With another big night that extended his winning streak to ten contests, Barack Obama made March 4th as irrelevant as he possibly could have.
How likely was such a scenario in the morning of February 6th? After Super Tuesday, the two candidates looked to be stuck in a stalemate with no end in sight. We knew that Obama was favored to win the rest of the February voting states, but such a sweep was supposed to be quickly erased by losses on March 4th, prolonging the primary into a drawn-out battle for each delegate.
Instead, Obama has done much more than hold his serve in the ten contests that have taken place since February 5th. He not only swept every single one of them, but he did so with astonishing ease, crushing her repeatedly and opening up a wide pledged delegate lead. Obama faced high expectations, and was not necessarily going to get much credit even from a victory, but he exceeded them in almost every single contest - a truly remarkable accomplishment.
Obama's victory in Wisconsin tonight is a dramatic exclamation point to this series. All pollsters (even ARG) had Obama leading in the state, but the conventional wisdom held that the race would remain competitive. After all, the Clinton campaign seemed determined to keep the race tight in a way they had not attempted in the last few voting states.
Wisconsin's demographics also appeared to favor neither Clinton nor Obama, making this contest particularly interesting. On the one hand, Wisconsin's electorate is particularly receptive to anti-war and populist arguments (it is not a coincidence that Howard Dean chose Wisconsin as his last stand in 2004); it also has a significant student population. On the other hand, the state has a significant working-class population, a group that Clinton had relied on until recently to carry her to victories.
Considering the momentum Obama has been riding in recent weeks, it was logical to expect that the Illinois Senator would win Wisconsin tonight. But the size of his victory - 58% to 41% -- was not expected. Clinton will have a very difficult time justifying this defeat considering that she made an effort to limit her losses here. Her strategy of more aggressive contrasts, in particular, does not seem to have been fruitful at all - and that will certainly influence the way the campaign approaches Texas and Ohio.
More importantly, the exit polls reveal that Obama might be breaking the stalemate the Democratic campaign had been in for some time now. Week after week, different constituencies were barely shifting their allegiance, guaranteeing tight elections and preventing any sense of resolution from emerging. But in Wisconsin, Obama has also struck at the heart of Hillary Clinton's base, improving his standing among her core constituencies.
He tied her among women, riding a 36% lead among men (and a massive gender gap) to victory). He prevailed comfortably among the least educated voters - even High School graduates - as well as across income groups. Clinton still polls fares better the lower a voter's family income, but she can no longer rely on voters making less than $50,000 to rescue her. Obama even came out with a healthy 7% lead among registered Democrats.
At the same time, Obama's advance among groups that were already supporting him keeps growing. 70% of voters between the age of 18 and 29 voted for him, as well as 91% of African-Americans (Obama has only recently started passing the 90% threshold among the black vote).
Obama looks to have finally found the key to appealing to Clinton's key constituencies, and the New York Senator will be in a world of trouble on March 4th if she does not find a way to motivate women and the working-class (as well as Latinos, whom she depends on heavily in Texas). The first signs of this trend had appeared in the Potomac Primary, but Wisconsin has made it that much more dramatic.
Boosted also by his huge victory in the Hawaii caucuses (74% to 26%, which should represent a 14 to 6 delegate split according to my calculations), Obama has built on his pledged delegate lead. Campaign Diaries' most recent count gives him 1189 to Clinton's 1041, with 9 outstanding. This alone makes March 4th as irrelevant as Obama could have dreamt it of being on the morning of February 6th: Clinton needs to win Ohio and Texas to stay alive, and she needs to do so by margins significant enough that she can cut in Obama's delegate lead. But even big Clinton victories - and it is unclear how she could rise high at this point, given her decline among the groups she is the most dependent on - will not worry the Obama camp too much. A 148 delegate lead cannot be lost that easily, and there still are plenty of states voting that Obama is confident will allow him to build on his delegate lead (Mississippi, Wyoming, for instance).
Hillary Clinton still has two major opportunities to stop Obama's march towards the nomination. There are two debates coming up, the first one this Thursday in Texas, and Clinton believes that she has an advantage in this format that could allow her to at best regain some ground and ride strong performances to big victories, and at worst to change the storyline and halt Obama's momentum. These two upcoming debates should certainly not be dismissed. After all, there have been plenty of debates that have profoundly altered the state of the race so far in this contest - October's Philadelphia debate that marked the beginning of Clinton's decline, January 5th New Hampshire debate after which the women vote rallied around the New York Senator, the South Carolina slugfest helped Obama get a massive victory on January 19th, and the California debate a few days before Super Tuesday allowed Hillary to stop the bleeding and hold her own on February 5th.
And Clinton did get one piece of good news tonight. In the Washington primary, Clinton only trails Obama by 3%, 49% to 46%. At this time, the contest has not yet been called. Unfortunately for Hillary, there are no delegates awarded out of this contest, so she once again can point to a beauty contest to reassuring news, but the hope she had out of this primary had nothing to do with delegates. Ten days ago, Obama trounced Clinton in the Washington caucuses - 68% to 31%. The Clinton campaign has been working to argue that caucuses are undemocratic processes in which only a small number of voters can participate, leaving many disenfranchised. Since Obama got many of his biggest wins (and thus a lot of his edge in delegate) from caucuses, the Clinton campaign has been hoping to discredit Obama's pledged delegate lead by questioning the validity of caucuses.
Now, the Clinton campaign will have evidence to back up its claim. A 37% humiliation in the February 9th caucus has become a too close to call contest, in what is right now a 34% swing. And turnout has been very strong - superior to the Republican primary turnout, and the GOP was awarding delegates tonight. It is hard to entirely dismiss the numbers from Washington, just as it is difficult to ignore Florida's. And look for Clinton to press the anti-caucus charge in the coming days.
Ultimately, this is not an argument for voters but for superdelegates. As it is looking increasingly likely that Clinton will not be able to catch up Obama's lead among pledged delegates, she needs to give some sort of cover to her backers, an argument they can use to justify their not rallying behind the party's frontrunner. And the results of the Washington primary are precisely that type of argument.
But that presupposes that Clinton remains relatively close in the pledged delegate count. And much before Ohio and Texas cast their votes, it is starting to look like the former frontrunner might not even achieve that. And no one would have predicted that on February 6th.