Conventional wisdom says Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are locked in a no-holds barred contest that could result in a “train wreck” at the August Democratic presidential convention.
By Edward Luce in Washington DC
But earlier assumptions about the epic 2008 Democratic race – that it would be wrapped up by “Super Tuesday”, for example, or that Bill Clinton would prove to be Mrs Clinton’s greatest asset on the campaign trail – have so far been a poor guide.
This latest may prove no different. Judged by the cold mathematics of the race, Mr Obama is cruising towards the nomination. “If we were talking about any other person than Hillary Clinton then we would already be declaring Barack Obama as the likely winner,” says Joe Trippi, who advised John Edwards, the former presidential contender.
The numbers are against Mrs Clinton. Even if she wins Pennsylvania next month by a large margin and succeeds in re-staging the voided primary elections in Florida and Michigan and then winning them, she stands little chance of overturning Mr Obama’s lead in the popular vote and among elected delegates.
In order to eliminate Mr Obama’s 700,000 lead in the popular vote in Pennsylvania next month, Mrs Clinton would have to win 72 per cent in a turnout that would have to equal or exceed Ohio’s record 40.5 per cent of registered voters last week.
That would be higher than any previous winning total for Mrs Clinton in the 42 states already to have voted. With the exception of Mrs Clinton’s semi-“home state” of Arkansas, where she won 70 per cent, her previous highest tally was 58 per cent in Rhode Island last week. Even then, Mr Obama, who has regularly chalked up vote shares of 75 per cent, would stand a good chance of clawing back his surplus from most of the states that have yet to vote – including Oregon, North Carolina, South Dakota and Montana.
Given how frequently consensus predictions have been belied this year, few pundits are prepared to trust in the numbers. “You would have to make heroic assumptions from here on in to show Hillary Clinton coming out ahead in the popular vote,” says Charlie Cook, a political analyst. “But this has been such a screwball year that everybody is nervous about calling it like it is.”
Nor can Mrs Clinton derive much comfort from the much-vaunted “superdelegates”. Although these appointed delegates will ultimately have the deciding say on who becomes the nominee, few believe they would dare contradict the popular vote. To overcome her deficit in elected delegates, which is between 100 and 170 depending on the count, Mrs Clinton would need to win two-thirds of the superdelegates who have yet to endorse either candidate.
Most superdelegates are themselves elected officials who are facing the electorate in November. And most polls show that Mr Obama’s strong crossover appeal among independent and moderate Republican voters would offer much longer “coat tails” to the thousands of other Democrats up for re-election at the same time.
This week, Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk radio host, claimed that Mrs Clinton won a large chunk of support from Republican voters in the Mississippi primary, which she lost heavily to Mr Obama. Although Mr Limbaugh’s estimate cannot be verified, he and other rightwing figures are urging Republican voters to take advantage of “open primary” elections to boost Mrs Clinton’s chances of becoming the nominee.
“There is a conservative push to try to complicate the Democratic election,” says James Lindsay, head of the Robert Strauss Centre at the University of Texas in Austin. “There is also a strong feeling that Mrs Clinton would be easier for John McCain to defeat than Mr Obama. If you listen to talk radio, the term you hear most often is that Mrs Clinton is planning to ‘steal’ the election.”
Such predictions make Democrats nervous. But most agree that Mrs Clinton, who has twice before been written off, will make the most of the next few weeks to magnify doubts about Mr Obama’s fitness to be president. “Her only real hope is that Obama says something really stupid, or that the media uncover something really damaging about him, that it changes the nature of the race entirely,” says Mr Trippi.
More professorial than pugilistic, Mr Obama appears to be “playing for the clock” as they say in basketball, his favourite sport, rather than going for the kill.
“If Mrs Clinton has a chance it is about casting doubt on Obama’s toughness,” says Mr Lindsay. “It’s a longshot. But we still have eleven weeks of primaries to go.”