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By Jay Cost

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Reflections on the Democratic Race

Having returned from Princeton, I'm back "on the grid," and wanted to offer a few reflections on the current state of the Democratic race.

(1) Many people with whom I spoke at the conference were interested in Obama's performance among working class whites. Nobody seemed to have an answer as to whether his poor results are a sign of electoral trouble in the fall. I still do not. Nevertheless, the conversations I had inspired two thoughts.

First, I would intuit that, based on these primary results, voters in these places are at least going to give John McCain more of an audience than they otherwise would in a year like this. That's not to say they will ultimately go for him, just that they will consider him more than usual for a year when the macro conditions favor the Democrats so heavily. I think Obama is not yet resonating with them. So, even if he wins the strong Democrats among them who have voted for Clinton - those soft Democrats, Independents, and soft Republicans might give McCain a harder look.

Second, if Obama were to carry a state like Ohio - there is a possibility he will do so in a new way. To appreciate what I mean by this, open the following links. From David Leip's Election Atlas, here are geographical representations of the Ohio results from 1976, 1992, and 1996 - the three elections in the last 40 years the Democratic Party has won. Every time, the nominee carried Ohio. Counties the Democrat won are in red; counties the Republican won are in blue. Note the similarity between the three. The counties that Carter and Clinton won form an inverted "C." Both Democrats did strongly along Lake Erie, strongly down the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, and then they carried many of the counties in the Ohio River Valley. Now, compare these Democratic victories to the party's losses in 2000 and 2004. What is missing? Gore and Kerry won fewer counties around Lake Erie, and they did notably worse in the Ohio River Valley. Bush won almost all of those counties.

It is in the Ohio River Valley where Clinton beat Obama on the order of 30, 35, even 40 points. These are the kinds of voters I expect to give McCain more of an audience than he would otherwise receive. If they ultimately back McCain (again, a big "if" in a year like this!), and Obama wins the state anyway, he will have won with a voting coalition we haven't seen before. Perhaps he will have pulled in upscale, suburban Republican-leaners around Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati.

(2) I am very interested in next week's election in West Virginia. Everybody expects Hillary Clinton to win, but I can't help but wonder if they'll be surprised by the size of the margin.

We can reasonably expect it to be enormous. From a socioeconomic standpoint, West Virginia is almost entirely comprised of the sort of counties that Obama has done poorly in. The median white income in West Virginia is about $30,000 per year. African Americans comprise roughly 3% of the state's population. This puts it somewhere between Belmont County, Ohio and Greene County, Pennsylvania. Clinton won 72% of the vote in Belmont and 75% in Greene. From another angle, we see a similar situation. If we take the counties of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia that border West Virginia, we see that Clinton won on average 63.5% of the countywide vote. However, if we exempt the counties in Maryland and Virginia that border the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, her share of the vote jumps to 70.1%.

So, how would this be surprising? To date, you'd have to look closely to see Obama's poor results among working class whites in Appalachia. If you only take the 55-45 margins in Ohio and Pennsylvania, without drilling down a bit deeper, you might think, "That's not so bad." That probably will not be possible next week. The whole state of West Virginia should mimic what we saw in southern Ohio, southwestern Pennsylvania, and southwestern Virginia.

How will the press and the superdelegates react if Clinton wins by 30 points, 40 points, even 50 points? Remember that John Kennedy essentially wrapped up the 1960 nomination with a win in West Virginia because it proved that he had crossover appeal. What happens if Obama "proves" the opposite? Psychologically speaking, are people prepared for a loss of this magnitude, having fully absorbed the countywide details of previous results, or will this come as a shock to them?

Obama's impending loss in West Virginia might reinforce the previous point - an Obama electoral college victory might look different than anything a Democrat has ever put together. A Democrat has won the White House having lost West Virginia just once. Woodrow Wilson did it in 1916. Again, this is not a sign of any impending electoral doom for Obama should he win the nomination. States can and do move into and out of a party's voting coalition. Take Delaware and New Jersey, for instance. Both usually supported the GOP when it won the White House, but this is no longer the case. The point here is simply that an Obama victory might look like something we've never seen before.

(3) Despite his loss in Pennsylvania and the reemergence of Reverend Wright, Obama continues to close Clinton's lead in superdelegates. Why?

I think it has to do with his pledged delegate lead. The last few weeks have exposed some weaknesses in Obama. However, from the superdelegates' perspective, this does not mean that Clinton is the superior choice. She has her own problems, of course. More important than this is the fact that Clinton's path to the nomination is necessarily "dirty." She must out-muscle Obama at the convention. That's the only way. After all, Obama's lead in pledged delegates is 154. Even if the superdelegates rally around Clinton, Obama would not disappear, nor should he! He could and surely would take the fight to the convention, and try to win there.

Let's try a counterfactual thought experiment. Reduce Obama's pledged delegate lead by 139, so that he currently has a lead in pledged delegates of just 15. What would the superdelegates be doing now in response to the Wright controversy? How would they have reacted to his losses in Ohio and Pennsylvania? I imagine they'd be moving to Clinton, possibly in large numbers.

But why 139 delegates? That is precisely the number of delegates he has netted from the caucuses, which have all been low-turnout affairs. That's a key point. Even in states where Obama held a demographic advantage - there were presumably enough Clinton supporters in the state to level the playing field. Kansas is a good example. Obama won Kansas by about 18,000 caucus votes - out of only 37,000 or so cast. This is a state that gave Bill Clinton 388,000 votes in 1996. Surely, she could have found another 18,000 Kansans to support her.

So, why didn't she?

The answer is simple. He prepared for the caucuses. She didn't. He was organized. She wasn't. This enabled Obama to rack up huge delegate victories, all of which occurred (at the time) under the radar. We were looking at California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Virginia, Wisconsin, Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, he netted 24 delegates in Minnesota, 26 delegates in Washington, 15 delegates in Colorado, 15 delegates in Idaho, 14 delegates in Kansas.

I think his foresight to organize the caucus states has served him doubly well. Not only has it given him a large delegate lead compared to a modest popular vote lead - it has served as protection against political peril. My sense is that with Ohio, Pennsylvania, and then Wright - superdelegates would be flocking to Clinton if it were not for his caucus victories.

Above all, this highlights a stark contrast between the Obama and Clinton campaigns. The Clinton campaign formulated a poor nomination strategy. When it fell to pieces, the campaign essentially began improvising. To this day, it lives week-to-week, one "do-or-die" primary after another. This has diminished its capacity to take advantage of political opportunities. The Obama campaign, on the other hand, formulated a superb nomination strategy, which it is still following even after 14 months of campaigning, and which has minimized the damage from a major political controversy.

-Jay Cost