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By Jay Cost

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Clinton's "Moral Claim"

Sunday's Meet the Press featured a spirited debate between James Carville, Mary Matalin, Mike Murphy, and Bob Shrum. Shrum made a very insightful point, noting that Hillary Clinton has to find some kind of "moral claim" to the nomination if she hopes to take it from Barack Obama.

This is a concise version of an argument I made last week - that Clinton needs to assert that she is the "legitimate" candidate of her party. I particularly like the use of the word "claim" because it underscores how legitimacy is contestable. Both she and Obama will make claims to the nomination that the super delegates will arbitrate.

I talked briefly last week about the specific claim Clinton could make. Today, I want to outline it in more detail. Essentially, Clinton is going to assert that Obama's plurality victory among pledged delegates does not necessarily entitle him to the nomination. Counting up the pledged delegates is one way to measure popular support, but it is not the only one. I don't even think it is the best one - at least from the standpoint of persuading the super delegates.

The most persuasive method is to count the votes. This is why the Obama campaign needs to be careful. Clinton could acquire a powerful argument for her nomination. Obama currently has a slight lead in the popular vote (52% to 48%), excluding Florida and Michigan. However, if Clinton wins Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania - his lead will be under threat. This is also where Florida and Michigan come into play. I get the sense that few neutral Democratic politicos are interested in seating the Michigan and Florida delegations while the nomination is up for grabs. That's good for Obama. But what about factoring their voters into the counts? I think Obama can convincingly argue against factoring Michigan in, as he was not on the ballot. However, he'll have a harder time arguing that super delegates should ignore Florida voters.

This means the race is tighter than many people believe. While Clinton has to win something like 75% of the remaining pledged delegates to overtake him in that count - she only has to win about 53% of the vote to overtake him in the count that includes Florida. That's not so much a royal flush as a three-of-a-kind.

If Clinton pulls ahead of Obama in this count, she could make a compelling moral claim. I think her argument would consist of a positive and a negative component. First, she can assert that, as the popular vote winner, she is the rightful nominee of the party. She can remind super delegates that the last Democrat who won the nomination without a popular mandate was Hubert Humphrey in 1968. The debacle that followed convinced Democrats to open their process to the public. Nominating Obama would thus be inconsistent with the party's forty-year commitment to openness and inclusiveness.

Second, she can run against the nomination process itself. As I noted last week, this is a procedure that few politicos have paid attention to. So, there is little emotional investment in it, which makes it easier to attack. Imagine a split in the popular vote and the Electoral College - only this time the Electoral College does not have the Constitution conferring upon it moral legitimacy. Which count will people prefer? Similarly, Clinton can argue that Obama indeed won a plurality of pledged delegates - but that is merely a testament to the fact that the party's process is not as open as they thought. They shouldn't let the vagaries of the party's antiquated, undemocratic system determine the nominee.

In particular, Clinton can run against the caucuses. Caucuses have much lower turnout than primaries. For instance, the populations of Minnesota and Wisconsin are roughly equal. About 200,000 Democrats participated in the Minnesota caucus, compared to 1.1 million in the Wisconsin primary. Clinton, who has done very poorly in the caucuses, can argue that they are too exclusionary. There's some basic arithmetic to exploit here. "Each pledged delegate in Minnesota is worth 2,800 voters. Each pledged delegate in California is worth 12,700 voters. How is that fair?"

I think this is an argument that super delegates might find persuasive. Like the delegate system generally, there is no emotional investment in the caucus process. Caucuses are utilized because they are cheap and because they enable state parties to build their mailing lists. Nobody is particularly committed to the idea that they are right and good. Super delegates might be willing to listen to a Clinton argument against them.

We caught a glimpse of an anti-caucus argument a few weeks ago on Fox News Sunday. Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle and Ohio Governor Ted Strickland were debating the nomination process - and Strickland, a Clinton backer, made the following argument:

Caucuses elect some delegates. And you know, in caucuses, many people are totally shut out. Anyone serving in the active military can't participate in a caucus. People who are sick and confined to their homes, older people who can't get out at night, can't participate in caucuses. But that's part of the process.

Some delegates are elected through the primary system, which I hugely prefer, a primary system like we're having here in Ohio, where everyone has a chance to participate.

If Clinton ultimately wins the popular vote - expect to hear a lot more of this line.

Of course, Obama will have a powerful moral claim, too.* My discussion of Clinton's claim is not due to a personal inclination toward it. Personally, I have no strong feelings either way. I'm discussing Clinton because people are assuming that the pledged delegate lead is all that matters. I think this is untrue.

Ultimately, the strength of Clinton's argument depends upon the popular vote, which in turn requires wins in Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.* So, if she wins tomorrow, we will see another pivot in the race. We'll stop asking who can knock out whom, and start asking who has the better "moral claim."

What will this look like? First, there will be a lot less action than the last few months. Between tomorrow and the Pennsylvania primary - there is the Wyoming caucus next Saturday, the Mississippi primary next Tuesday, and then six weeks of nothing. Second, the super delegates are going to become an important target of campaign activity. Neither candidate can hope to win enough pledged delegates to capture the nomination - so they will start courting the 795 super delegates quite actively.

This means that the press will suddenly be more important than it has been in months (not as important as it thinks it is, of course!). Genuine news events are not going to drive the daily cycle. Instead, it will be driven by the talk of pundits and journalists. The super delegates, all of whom are hyper-connected elites, will probably be paying close attention. So, the candidate who charms the media might be able to charm the super delegates.

This puts the Clinton campaign in a better position than it has enjoyed recently. Minimally, it will be back in its element. We all know that the Clintons are good at spinning straw into gold. Recall the rhetorical versatility of the Clinton Administration during the Lewinsky scandal. Bill Clinton's flacks did a good job framing the matter for the press, which in turn framed it for the American public. And, of course, Hillary Clinton's campaign was able to bewitch the press into believing that she was inevitable - despite Obama's record-breaking fundraising hauls through 2007. Their problem for the last few weeks is that they haven't had anything to work with. With wins tomorrow, they'll have straw to spin, time to do it, and an audience of super delegates watching them.

The Obama campaign must be ready for this. It needs to have an argument for why he should be the nominee, as well as an argument for why Clinton's argument is bunko. The next stage of the nomination could hinge upon these arguments as much as anything.


[*] I talked about Obama's argument last week. He can argue that Clinton is only complaining about the caucuses because she was unprepared. He can also turn the caucus argument against her. "So," he might ask, "what would happen if we turned all the caucuses into primaries? I would still win them all. My pledged delegate lead would shrink, but because there are more voters participating, my popular vote lead would grow." Again, my point here is not that Clinton's argument would be stronger than Obama's. It is just that her argument is strong.

[*] What happens if she wins Ohio but loses Texas? It appears that she'll stay in the race. In that case, she could ultimately articulate a compelling moral claim, but it becomes much harder. Clinton needs to eliminate the vote gap. If Obama wins Texas, Clinton will have to close a larger gap with fewer states. She still could, and she might try. However, it will be more difficult.

-Jay Cost