Does Hillary Deserve the Nomination? It's Not the Math, Stupid

05/14/2008 10:35 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sen. Hillary Clinton defeated Sen. Barack Obama by a landslide in Tuesday's West Virginia primary. She won by a 67%-26% margin, and picked up about 140,000 popular votes and about 20 delegates, thus narrowing Obama's lead to about 460,000 votes and 145 delegates. But let's be very clear about one critical point: no Democrat has won the White House without winning West Virgina since 1916. And Clinton won the state by capturing an overwhelming majority of white, rural and working-class voters...the party's bread and butter. Tuesday's results, when combined with those of other key states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and Indiana, should scare the bajesus out of any sane Democrat. The simple truth is, without the white working class vote, the conventional wisdom says Obama cannot and will not win the general election against the GOP's presumptive nominee Sen. John McCain.

But that won't stop the Obama camp and its legion of supporters from continuing to point to the math to justify their candidate's claim to the nomination. The math. That collection of seemingly decisive metrics that they believe so clearly gives victory to the junior Senator from Illinois. But it's not the math, stupid. The job of super-delegates is not to merely wake up on the first day of the Denver convention, check the newspaper for the latest delegate total, and cast their vote for whoever is in the lead. If choosing the nominee were that simple, we wouldn't need super-delegates. We'd have a very clear rule that says to win the nomination a candidate needs 2209 delegates...or the most delegates by the time primaries end. But that's not the current system. Rather, super-delegates are charged with the responsibility of selecting the most electable candidate, and the math is just one element factored into the equation. As former DNC chair and Clinton Campaign head Terry McAuliffe likes to say, "It's not over until a candidate gets 2209 delegates." If that doesn't happen, all bets are off.

When pundits and the Obama supporters use the math to bolster his position, you don't hear much about the pre-March/post-March math. But take a look at these stats: since March 1st, Clinton has won 400 delegates to Obama's 392, and 5,857,517 popular votes to Obama's 5,511,513. Pretty interesting, huh? Kind of changes the whole math myth, doesn't it? Truly puts everything in perspective, especially as argued by the Clinton campaign. Should the super-delegates, as the Obamacans would like, ignore what the numbers behind the numbers indicate?

It's important to note that, with the exception of his big win in North Carolina last week, Obama's campaign has been stagnant since he racked up an impressive string of victories in February. Since then, as the above data clearly indicates, the momentum has been all Clinton's. She's won the big key blue swing states, won both the delegate count and the popular vote, and held her own with impressive gains in polls against both Obama and McCain. She's clearly come into her own voice and connected with a critical part of the party's base, and has without question run a better campaign for the past three months. It's been she, not he, who's looked, acted and sounded like a winner. It's been Clinton, not Obama, who's impressed many on both sides of the aisle with her tenacity, resilience and ability to fight.

What about Obama's impressive early wins in states like Iowa, Missouri and Minnesota...where he not only won some key swing states, but also won the white vote? Well, the key word there is early. January and February--three and four months ago--is an eternity in politics. A lot has happened since then. Obama's campaign right now is in a virtual tie with Clinton as a result of his early and decisive victories. But they occurred before the Rev. Wright implosion. Before Bittergate, and the ensuing charges of elitism. It was before the country truly got to know Obama; who he is, and what he stands for. Is it a reasonable question to ask that, if there were do-overs in those states today, would he still win, and win as big? The results of some of the more recent primaries suggests not. And let's be sure about Iowa: Obama did not win core rural white, older voters as many claim. He won, as he typically has, with a younger, more educated, affluent constituency. The typical caucus voter.

To be fair to Obama, he has aroused tremendous excitement among Democrats heretofore disinterested in politics: the young and blacks. And he also trumps Clinton when it comes to Independents. All three constituencies could come out in record numbers and be critical in Obama's attempt to perhaps win without the core white working class well as women, Hispanics, Catholics and Jews. That's the million-dollar question, and this election, like none before it, could very well be the one where the map and the Democratic base, shifts in a highly unpredictable manner. But history proves otherwise, so it's a longshot. A longshot that a Democrat can win the general election without the historic base. Without states like West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

So what do the next few weeks look like? Odds are, Clinton will have another resounding victory in Kentucky next week, while Obama is favored in Oregon. But, could Oregon provide an upset for Hillary? What happens if the events of the past three months give that state's voters pause, pushing them into Clinton's corner? Wouldn't that be a sure-fire sign that Obama's in deep trouble? And then there's Puerto Rico, with it's millions of voters and 55 delgates. Hillary is predicted to win handily here. That leaves Montana and South Dakota, which at this point could go either way. Come June 3rd, when the last primary is over, the delegate count and the popular vote tally could be quite different than today, and Clinton's momentum could be that much greater. She could be ahead in polls against Obama and in a head-to-head against McCain. And when Michigan and Florida are factored in, which they surely will be soon, the overall picture could change even more dramatically in Clinton's favor. At that point, her narrative to the super-delegates could be very, very compelling.

As any statistician worth his weight will tell you, numbers by themselves mean nothing. It's all in the interpretation. It's not the math, stupid.