Hillary Clinton, Fairy Princess

“Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”

former President Bill Clinton, Jan. 11, 2008. Clinton was criticizing
Sen. Barack Obama’s claim to have opposed the Iraq war more
consistently than Hillary Clinton. This claim was, Clinton said, “the
central argument for his campaign. ‘It doesn’t matter that I started
running for president less than a year after I got to the Senate from
the Illinois state senate. I am a great speaker, a charismatic figure,
and I’m the only one who had the judgment to oppose this war from the
beginning, always, always, always.’ ” (Click here for the video.)

Here’s
a rule I would like every political reporter, campaign official, TV
talking head, and politician in the United States to follow. Go ahead
and say, if you like, that Hillary Clinton retains a serious chance of
winning the Democratic nomination. If you say this, however, you must describe a set of circumstances whereby this could happen. Try not to make it sound like a fairy tale.


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Yes, Obama has dropped a few points
in national polls, and Clinton has picked up a few points, putting her
in the lead. The Gallup Tracking Poll had it 49-45 for Clinton on April
30, compared to 50-42 for Obama on April 15. That isn’t surprising in a
week when Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, elaborated on his most controversial statements at the National Press Club (click here for the video), prompting Obama to distance himself more emphatically
(“I will talk to him perhaps some day in the future. … Inexcusable. … I
do not see that relationship being the same after this”) than he had
earlier in a stirring speech on race.

The
only number that matters, however, is 2,025, which is how many
delegates a candidate will need to secure the nomination. Obama has
1,488 primary delegates to Clinton’s 1,334, according to the Associated Press delegate tracker.
Add in superdelegates and Obama has 1,736 to Clinton’s 1,602. Obama
needs 289 more delegates to win the nomination. Hillary needs 423.
There are three ways to win these additional delegates:

  1. In the nine Democratic primaries and caucuses that remain, in which about 400 delegates are at stake
  2. By winning over still-undecided superdelegates, of whom about 290 remain
  3. By
    persuading the necessary number of superdelegates and/or primary
    delegates among the 1,736 pledged to Obama to change their allegiances.
    The former will be difficult to achieve, and the latter, though
    permitted, will be extremely difficult to achieve

It’s
numerically impossible for Hillary to get to 2,025 through the
remaining primaries and caucuses. In theory, Obama could get to 2,025
that way, but to do so he’d need to capture, on average, 71 percent of
the vote in every remaining contest, according to Slate’s “Delegate Calculator.”
That obviously isn’t going to happen. Hence the relentless press focus
on the superdelegates. They will almost certainly choose the nominee.

A great debate has taken place on how superdelegates ought
to choose the nominee. Should they vote their conscience, or should
they follow the popular will? We could debate that one all day. The
more relevant question is: How do superdelegates choose the
nominee? Answer: They tend to follow the popular will. That’s why
superdelegates gravitated to Clinton when polls showed she looked like
a sure thing, and then to Obama when he started outpolling her. That’s
why more than one-third of the superdelegates remain uncommitted now.
Believe me, it isn’t because they haven’t been paying attention, and
(except for a few head cases) it isn’t because, after 23 Democratic
debates, they still don’t know which candidate tickles their
fancy. It’s because they’re reluctant to be out of step with the
popular will as expressed through all the primaries and
caucuses. The longer any given superdelegate waits to make his or her
endorsement, the likelier he or she is to choose whoever ends up with a
plurality of delegates. Why else wait?

The 291 undecideds have now waited a very long time.

This is an important point, so I’m going to repeat it. The longer a superdelegate waits to choose, the likelier he’ll choose whoever the primaries and caucuses chose.

That means whoever ends the primary season with a plurality of
delegates is all but certain to win the nomination, unless the
plurality is so paper-thin as to be meaningless. According to Slate‘s
delegate calculator, Clinton needs to win, on average, 70 percent of
the vote in every remaining contest in order to surpass Obama on
pledged delegates. Remember when I said there was no way Obama would
capture 71 percent? There’s no way Clinton’s going to capture 70
percent, either.

