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Legacy Content / OFF TO THE RACES

The New, New Math

April 29, 2008

Despite the recent show of strength by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., the odds against her winning the Democratic presidential nomination are as imposing as ever — and probably worse.

There was a time when one of the stronger arguments in favor of nominating Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was that he was more electable than Clinton.

The thinking at the time was that Clinton was so polarizing, she could get close to winning a general election but would have difficulty getting over the top.

 

Now, about the only plausible argument that Obama is more electable is to claim that Clinton’s backers would probably get over an Obama nomination better and sooner than vice versa.

Indeed, while Obama might lose some states by narrower margins than Clinton, his weakness among downscale and older white voters raises questions about whether he would be as competitive as Clinton in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, or, for that matter, run as strongly as Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., did in 2004.

But the delegate math is the delegate math, and there is little if any good news there for Clinton.

Almost half of the delegate advantage she netted against Obama in Pennsylvania was offset by losses of superdelegates the same week. Colby College political scientist and delegate selection expert Anthony Corrado estimates that Clinton would need to win about 69 percent of the remaining delegates, a virtual impossibility given proportional representation of the nominating contests.

In recent months, Clinton has been losing up to three superdelegates for every one she has picked up.

One superdelegate in a Southern state, clearly a Clinton sympathizer, said it would be political suicide for him to oppose Obama, pointing out that the black community would be furious. The best support he could offer Clinton would be to remain neutral until it’s over.

One of the most salient arguments made these days by superdelegates is the fear of what would happen to the party if Obama were to be spurned.

Even if they wanted to nominate Clinton, the fear of damage to the party is sufficient to argue against it. Between the newbies — the young and new voters who are so enthusiastic for Obama — and the black community — who ironically were somewhat late to join the Obama bandwagon after his Iowa win — the fallout from a spurning of Obama would be profound.

What has happened is that a bit of the bloom is off the rose for Obama’s candidacy.

His trajectory has flattened a good bit and while no one doubts his mortality, he has lost a good bit of the iconic appeal that he showed early this year.

Maybe he wins a general election, maybe he doesn’t, but it is clear there are liabilities along with assets to the idea of his nomination.

As well as he has bonded with “Starbucks” Democrats, he has not done so well with white, “Lunch Bucket” Democrats. Obama’s appeal is a bit too exotic for their tastes.

And as much as the Republican brand has been damaged over the last eight years and as much as many voters have misgivings about Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain’s uncompromising support for the war, he is perceived as distinct enough from his tarnished party.

Plus, his record as a Vietnam veteran and history as a prisoner of war seems to give him a benefit of the doubt that offers him a much better chance of victory than his party has of, at a minimum, breaking even in the House and Senate races this fall.

The irony of this year’s political situation is that — despite the difficulty a party has in holding the White House for three consecutive terms — the Republicans still have a much better shot than that of scoring so much as a net gain of one seat in the House or Senate.

The Republican brand is weighing down the party’s congressional candidates, but McCain seems to be hurt so much less because of the independence that has rubbed his Republican congressional colleagues so raw over the last couple of decades.

It’s fascinating to think how implausible all of this would have seemed 18 months ago.

While it was not unthinkable that a Clinton nomination was inevitable, it is truly remarkable that she would be beaten by Obama in the way that it looks likely to happen.

Who would have thought that someone could launch a successful bid for a presidential nomination just two years out of a state legislature?

Who would have thought that so many experienced contenders for the Democratic nomination would have been discarded so cavalierly?

Who would have predicted that former President Clinton would become almost radioactive in the black community, his remarks during and after the South Carolina primary regarded by many, black and white, fairly or not, as having racist overtones.

Taken together with the precipitous fall, then Lazarus-like comeback of McCain’s nomination bid, it all seems a bit surreal.

If this campaign’s events were in a political novel, it would seem so far-fetched as to be laughable. But here we are.

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