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Democratic Candidates Face A Long Haul

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Super Tuesday is gone and has resolved nothing. As of yesterday, there was an end in sight; now, no one knows how long this could last and if there are plausible scenarios in which the nomination is settled prior to the convention.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton essentially split the states and the delegate count. If you throw in the results of the states that voted in January and the endorsements of superdelegates, the delegate count becomes indecipherable.

Both Obama and Clinton have many reasons to be satisfied. On the one hand, Clinton won the most votes and the biggest states. She held her own very well, especially considering the powerful narrative of the surging Obama momentum; the Kennedy endorsements and her South Carolina debacle were supposed to bury the New York Senator. Instead, she held to states that polls showed to be agonizingly close and she did so comfortably. And in the major states she lost -- Missouri and Connecticut, perhaps New Mexico (with 98% reporting, Obama is up by 71 votes) -- she trailed by tiny margins, making them essentially symbolic victories for the Obama camp. Clinton managed to lead or tie Obama among the late deciders, those who decided who to vote for in the past three days. That allowed her to blunt whatever momentum Obama had going in the week-end and enabled her to survive in many states she was getting shaky about.

Clinton can be especially proud of her showing in Massachusetts, where she won by 15%, not a small feat considering the supposed impact of Kennedy's endorsement. California, of course, was the big prize; Obama could have delivered as much of a knock-out blow as Super Tuesday would have allowed if he had won the Golden State. Polls showed he was very competitive here, but he ended up losing by 10%. Clinton not only survived here, but she got a sizable victory which is likely to dominate some of the coverage in the coming days. And the four victories she got in red states allow her to counter the coming Obama argument that she is too weak in red states and among more conservative Democrats to hope to do well in November.

On the other hand, Obama can claim to have come ahead in the most important measure of Tuesday's results: He won more pledged delegates. This is indeed a very impressive feat given how far behind Obama was in many of these states just ten days ago, especially Missouri or Connecticut. In other states that he lost, he nevertheless dramatically closed the gap in the past week, whether in New Jersey where Clinton only won by 10% and certainly in California as well, where a 10% loss still represents a significant improvement. And Obama's camp will justifiably boast of its candidate's brilliant showings in the red states that were holding caucus states. He demolished Clinton in places like Idaho (79%), Colorado (67%) and Minnesota (82%).

Clinton's neglect for most of the caucus states -- she did not run ads there, while Obama did -- was as much due to her campaign's financial situation than to her admitting that these were not favorable grounds for her. But by letting Obama run big margins, Clinton fell far behind in the delegate count and was unable to make these up on the strength of her own victories. While the campaigns were busy looking at whether a New York district had an even or odd number of delegates, while Obama's victory in Missouri that seemed so significant last night is meaningless delegate-wise (the latest CNN estimate shows a 30-30 split), a small state like Idaho gave Obama 12 delegates more than it did Clinton. And the current CNN estimate of Minnesota allocates 48 delegates to Barack and 24 to Clinton. That's right, Obama made up half of his New York deficit in Minnesota.

Super Tuesday was a draw, and neither campaign is convincing in claiming victory. The Clinton campaign is boasting of its big wins in contested states and argues that it lost no state it was competing in by a large margin, showing California as an example of voters embracing Hillary. But Clinton was not only unable to put Obama away, but she is trailing among the delegate count. And it will take a few weeks before she has a plausible shot at reclaiming that lead.

The Obama campaign argues that Super Tuesday was always meant to be Clinton's day, that Clinton just held serve in states she was supposed to win. That is also unconvincing. As of early December, Clinton still broke 50% in national polls and led by massive margins in most states; everything was "hers to win." By this measure, Clinton was ahead by 20% in New Hampshire so her victory should not have counted; but whether or not it was fair for her to get the buzz she did out of January 8th, she beat expectations and her 2% victory was painted as a triumph. Obama always had to start winning in states that are supposed to be Clinton strongholds, and he only managed to do so in Connecticut last night.

Where does a draw lead us, then? Well, prepare to mark down some dates in your calendar, because this is going the distance. The contest that was supposed to be done on February 5th now has no end in sights, and the odds that it goes all the way to the convention are getting disturbingly high. Here is the calendar for the upcoming weeks:

February 9th: Washington (caucuses), Louisiana
February 12: DC, Maryland, Virginia
February 19th: Hawaii, Wisconsin
March 4th: Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont
March 9th: Wyoming
March 11th: Mississippi
April 22nd: Pennsylvania
May 6th: Indiana, North Carolina

The reason why Barack Obama has to be feeling slightly better this morning is that the February batch of states looks very good for him. We saw how well he did in the caucuses and in the South yesterday, which should allow him to do well on February 9th. On February 12th, DC is a lock for Obama, and while Maryland and Virginia could be close (neither has been polled since October) the demographics for Barack. On the 19th, finally, Wisconsin is the type of anti-establishment voting state that Obama wants to do well in (it was meant to be Dean's last stand in 2004), not to mention that it is in a region of the country that Obama is doing very well in (MO, IA, MN).

By the time we reach March 4th, therefore, Obama is likely to have accumulated -- and a rising lead in pledged delegates. If he prevails on March 4th (which presumably means winning Ohio and staying close in Texas) he could become the front-runner; but Clinton has a lot of establishment support in Ohio,and it is a state in which she believes she will do well. But the fact is that March 4th can only be used as survival by Hillary. If she wins OH and TX, she will stabilize the race once more, not knock Obama out. In other words, for Clinton to become the nominee, she will have to wait at least until April 22nd and the Pennsylvania primary, and likely go on to May (unless she does better than expected in Virginia, Maryland and Wisconsin).

To reach a convention majority with pledged delegates only, both Obama and Clinton would have to win an unrealistic proportion of the remaining delegates, so that it will all come down to superdelegates. Will they rally behind a candidate who starts to pull together a string of victories (say Obama sweeping February and winning Ohio)? That is the only way this does not go to a convention at this point, but given how regularly the campaigns have been trading victories since January 3rd, there is no reason to think one candidate will suddenly have the momentum necessary to appear like the presumptive nominee, making a scenario in which both campaigns get to Denver still trying to appeal to superdelegates.

In such a script, the candidate with the most pledged delegates will have the upper-hand, and it is most likely right now that that candidate will be Obama, given the size of his victories in some states yesterday. Clinton will have to argue that she has the pledged delegate lead to avoid charges that she is relying on backroom deals to get the nod, and she has a very easy way of doing that: Appeal to Florida and Michigan. Expect the rogue state controversy to pick up in the coming weeks and potentially lead to monster showdowns down-the-road. The DNC messed this up, and will now pay the consequences.

This is of course the nightmare scenario for Democrats: An August convention at which both camps accuse each other of thwarting the will of voters, either by relying on superdelegates to storm ahead or by seeking to exclude Florida and Michigan (two very important November swing states, by the way). We are not there yet, and such an all-out-war is still very much avoidable. But the odds of a chaotic brokered convention are rising, and John McCain is waiting in the wings.