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Clinton's New Strategy: Focus on Uncommitted Delegates and Build Blue-Collar Momentum


Hillary Clinton's path to the nomination has been growing increasingly difficult since she fell behind in the fight for delegates in the latter half of February. Ever since the Potomac primary, she has been facing the question of what path she possibly sees to winning the nod. And the answer is rather clear, and has been so for a while. In fact, the whole situation is much more simple than what many people think at this point.

It has been pretty much settled that Obama will win the battle for pledged delegates. Campaign Diaries' latest count gives him a 162 delegate lead. Looking at the upcoming batch of states and trying to figure out the allocation of upcoming delegates shows that number is too high. "Bonncaruso's Politics Blog" (to which Mark linked this morning in another one of my posts) runs through a number of different scenarios and shows that Clinton would need to win every upcoming primary with 65% of the vote. For that to happen would require Obama to suffer a collapse of truly epic (and unimaginable) proportion.

(Note that this assumes that no delegates from Florida and Michigan will be seated according to the January votes, and the totals Clinton would need in the upcoming primaries would obviously go down if she managed to get an edge out of those two states. But we will cross that bridge when we get to it.)

But it has been a while that we know that Clinton is no longer relying on surpassing Obama among pledged delegates. Her strategy is now to amass as much momentum as possible between April 22nd and June 3rd by winning almost all the contests by as massive margins as she can muster and to then use that momentum to convince uncommitted superdelegates to turn to her (which would probably require Obama to be considerably weakened in general election polls by the summer).

However likely you judge such a scenario to be, it is through this frame that you have to consider the results of the upcoming contests and of any poll that is released until then. Some claim that even the bestest of best scenarios she could envision would leave Clinton short. That is true of the fight for pledged delegates. But is it true of the race overall?

This question can be subdivided into 3 problems:

* Will upcoming results give Clinton the momentum she needs?
* Will they allow Clinton to win the popular vote?
* Will they allow her to argue that Obama has fundamental weaknesses in the general election?

Momentum: This basically means that Clinton needs to get out of June 3rd looking like a winner. Of the 11 upcoming contests, she can perhaps afford to lose Oregon and North Carolina -- but both losses would have to be narrow (I will come back to Oregon, by the way, because I am not certain that it is as Obama country as people assume). And in the states in which she is favored, she needs really big wins.

Popular vote: Superdelegates are very unlikely to desert the pledged delegate leader as it is, they would be even more reluctant if Obama also clinched the popular vote. And this is one metric in which Clinton can hope to reverse the lead, as Obama is narrowly ahead right now. Depending on if and how Florida and Michigan are counted, of course, yields very different results. But Michael Barone from US News plays with the numbers and sees a route for Clinton to take the lead here even without counting FL and MI. It would require a very favorable scenario for Clinton, sure, but the whole question we are asking is whether Hillary has a way to the nomination even with great results.

To those who say that the popular vote doesn't matter, Clinton has a point in answering that neither does the pledged delegate total in deciding what superdelegates should do. If the argument is that superdelegates should respect the will of the voters, who is to say whether the will of the voters is best represented by the popular vote or by the pledged delegate count?

Arguing for Obama's weaknesses: Clinton needs to convince superdelegates that Obama would not need voters that Democrats absolutely need in the general election. So she will have to hope that she continues to post very strong numbers in the Appalachians, that she remains solid among blue-collar voters. On the other hand, Obama can close Clinton's door by posting stronger-than-expected numbers among white voters in North Carolina or among blue-collar voters in Indiana. He has done so in the past (Virginia, Wisconsin) and doing it again in May would make convincing superdelegates that much harder for Clinton.

But even if Clinton satisfies all these conditions she would still be the underdog (!), as every sign points to the fact that uncommitted superdelegates have little intention or desire to vote against the pledged delegates leader. Though it would certainly mean that we would have to prepare for an epic convention fight.