OK, let’s see how Hillary can get close enough
to call it a tie. If she gets within about 30, that’s pretty close,
right? To do that, she needs to win, on average, 65 percent of the vote
in every remaining contest. That’s still in the realm of extreme
improbability. How about 60 percent? That’s a difference of 74
delegates, which is starting to sound like too many to justify throwing
up your hands and declaring, “Close enough for government work.” And,
anyway, that’s still too improbable to take very seriously. Do I hear 55 percent?* Which is to say: What if she wins every remaining contest, on average, by the 10-point spread she achieved in Pennsylvania? (It was really 9 points,
but everybody thinks it was 10, so let’s say 10.) OK, that’s possible.
Difficult to achieve, but possible. But that puts Obama 115 delegates
ahead of Clinton. That is definitely too large a plurality to shrug off
as a virtual tie.

But what if the superdelegates decide the will
of the people resides in the popular vote? I doubt they will, because
the popular vote seriously undercounts Obama’s support in the caucus states. Even if they ignore that shortcoming, though, Hendrik Hertzberg has demonstrated
that Obama right now has a plurality of 611,520 votes. That’s not
likely to change, because all the big-population states have already
voted. Even if you toss in the delegates from Florida’s unsanctioned
primary, Obama maintains a plurality of 316,748. Add in Michigan and
Clinton acquires a plurality of 121,783. But it’s insane to count
Michigan, because Obama wasn’t even on the ballot there. (It is merely unfair to count Florida, because Obama was on the ballot there; in Florida, the problem is that neither candidate campaigned there.)


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Hertzberg
posited that a mental compromise might be reached in counting
Michigan’s popular vote by giving Obama all the “uncommitted votes.”
Clinton has on occasion tried to argue that the Michigan primary wasn’t
a Soviet-style election because most of the uncommitteds should be
considered Obama supporters. OK, then, Hertzberg reasoned; let’s
include Florida and Michigan in the tally but count the Michigan
uncommitteds for Obama. That leaves Obama with a margin of 188,439. If
Clinton were to win every remaining contest by 10 points on average, Hertzberg calculated that she still would lose the popular vote by 161,520 votes.

That
is, assuming Florida and Michigan went uncounted. Toss in Florida, and
Clinton gains a popular-vote plurality of 133,252. But this scenario
depends on three improbable contingencies: The superdelegates
decide it’s fair to equate the popular vote in primaries and caucuses
with the popular will (which it isn’t); Clinton wins by 10 percent
everywhere from now on (possible but unlikely); and the superdelegates
decide it’s fair to consider the popular vote in Florida (doubtful).

That
leaves Option 3, which is for Clinton to convince the already-pledged
primary delegates and/or superdelegates that they must change their
minds. This has happened in the distant past; Charles Peters cites in
the latest issue of the Washington Monthly the Republican
convention nominating the last-minute entrant Wendell Willkie in 1940.
But that was in a different era, when much less than a third of all
convention delegates were chosen by primary; everyone else was, in
effect, a superdelegate. Ted Kennedy tried and failed to turn
Carter’s primary delegates (there were no superdelegates) at the 1980
convention. Mondale turned a few of Hart’s primary delegates in 1984,
but he already had a delegate plurality, which made his job a
lot easier; he just needed to turn that plurality into a majority. At
the 2008 convention, Clinton’s position would be comparable to
Kennedy’s in 1980, not to Mondale’s in 1984.

What would it take for Clinton to start a stampede? A massive, catastrophic drop in the polls for Obama. But the only way for that to happen is for Clinton to tear into Obama so viciously, Lee Atwater-style,
that she destroys her own reputation, causing her to lose the general
election and very likely her Senate seat, too. Not going to happen.
Clinton is determined, but she isn’t insane.

That exhausts the
possibilities. Not one of them is plausible. So, please, let’s stop
pretending there’s much suspense about who the nominee will be. As an
arithmecrat, I will not consider anyone the winner until a candidate
achieves 2,025 delegates. But neither am I obliged to believe Hillary
Clinton has a decent shot. She doesn’t.

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