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By Jay Cost

« On Obama's Speech | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | A Review of the Pennsylvania Primary »

Is This Race Over?

Last week, I received an interesting email from John in Seattle:

I'm amazed that Hillary's NPR interview, in which she flat-out stated that Michigan's election results would not count, does not get more attention in the press. I'd bet that 98% of the electorate does not know about that earlier, contradictory statement. Instead, she's allowed to argue for a Michigan revote with no one calling her out on the NPR interview. You're a prime example. Even though you're widely regarded in the blogosphere as a stalwart for Hillary, could you please acknowledge her NPR interview in some fashion in an upcoming piece?

I am a "stalwart for Hillary?" That's news to me! A few other readers have made the same suggestion - so I think maybe I need to clear things up a bit.

I can assure you that my opinion on the candidacy of Hillary Clinton is not clouding my ability to evaluate its chances of success. Actually, I can do better than that. I can offer several falsifying instances of this theory. A quick perusal of the archives of this page from September and October will show that I was very bullish about Obama's prospects. Again and again I wrote things like this:

Bottom line: Obama's Q3 report is probably going to show at least $30 million in cash on hand. Maybe more. Let us pause for a moment and reflect on the significance of that money ( I can't believe we need to take a moment and do that, but apparently we do). Let us not get overwhelmed by a WMUR poll and lose our cool. Let us remember that $30 million can buy a lot of stuff. One of the things it can buy is a shift of frame in a political campaign. Let us remind ourselves, while we are paused here for a moment, that this freshman senator has something like two billion individual donors and has taken no money from political action committees. This guy is the real deal, ok? He's the real deal. And Clinton is going to have a race on her hands.

I wrote this on September 28, 2007 - when the journalists who now think Obama is inevitable thought Clinton was inevitable. For other examples of my bullishness on Obama's prospects - see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Back then, I received more than a few emails from Clinton supporters calling me a stalwart for Obama!

This serves as a good opportunity for me to review exactly what I think about the current state of the Democratic race. I have written a lot of columns on the subject in the last three weeks, but have failed to tie them together into a coherent argument. So, it may be understandable that readers like John have misunderstood me.

The argument I have been developing bit-by-bit is not that Clinton is likely to win the nomination. Far from it! In fact, I think she will probably lose it. The difference between others and me is that I think she stands a chance to win. It's not greater than 50%, but it is non-trivial.

Let me review the various points that have brought me to this conclusion. Again, I have talked about these separately, but I have never brought them fully together.

(1) Obama will almost assuredly have a lead in pledged delegates when the primary phase ends. However, by itself this does not count for anything. The nominee must win an outright majority of all delegates to acquire the nomination.

(2) Obama will not likely be able to do this via pledged delegates, which means that the decision will be left to the super delegates.

(3) This means that both candidates will have to make an argument to the super delegates.

(4) There are many ways to make an argument to the super delegates. Ultimately, both will have to assert that he or she is the legitimate choice of the party.

(5) One way to do this is via the pledged delegates. Obama can say: "I have won more pledged delegates, so I am the choice of the party." However, the pledged delegate allocation system has biases that seem to favor Obama.

(6) Another way to make the legitimacy argument is via who has won more votes. I think that this could be at least as persuasive as the pledged delegate argument.

(7) There are many ways to count the votes. No single way is obviously the fairest.

(8) Clinton could take a lead in a seemingly fair vote count.

These considerations imply a plausible, but unlikely, path to the nomination for Clinton.

What she first needs to do is take a lead in at least one of the reasonable tallies of the popular vote. This means that she needs to pull a big win in Pennsylvania in April. It is not enough for her eke out a win - she must win by a large margin. After that, she'll need to fight North Carolina to a rough draw. Both tasks will be difficult. I think she could win Pennsylvania big, but I think North Carolina could be tricky.

In fact, I think North Carolina could be the make-or-break state for both campaigns. A big win by Obama should put the race away; a tie would dramatically help Clinton in her quest to take a lead in the vote count. At this point, I am not sure what to expect in the Tar Heel State. It is an issue I am still working on. The second most important question (and second only because it will be relevant only if Clinton survives North Carolina) is what Puerto Rico will do and how people stateside will react. I have no idea how to get any purchase on this one.

If she does take a lead in one of the vote counts, she'll have to persuade the super delegates. In a certain sense, this will be harder for her to do because of his lead in the pledged delegates. For every additional pledged delegate Obama has over Clinton - that is one fewer super delegate he will have to persuade. There is another difficulty for her. Obama will probably have a lead in at least one vote count - which means that, in the best case scenario for her, she will have "won the votes"...and so will he.

Come back to win a popular vote total, and use that to persuade the super delegates. That's her angle. I think it is a tough one, but I don't think it is impossible. I can imagine him ending the race by winning big in North Carolina - but I can also see her winning big in Pennsylvania, keeping it close in North Carolina and winning big in Indiana (held on the same day). That would leave Kentucky, West Virginia, Puerto Rico, Oregon, Montana, and South Dakota. There is promising terrain there for her.

I am going to spend the next few days and weeks reviewing this math in a bit more detail. Tomorrow, I will offer an in-depth review of what to expect in the Pennsylvania primary. Next week, I'll try to quantify exactly what kind of vote margin's she'll need, and hopefully (if I can get my mind around the topic) offer something of substance on North Carolina.

-Jay Cost