If the Pennsylvania primary offered up a singular question that the press can now pose, over and over again, for at least the next two weeks, it is this one: Why can't Barack Obama "close the deal?" Naturally, we can expect the press to wield this question like a club, directed squarely at the American people's mounting sense of dread and ennui, but the prospect of repetition does not diminish its validity. Coffee, as they say, is for closers, and Obama leaves Pennsylvania looking very under-caffeinated.
The question has legs, and here's the big reason why. As unlikely as the prospect was, a Pennsylvania win represented the last significant opportunity for Obama, within the context of a single primary evening, to chase Hillary Clinton from the race. And Clinton had more to do with setting up that set of circumstances than anybody else. Right now, there is a single, guiding rationale behind her candidacy: she wins states that her campaign has identified with terms like "important," "battleground" (yes, in this imagining, California, New York and Massachusetts somehow become "battleground" states), and "swing." If Obama had pulled the upset in Pennsylvania - "closed the deal," as it were - he would have, to use one of Clinton's favorite terms, "obliterated" that rationale.
Now, looking ahead, there doesn't seem to be much of an opportunity for Clinton to advance her rationale. She's got competitive states ahead, and it looks like she's going to achieve a blowout margin in Kentucky, but the campaign will be hard pressed to attach the same importance to the future contests as they do to Ohio and Pennsylvania. The Clinton camp, however, can accept the possibility of their guiding rationale falling into a state of inertia, and they'll counter it by ramping up the rhetoric on Florida and Michigan. And critically, there does not seem to be another opportunity on the table for Obama to close the deal by knockout. It is possible that combined wins in North Carolina (a likely Obama win) and Indiana (a plausible Obama win) could put significant pressure on Clinton to drop out - and one can certainly predict that such a win will lead the press to say "Hey, maybe he can close the deal!" - but it won't tear down her campaign's thesis.
Additionally, Clinton gets a boost in Pennsylvania because of the money that the Obama camp spent to close down the margins in Pennsylvania. The Clinton campaign will talk up getting "outspent," because it allows them to say, "Hey, our ideas beat your ads."
Still, counterarguments abound. Obama is still the frontrunner, he's finally starting to gain ground in some clear Clinton demographics, and if the remaining superdelegates are simply waiting for a pretext to emerge for them to rubber-stamp, Obama remains on the inside track. And he's in this position because he did close the deal in some critical states back on Super Tuesday - Connecticut and Missouri come to mind - as well as a Potomac primary sweep.
More pointedly, there's a seeming shallowness to the whole "close the deal" argument - it only really comes up if we're talking about white voters. Of course, Obama pretty much hoisted himself halfway up this particular petard - "Bittergate" is the thing that is giving this legs. But rarely is it asked: "Why can't Clinton close the deal with African-American voters?" She's done worse and worse with this core constituency as time has passed. This is critical as North Carolina looms: will a "closed deal" for Obama in the Tarheel State not "count" because it's too black?
And finally, there's a grim reality to the money situation that gets ignored amid all the clatter and hype about how much Obama spent in Pennsylvania. Obama couldn't fund himself a knockout notch in the Keystone State, but it's not like he drove off the used car lot in a lemon. Money funds the long game, and Obama was smart to spend as much as he did there. If it takes four bucks to compel Clinton to spend one, you spend the four - because if you can bleed her cash reserves in a state she was projected at one point to win by twenty, the road ahead looks a lot brighter. Yeah, the money spent is going to get spun, but if you ask me, skint trumps spin. As a colleague pointed out to me last night, everytime you hear the Clinton team use the word "outspent," you can substitute the word "outraised."
Nevertheless, this "close the deal" concept is effectively stalemated, encased in amber, because Obama's got hardly anything ahead that truly looks like it's going to be the environment for a knockout blow. A TKO possibility remains in two weeks, but in all likelihood, we're looking at this deal finally getting closed by the decision of the superdelegates. 'Cause only one thing counts in this world: get them to sign on the line which is dotted.