Monday, April 28, 2008

Forget Expectations — Now Delegates Are What Really Matters

By Stuart Rothenberg

So, the Democratic race continues.

Despite of all of the truly silly spin about how much ground Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) made up in the Keystone State and all of the bashing of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) for remaining in the race (especially by one rather loud TV host on one of the cable channels), Clinton scored a solid but not decisive victory Tuesday.

No, her victory by slightly more than 200,000 votes, combined with only a low double-digit net gain of delegates, doesn’t fundamentally alter the race. That’s why the results weren’t decisive. They didn’t alter the dynamics of the contest.

But her victory should not be easily dismissed by Democratic observers or those in the media, especially because she was seriously out-spent in the state and Obama had six weeks to sell his message of change to Pennsylvania voters.

Obama, delivering his message of change with his usual great oratory and charisma, won seven counties in the state — five stretching from Philadelphia to Harrisburg and only two west of the Susquehanna River, each dominated by a major university (Penn State in Centre County and Bucknell in Union County).

He narrowly lost upscale, suburban Montgomery County (51 percent to 49 percent) and was defeated decisively in Bucks County (63 percent to 37 percent). Supposedly “swing” Lehigh County (Allentown) went for Clinton 60 percent to 40 percent.

The New Yorker crushed Obama in Luzerne County (Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton) and Lackawanna County (Scranton), both by about 3 to 1, in the northeast part of the state, and she won many counties in the western part of the state by 70 percent (including Beaver, Lawrence and Armstrong).

Clinton cannot overcome Obama’s lead in delegates or “beat” him in the popular vote, certainly not without Florida and Michigan voters playing their parts. But that’s not the only way for her to win the Democratic nomination. Superdelegates will hold the balance, and while there is every indication that they are flowing relentlessly to the Illinois Senator, Obama simply has not sewn up the nomination yet.

The Pennsylvania results give Clinton another arrow in her quiver as she makes the case why the Democratic Party must nominate her for president: Obama simply cannot win half of the Democratic Party, and without older voters, white Catholics, labor union members and the working class, Democrats will lose to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in November.

We don’t know whether she is correct about that, but at the very least, it is a reasonable argument that superdelegates will have to consider.

More than a year ago, everyone agreed that “electability” was a major concern for Democrats. While the Pennsylvania exit poll found only 9 percent of Democratic respondents saying that it was the top quality they were looking for in a nominee, electability certainly is (and ought to be) a consideration for many Democrats.

Clinton’s victory once again raises doubts about Obama’s ability to win key voters in key states. That doesn’t guarantee anything, of course, but it provides Clinton, her supporters and her contributors with a rationale for staying in the race.

What the New York Senator really needs, of course, is national survey data and key state polling showing she can beat McCain but Obama can’t. At this point, those numbers don’t exist, and that is a problem for Clinton.

We can only hope that Clinton’s win in Pennsylvania puts an end to all of the blather about expectations.

Yes, of course, there is a difference in winning Pennsylvania by 2 points or 10 points or 30 points. But after months of primaries and caucuses and with more than 80 percent of all pledged delegates now selected, it’s time to focus far, far less on expectations and more on where the race stands and what other than primary results might change the current dynamic.

Clinton clearly has no incentive to exit the race, and as long as she has enough money to fight on (and advertising in South Dakota, Montana and West Virginia is relatively cheap), it probably doesn’t matter whether she wins Kentucky and West Virginia by more than 15 points each or whether she breaks 40 percent in North Carolina.

I only wish we could drop some of the spin, particularly about expectations, now coming from the campaigns, their surrogates and too many in the media. You’d think serious people would be embarrassed by some of the drivel coming from their mouths these days.

It’s one thing to talk about expectations very early in the process, when candidates are trying to establish themselves as serious contenders, and something very different when only two candidates are left and the math is all that really matters.

Clearly, the math still favors Obama. But Clinton’s strong statewide showing in Pennsylvania ought to start making undecided delegates very nervous.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 24, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.