes, we know that their thought processes are unconstrained by any party rules.

Let's take a closer look at each question, beginning with the "What's in it for me?" query. In the 19th century, presidential candidates could use patronage to offer all kinds of perquisites. They cannot do this any longer. So, personal interests will hinge on answers to the following questions:

(1) Which candidate do I prefer?

(2) Which candidate do my constituents - whose support I need for reelection - prefer?

Question (2) will matter less to the super delegates who do not hold elective office. However, it could matter a great deal to those who do, and answers to it could be quite different.

Suppose that House and Senate Democrats, all of whom double as super delegates, decide that they shall reflect the will of their constituents. How would they vote? It depends. Obviously, senators would follow their states. But what would House members do? They might ask:

(a) Do I follow my state's vote?

(b) Do I follow my district's vote?

Their individual answers could have a sizeable cumulative effect. If all Senate and House members follow their state results, Clinton would have 108 super delegates (so far) to Obama's 88. If, on the other hand, House members follow their congressional districts, Clinton would have 86 to Obama's 110. That's a 44 delegate swing - over what is a tiny distinction.

Obviously, some will follow their districts, some will follow their states, and some will support the candidate they personally prefer. Some might not even be moved by personal concerns - and will instead support who is best for the party.

But who the heck is that?

It seems to me that there are at least two ways for a delegate to consider who is best for the party. They could ask:

(1) Which candidate is more able to defeat John McCain?

(2) Which candidate is the legitimate choice of Democrats nationwide?

These two questions are probably not exclusive. The candidate who is perceived to be the choice of the Democratic electorate will probably be better positioned for the general election. That being said, we can still look at each question individually. It is here that the candidates will begin to make real arguments. Each delegate is going to have to make and weigh decisions about their personal interests by themselves. Where the Clinton and Obama "spin" machines can have their greatest effect on the delegates is persuading them that their particular candidate is best for the party.

What could each candidate argue vis-à-vis McCain? Obama can point to his lead in the head-to-head polls as well as the "Obama-mania" that has overtaken part of the country. He can assert that his supporters are more dedicated, and will give him a better donor and volunteer base. Clinton has a good argument, too. She can reference the old adage that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Sure, Obama enjoys this enthusiasm now, but it only matters if it is there in November. Will the Republicans tear him down the way they "Swift-Boated" John Kerry? Clinton can argue that they won't be able to do this to her. They have been trying to no avail for sixteen years.

The second question - who is the "legitimate" candidate? - will be the most important. As of now, Obama has a clear advantage. He leads in the delegate count as well as all tabulations of the popular vote. This is why Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are must-wins for Clinton. She has to make a compelling argument that she is the legitimate choice of the party. This will require victories in all three.

Assuming that she wins them, what would an argument for Clinton as the legitimate nominee look like? It probably will not include the claim that she leads the pledged delegate count. Alter is correct: she probably won't. Her objectives must be to close the gap by a good amount (victories in the big states should help), and diminish the importance of the count. There are several ways she could accomplish the latter task. First, she could say that Obama's strength is in red states that John McCain will carry in November, while her strength is in the heart of Democratic territory. Second, she could say that she wins Democrats while Obama wins Independents - and the delegate allocation process does a poor job excluding the latter from a process that should belong to the former. Third, she could argue that the delegates for Michigan and Florida should be seated - that the nominee of the party should not hinge on a Carl Levin power play that backfired.

Fourth, and most important of all, she could attack the fairness of the caucus system. This will be her best bet, I think. Obama has won most of the caucus states overwhelmingly. Clinton could assert that the caucus favors Obama by unfairly excluding voters who happen to favor her - namely, "downscale" Democrats who cannot take off work to attend and elderly voters who are unable to. Clinton will have some evidence to buttress this claim. The Washington state caucus allocated 68% of the state's delegates to Obama on February 9th. Ten days later, on February 19th, the state held a non-binding primary in which Obama won 51% of the vote. Texas might yield a similar result. If Obama beats Clinton in the caucus, and she beats him in the primary - Clinton can argue that the caucus system unfairly skews toward him.

