Barack Obama goes into Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary as strong favourite, whatever happens, to secure the Democratic presidential nomination. Yet the vote could still go either way.
This is a sign of how close this race has been and how deeply it has divided the party.
Mr Obama and Hillary Clinton are both strong candidates and each appeals powerfully to distinct segments of Democratic support. This has heightened the risk of bitter division.
After Tuesday’s vote, the Democrats should move quickly to affirm Mr Obama’s nomination. That is not just because his lead in elected delegates is already unassailable and the contest should be brought to a swift conclusion. It is also because he is, in fact, the better candidate.
The contenders’ differences on policy look small and in reality are even smaller. Their disagreement on healthcare mandates, for instance, frequently emphasised by Mrs Clinton, is of little practical significance. A mandate to obtain insurance, as proposed by Mrs Clinton, does not achieve universal coverage unless enforced with punitive sanctions, which she does not advocate.
Both candidates, in effect, are proposing near-universal coverage. The virtues of their schemes (much improved access, no denial of insurance to those with pre-existing conditions) as well as the defects (weak control of costs) are much the same.
In almost every area of policy, whether their thinking is good (as with improved support for displaced workers), bad (their opposition to liberal trade) or too vague to say (Iraq), there is little to choose between them.
As voters understood all along, this has therefore been a contest of character, temperament and (sadly but inevitably) identity. Mr Obama’s most loyal supporters, once they were persuaded that he might actually succeed, have been black. Mrs Clinton’s, certain at the start she would win, are women.
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Mr Obama has fought a brilliant campaign, out-organising his opponent, raising more money, and convincing undecided Democrats as well as the country at large that he was more likeable, more straightforward and more worthy of trust.
On form, he is a spell-binding orator and holds arena-sized audiences in thrall. He is given to airy exhortations, it is true, but genuinely seeks consensus and has cross-party appeal.
Mrs Clinton’s campaign, in contrast, has been a shambles. She and her team expected to have it all sewn up long ago; they made no plans for a long struggle, ran short of money and had to reorganise on the run.
Her speaking style is pedestrian, when it is not actually grating. Those who dislike her tend to do so with a passion: her disapproval ratings started high and after months of campaigning are climbing still. It is a tribute to her tenacity and to the loyalty she commands in the party that her fate was not sealed weeks ago.
How much the way that a campaign is run tells you about a candidate’s fitness to be president is debatable – but it does tell you something, especially if the candidate with the misfiring strategy is running on a claim of management expertise.
In fact, the campaigns have underlined the contenders’ respective strengths and weaknesses.
Mr Obama’s consistent and relaxed demeanour attested to his coolness (in both senses, his swooning young admirers would add); it seemed to affirm his authenticity. In contrast, Mrs Clinton’s hyperactive advisers dressed her in a new personality each day, sometimes several in the course of an interview. They wheeled out Bill Clinton, to remind people of the 1990s, then reeled him back, to help them forget.
Too many course corrections, not enough course.
Mr Obama has had some travails – over his association with Jeremiah Wright, the ranting demagogue pastor, and most recently over condescending remarks about small-town Democratic politics.
In the first case, he responded with a masterly speech about race that may even have improved his standing. In the second, he was evasive and unconvincing – yet the public seems to have given him the benefit of the doubt.
The US has the urge to be inspired a little. Electing the country’s first woman president ought to be very inspiring. But not this woman – with her dynastic baggage and knack for antagonising the undecided – running against this man.
The Democratic party has waited an awfully long time for a politician like Barack Obama. Enough already.