The good news for Hillary Rodham Clinton is that she’s winning a lot of battles. The bad news is that the war is pretty much lost. Sure, she won Pennsylvania’s April 22 primary by a strong 9 points in the face of being outspent on television ads by Barack Obama 2-to-1. She also won Ohio, Rhode Island, and at least the primary part of the bizarre “Texas two-step” primary-and-caucus combination on March 4. But today, she is 133 delegates behind Obama, 1,728 to 1,595, according to NBC News. At this point last week, she trailed by 136 delegates. Since then Clinton has scored a net gain of 10 delegates in Pennsylvania, according to NBC, but has lost a few more superdelegates, so she has made little headway.
If this contest were still at the point where momentum, symbolism, and reading tea leaves mattered, Clinton would be in pretty good shape. Everything she has needed to happen is happening now. Obama is getting tougher press coverage and critical examination. He’s also getting rattled a bit, and he didn’t perform well in the recent debate in Philadelphia. Clinton is winning in big, important places, but it’s happening about three months too late.
At the end of the day, the popular vote for the Democratic nomination means nothing. I doubt that having won the popular vote in the 2000 general election is of much solace to Al Gore. Many a football team gains more yards than its opponent in a game yet loses on that important technicality called points.
The Clinton folks shouldn’t be faulted for the arguments they are making: In the big states that will determine the final outcome in November, she has done better than Obama, and she holds on to downscale white voters better than her opponent does. Beyond the fact that both assertions are true, I’d make the same arguments if I were in Clinton’s shoes, as would most of Obama’s strategists if they were working for Clinton.
But you can’t change how the game is played once it has begun. The Democrats have decided that the nominee will be determined by the number of delegates won, not by the popular vote, and that primaries held in direct violation of party rules (in this case, Florida’s and Michigan’s) don’t count. End of discussion.
With the Republican National Committee having adopted “the Ohio plan,” an interesting and promising proposal for dealing with the scheduling of presidential primaries and caucuses, and the Democratic National Committee indicating that it will take up the issue as well, party rules will be revisited for 2012. Democrats might want to consider establishing some type of “bonus” delegates for winning a state, or at least modifying the party’s perverse proportional representation system, which, in a two-way race, makes it extremely difficult to build a lead and almost impossible to overtake an opponent who has one. But for this election, the rules are the rules.
The race now moves to Indiana and North Carolina, which vote on May 6. Obama appears to be narrowly ahead in the former and enjoys a 20-point advantage in the latter. If given the choice of Clinton’s momentum or Obama’s money going into two states where he is already ahead, I’d take the money and run.
In some ways, Clinton has spent the past six weeks in a horrible situation. How do you quit a race when you’re still winning primaries? The delegate and fundraising pictures looked dismal to the point of near-impossibility, yet she was still taking the big primaries. There was really no way she could have stood on the podium in Philadelphia on Tuesday night and said, “Thank you, Pennsylvania, for this great victory. Oh, by the way, I’m now dropping out.”
As long as Clinton is winning, she can’t quit. But even in victory, she isn’t getting any closer to securing the nomination. This political purgatory will continue if she manages to win Indiana but loses North Carolina—hard to drop out but harder to see winning the nomination. If she loses in both states, then her campaign’s donors and creditors, as well as superdelegates and party leaders, are likely to intervene. But that can’t happen as long as she continues to win.
This article appears in the April 26, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.