None of this will matter, however, if Clinton does not have a lead in a nationwide vote count. I cannot see her arguing for legitimacy without this. RCP is keeping track of the vote leader by three metrics: including Florida and Michigan, including Florida, and excluding Florida and Michigan. Clinton needs to be the leader by one of these. Her legitimacy case will be stronger if she leads by more than one. In that case, she could try to paint Obama as a Democratic version of George W. Bush - somebody who lost the popular vote but nevertheless "won" by virtue of the quirks of an outdated, unfair system that is still around because nobody cared enough to get rid of it before it created trouble.

Can she take a popular vote lead? Possibly. The average turnout in the primary contests that have already occurred has been 12.4% of the total population of those states. If we assume that the remaining primaries will have the same turnout - we can make the following observations:

(a) She would have to win more than 54.7% of the remaining vote to take a lead in the count that excludes Florida and Michigan.

(b) She would have to win more than 53.2% of the remaining vote to take a lead in the count that excludes Michigan.

(c) She would have to win more than 51.5% of the remaining vote to take a lead in the count that excludes nothing.

This is why Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are important. Combined, they make up 60% of the remaining population left to vote. If Clinton wins all three by solid margins, her burden will be greatly diminished.

Of course, Obama is currently much better positioned for a legitimacy argument. He has all three vote leads - and he is closing fast in Texas and Ohio. Clinton can only threaten him if she finishes strong enough to eliminate one of the popular vote gaps. Even then it might not be enough. It will be hard for her to win 54.7% of the remaining vote. If she does not, Obama will have at least one lead. If the best she can do is win 51.5% of the vote, Obama will be well-positioned to argue that including Michigan is completely unfair because he was not even on the ballot. What is more - the three metrics necessarily exclude a few caucus states like Iowa that do not report actual votes. This would help Obama rebut Clinton's claim to be the "choice of the voters" if she were to take the lead.

Obama can respond to most of Clinton's other arguments. For instance, he could argue that the pledged delegate count is what matters, and that the super delegates should not presume to alter the outcome of the primaries/caucuses. He could assert that Clinton's anti-caucus argument is just the bellyaching of a candidate who failed to prepare adequately for the contests on and after Super Tuesday. This could even pivot into an electability argument. Sure, Clinton cannot be "Swift-Boated," but she was unprepared for the primary process. Shouldn't this worry the super delegates?

What should be clear from all of this is that, if Clinton does well on March 4th and in Pennsylvania next month, things could get very complicated. Let's review our outline of the questions the super delegates will answer. Remember that each must formulate his or her own answer, and must weigh the answer to each question for himself or herself.

(A) Which candidate is better for the party?

(1) Which candidate is more able to defeat John McCain in November?
(a) What are the chances Obama's reputation will be diminished by Republican attacks?

(b) What are the chances Clinton will under-prepare for the general election?

(2) Which candidate is legitimate choice of Democrats nationwide?

(a) Who has a lead among the pledged delegates?

(b) Does it matter what types of states and voters each candidate has won?

(c) Is the caucus system sufficiently democratic?

(d) Should I care about the popular vote leader...

(i) ...including Michigan and Florida?

(ii) ...including Florida?

(iii) ...excluding Florida and Michigan?

(B) Which candidate is better for me?

(1) Which candidate do I prefer?

(2) Which candidate do my constituents - whose support I need for reelection - prefer?

(a) Do I follow my state's vote?

(b) Do I follow my district's vote?

This set of questions is surely not comprehensive. There are others that will factor into each delegate's decision. This will make their decisions all the more complex.

You probably have opinions on all of these points. So do I. But here's the kicker - our opinions don't matter. We're just spectators. It's up to the super delegates, and we have no idea how they will decide.

I think it is hasty to say that Clinton lacks a "reasonable" chance to win the nomination. If she wins Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania - the race will hinge upon how each super delegate answers and values these questions. I'm not saying that I favor Clinton to win. At this point, I don't. She stands a chance if she wins the three big states that remain. He stands a chance regardless. This tips the scales in his favor. He also has an advantage due to the pledged delegates - the more of those you have, the fewer super delegates you need, the less pressure there is for you to argue a case. Nevertheless, Clinton still has a reasonable shot if she can win next week.

-Jay Cost