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A Big Win in Pennsylvania, But Not Nearly Big Enough To Change The Math

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Americans, schizophrenically, love two things: winners, and quixotic heroes who do great things in a losing cause. Last night in Pennsylvania, Hillary Clinton was both: the winner of what in an ordinary election year would be a tremendous victory, and the protagonist of an unequivocally lost cause.

Clinton won Pennsylvania. But in the national Democratic primary election overall -- and by that I mean the go-to-a-polling-place-and-cast-a-ballot part of the nominee-selection process -- Pennsylvania put the last nail in Clinton's hopes of winning anything resembling the popular vote or popular delegate count nationwide.

Before I go further, please understand: this post isn't about hating Hillary, but about math. It's no secret that I support Obama -- but I honestly can't help but admire any candidate who can win Pennsylvania by ten points (which, as of the time I'm writing this with 99% of precincts reporting, appears to be Clinton's margin of victory). It's a great victory in anyone's book.

Yet mathematically, Pennsylvania didn't move her forward; it actually put her further behind. That's what makes her win there tragic.

In a post the day before the Pennsylvania primary, I explained in detail what margins I thought Clinton needed in order to win the majority of elected delegates before the last primary election occurs on June 3. This election is like a footrace, I explained: with a relatively small handful of primaries left and a finite number of delegates remaining to be won, she needs to gain ground with every primary if she wants to make up the ground she lost in the first 40-plus contests.

Before Pennsylvania voted, Clinton trailed Obama in the elected-delegate count by 162. With only 566 delegates left to be won in the remaining contests, some fairly simple math showed that to catch Obama, she needed to win everything from Pennsylvania forward by 28 points - i.e., to win 64% of the elected delegates to Obama's 36% in all the remaining contests (with the exception of North Carolina, where she currently trails by 17 points; all my math asked her to do there was tie). Again, this is just math. Here's the algorithm: (Remaining delegates) - (Obama's lead in delegates) ÷ 2 + (Obama's lead in delegates). You can do the math yourself.

If she didn't win Pennsylvania (or any other primary) by 28 points, she'd only fall farther behind. If she won Pennsylvania by ten points, Clinton would actually have lost ground. In my post before the vote, I explained it this way:

Think of it like a hundred yard dash. Catching up to Obama after a ten point "victory" in Pennsylvania would be like standing on the starting line and expecting to win the race -- with your opponent having a 36 yard head start. Every step you take that doesn't gain you ground puts you closer to defeat. Every time Clinton falls short of the requisite 64% or 68% or even higher margin, the margin she needs in the remaining states goes up even more. Or, as Richard Durbin put it, Clinton is "running out of real estate."

Hillary didn't win 64% of the vote in Pennsylvania. She only won about 55% to Obama's 45% - the ten-point spread I predicted, about two-thirds short of the 28 point spread she needed. Accordingly, she'll only net about 16 delegates (87 for her, 71 for Obama) -- not nearly enough to change the race. After her win in Pennsylvania, Clinton now has to win 68% of the vote in all the remaining primaries -- up four points from the 64% she needed just two days ago.

In the real world, this is an insurmountable problem for Clinton. In some states, she may have had a little wiggle room; if she fell a little short in Indiana she might make it up by winning extra delegates in Puerto Rico. But Pennsylvania was Clinton's best shot at a big win in a populous state -- her "if you can't make it there, you can't make it anywhere" test (apologies to Sinatra). A month ago, a PPP poll showed Clinton leading in Pennsylvania by 26 points. Pennsylvania's primary came after the Reverend Wright and "bitter" brouhahas. Clinton has family in Pennsylvania; her father and brother went to school and played ball in Pennsylvania; she spent vacations in Pennsylvania; her grandfather taught her to shoot in Pennsylvania. And Pennsylvania has one of the last great Democratic political machines -- read this frustrated post by Chuck Pennacchio, a great Democratic candidate who lost a Pennsylvania primary because that machine was aligned against him, if you want a taste of how powerful the Pennsylvania machine is -- and that machine was overwhelmingly in Clinton's camp. If she couldn't make the requisite margin there, she won't be able to make it in state after state after state, without any major slips, from now until the end of the campaign. (In fact, even if Michigan and Florida were miraculously counted in Clinton's favor, she still would have needed 12 point wins from here on out -- but she fell short of even that lower standard. So not even Michigan and Florida could help her win the nomination democratically.)

No: Pennsylvania was her best shot, and she fell short. Hope is a wonderful thing, but no amount of blind optimism can change the reality: Clinton's not going to win the majority of democratically elected "pledged" or popular delegates. More broadly: no logical person can continue to argue that Clinton can win in any popular or democratic sense of the word; it's inevitable that she will lose the popular vote and the popular delegate count.

That doesn't mean she can't win the nomination. It does mean that the only way she can win the nomination is if the unelected superdelegates overwhelmingly and unexpectedly decide to disregard the wishes of their collective constituents and hand the nomination to the candidate who lost the popular delegate count (and the popular vote, and the majority of states).

Here's the important thing to take away from Clinton's win/loss in Pennsylvania: because she no longer has any realistic chance of winning the "election" phase of the nominating process, the rest of us need to insist that the politicians, pundits and prognosticators stop putting so much undeserved attention on the upcoming primaries, and focus instead on the single issue that could decide this election in Clinton's favor: the likelihood, the moral right, and the wisdom of allowing the Democratic Party's aristocrats to override the will of millions of Democratic voters.

Personally, I don't think it's likely, moral, or strategically wise for the supers to exercise a veto of the voters' choice. I think Obama has already won this election and will win the nomination and that Clinton's just the last one to realize it. But I also understand that many of her supporters disagree and feel strongly that it's both meet and proper for the supers to do whatever they want. I'm willing to agree to disagree on that question, at least for now; I don't really want to have that argument today, because it, too, is a distraction at this point.

Instead, all I'd like, from Clintonites and Obamanuts alike, is an agreement, based on simple logic, that the issue is no longer whether Clinton can win the election -- she can't, even if we count Michigan and Florida -- but rather whether she can, and should, win a contrary outcome via a superdelegate override.

Polls and predictions no longer count. Michigan and Florida, and Indiana and Puerto Rico and North Carolina and my own Oregon, no longer count, simply because their primaries can't realistically alter the outcome of the election. The only remaining issue is the propriety and wisdom of superdelegates overriding the voters. So let's talk about that from now on, instead of wasting time and energy on distractions that make money for CNN and MSNBC and play into the candidates' spin but aren't actually relevant to the decision that's being made.

Visit the author's blog, VichyDems