West Virginians awarded Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York a landslide win Tuesday in the state’s Democratic presidential primary, but Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois continued to inch closer to the party’s nomination.
Clinton scored one of the largest victories in her White House run, defeating Obama by more than 40 percentage points and winning all 55 of the state's counties. With nearly all of the precincts reporting, she won 67 percent to 26 percent. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, whose name was still on the ballot even though he withdrew for the race months ago, received 7 percent. According to a projection by the Associated Press, Clinton won 20 pledged delegates with her West Virginia win; Obama picked up eight.
But before the polls had even closed in West Virginia, Obama’s campaign issued an analysis of the Democratic race that asserted that he had gained support from 27 superdelegates since his big victory in the North Carolina primary a week ago and his near-miss in Indiana. That more than offset the delegates Clinton netted in West Virginia and the handful of superdelegates that she has picked up in the past week.
Former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer (D), who was a national co-chair of former President Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign, endorsed Obama on Tuesday and called on uncommitted superdelegates to pick a candidate and move the Democratic race toward a conclusion.
“The math is controlling: Sen. Obama has a lead that cannot be overcome,” Romer said in conference call with reporters, pointing to the front-runner’s unyielding advantage among pledged delegates with primaries remaining only in Kentucky, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Montana and South Dakota. “I believe it is time for the party to unify and get beyond the primary season and begin the general election,” said Romer, who is also a superdelegate, having served as general chairman of the Democratic National Committee during President Clinton’s second term. Three other Democratic superdelegates also announced their support for Obama Tuesday.
Despite those kinds of calls from Romer and other Democrats, Clinton showed no signs of retiring from the field before the primaries end on June 3. Addressing her boisterous West Virginia supporters at a victory rally in Charleston, Clinton declared, “We know from the Bible that faith can move mountains and, my friends, the faith of the Mountain State has moved me. I am more determined than ever to carry on this campaign until everyone has had a chance to make their voices heard.”
Clinton saluted her opponent and pledged to “work my heart out” for the nominee of the party to ensure a victory in November. But she continued to make the case why she believes she should lead the Democrats in that quest.
“The bottom line is this: The White House is won in the swing states and I am winning the swing states," she said. She also reiterated her request for contested delegations from Florida and Michigan to be seated at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August.
Parsing Clinton's Win
Clinton’s victory in West Virginia was sweeping. Obama managed to break the 35 percent mark in only five counties. In the third congressional district -- which includes the southern portion of the state and many of its coal mines, and which is usually a swing region in presidential elections -- Clinton posted her best showing and swamped Obama, 73 percent to 20 percent.
The National Election Pool exit poll conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International for ABC, AP, CBS, CNN, FOX and NBC showed that race continued to play a role in the Democratic contest. Roughly one out of every five white Democratic primary voters in West Virginia said race was a factor in how they decided to cast their ballots, and more than 80 percent of them voted for Clinton.
The political terrain in the Mountain State was a rough one for Obama. About 95 percent of the primary vote was white. Only three in 10 were college graduates (a group that has usually been more favorable to Obama). An analysis by ABC News polling director Gary Langer found that the percentage of college graduates voting in the West Virginia primary was the lowest of any Democratic primary this year. And more than half the voters -- 54 percent -- had a household income of less than $50,000. According to Langer, that share was among the highest in the Democratic primaries so far, and that group (which has generally favored Clinton) chose her overwhelmingly on Tuesday, 69 percent to 25 percent.
The exit poll also found that Clinton’s supporters in West Virginia were divided over the prospects of supporting Obama if he were the Democratic nominee. Asked whether they would vote for McCain or Obama in the general election, only 38 percent of Clinton’s primary voters said they would back Obama, while 34 percent said they would vote for McCain. About a quarter said they would not vote for president. Overall, just 51 percent of all West Virginia Democratic primary voters said they would vote for Obama, a steeper defection rate than in previous primaries.
The Democrats' Road Ahead
But that disillusionment with Obama is not necessarily lasting. It may reflect the passions of an intra-party contest that could be reaching its dénouement -- and it may be relative.
In the late spring of 1992, when Bill Clinton was wrapping up his nominating majority, Democratic primary voters were reluctant to embrace him as well. In the Pennsylvania primary that year, the network exit poll found that only 56 percent of the Democratic primary voters said they’d vote for Bill Clinton while 11 percent said they’d vote to re-elect former President George H.W. Bush and 25 percent said they’d vote for independent candidate Ross Perot. Five percent said they wouldn’t vote at all.
In last month’s Democratic contest in Pennsylvania, 72 percent of the primary voters said they’d back Obama, while 15 percent said they’d defect to McCain. In 1992, in the North Carolina Democratic primary, only 55 percent of the voters said they’d support Bill Clinton in the general election, while last week, 74 percent of the Democratic primary voters in North Carolina said they’d back Obama. The television networks did not conduct an exit poll in West Virginia in 1992.
But the Clinton team has a more immediate problem to deal with: the ongoing trickle of superdelegates to Obama. In an interview, Clinton’s senior adviser overseeing the delegate endgame, Harold Ickes, did not dispute Obama's recent gains among the ranks of the superdelegates. But he added that most of those pick-ups were people the Clinton team considered leaning toward Obama anyway.
At the same time, Ickes maintained that the uncommitted superdelegates were giving more and more weight to which remaining Democratic contender could best put together a combination of states in the fall that would win back the White House.
“Most who are really uncommitted are still assessing whether Clinton or Obama have a strong electoral collage equation to win the election,” Ickes said. “There’s an assessment [being made by superdelegates], beginning with Ohio -- and gaining much more force after Pennsylvania, Indiana and West Virginia -- that is focusing much more than pre-Ohio on how to assemble 270 votes and whether Obama is stronger than Clinton.”
Ickes also stressed that the current target of delegates needed to win the nomination is invalid because Democrats are eventually going to seat at least some portion of the delegations from Florida and Michigan. The DNC stripped those states of all their delegates as punishment for holding primaries before party rules allowed.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in their right mind who thinks that Florida and Michigan are going to be excluded from our convention,” Ickes said. “If you assume Florida and Michigan will be at the convention, that implies there’s a number higher than 2,025 that’s needed to win the nomination.”
The DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee is scheduled to take up the issue on May 31. Ickes, who sits on the committee, said he couldn’t predict the outcome and noted that most of his colleagues on it are party veterans who are generally independent and have some devotion to the rules process. If the full delegations were restored, Clinton would gain 58 pledged delegates on Obama, but most observers believe that number is unrealistic for Clinton camp to expect.
Still, from Ickes’ perspective, any number of additional delegates added to the convention from seating at least some portion of the Florida and Michigan delegations would be a plus, because it would raise the figure needed to capture the nomination and possibly buy the Clinton team more time to woo uncommitted superdelegates.
Before the results were known in West Virginia, the Obama campaign said it was only 147 delegates away from the 2,025 mark --- the number needed to win the nomination without adding any delegates from the contested Florida and Michigan delegations to the conventions’ total. With that amount remaining, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe told reporters on the conference call that “you’re beginning to get to a very achievable number.”
And with eight more delegates from West Virginia, Obama’s magic number just keeps falling.