THE BLOG

No More Spin: Clinton, Pennsylvania And The Party

04/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • M.S. Bellows, Jr. Writer, lawyer, mediator, proprietor of Thersites and other offenses.

As politics junkies prepare for the Pennsylvania primary tomorrow, the pundit class and the candidates' spinmeisters are endlessly debating what, exactly, would constitute a "win" for Clinton. Both campaigns are trying to manipulate people's expectations; Clinton's people are playing down her lead so that a 4- to 7-point victory will seem like a huge shift in her political fortune (and a double-digit victory, which polls consistently showed was well within reach until just a couple of weeks ago, will seem like a blowout), while Obama's camp is portraying his support as being so low that anything under a 10-point win by Clinton will be anticlimactic.

But at this late stage of the Clinton-Obama primary, perception is not reality. Elections are a matter of counting votes, and counting is a matter of mathematics, not expectations or spin. Each candidate has won a precise number of delegates so far, and there are a finite number of delegates yet to be won. Instead of acting like Bush Republicans, responding to fear and greed and spouting bumper-sticker slogans and truthiness, Democrats can behave like real members of the Reality-Based Community, rejecting blind cries that "Clinton can still win!" or "There's no way Clinton can win!" and crunching the numbers instead -- in this case, analyzing the electoral data to determine what, precisely, would constitute a "win" for Clinton in Pennsylvania so that we can reject any spin, from any source, that isn't grounded in reality.

Calculating Clinton's necessary margin of victory is important for at least two reasons:

(1) Clinton's ongoing, uphill battle for the nomination almost certainly is cutting into Obama's yearlong lead over McCain in hypothetical head-to-head matchups; if her campaign isn't actually viable, and she doesn't actually have any realistic chance of winning the nomination, she should shut it down now so that Obama can focus on the general election. Conversely, if Clinton does have a good chance of a comeback, all Democrats should support her right to continue to fight. Objectively settling the "viability" issue would be a significant step toward resolving the question of whether Clinton should or should not bow out, and could reduce friction between the two candidates' supporters.

(2) Even if the Clinton campaign's viability isn't conclusively resolved one way or another, the question of how she can and can't win could be; in other words, her chances of winning the nomination with or without winning the popular vote, with or without Michigan and Florida, and with or without a counter-democratic "override" by superdelegates could be winnowed down. If Clinton has no realistic chance of winning the elected-delegate race, then everyone should put much less emphasis on the final ten primary elections. If Michigan and Florida wouldn't affect the outcome, then Michigan and Florida probably should be seated without alienating them further. If the only way Clinton can win is with a superdelegate "override" of the popular vote, then we should be focusing like a laser on the principles and practicalities of allowing the candidate to be selected in contravention of the voters' will -- i.e., whether that outcome matches our democratic principles and how it might affect turnout by the disaffected candidate's supporters in the general election, how it might affect independent and crossover voters' perceptions of the nominee, and ultimately what the impact of a brokered outcome would be on the Democratic Party's Presidential and Congressional chances in November. If Clinton still has a genuine chance of winning the majority of elected delegates, on the other hand, then no one has the right to question her right to continue her campaign. Evaluating the probability of the various combinations of scenarios will allow us to focus, hard, on the variables that actually will control the outcome -- and to tell the spinmeisters to take a hike.

CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS: So I've crunched the numbers, looking primarily at how big a win Clinton needs in Pennsylvania tomorrow to remain a viable candidate in the "democratic" portion of the election (because if she's not viable in terms of winning the popular vote, then we all need to shift our perspectives and start seriously discussing the principles and the practicalities of her trying to override the popular vote with Superdelegates). And what I've learned is that Clinton needs to win 64% of the vote tomorrow to Obama's 36% - beating Obama by a 28-point spread - to have any chance of winning the popularly-elected delegate count. The TV pundits and campaign spinners may be talking about the relative merits of a six-point, ten-point or even fifteen-point spread - but it's all smoke and mirrors: hard numbers say anything under 28 points represents an overwhelming Clinton loss. Aggravating for Clinton backers? Of course - and, in all seriousness, I'm sympathetic. But those are the numbers. Here's why:

Pennsylvania is the largest remaining primary state. It has 158 elected (aka "pledged" or "popular") delegates - delegates assigned democratically by the votes of the people. TV talking heads keep mentioning the possibility of a ten-point spread. If Clinton wins Pennsylvania's primary by ten points (i.e., Clinton gets 55% of the popular vote, Obama gets 45%), then she'll get 87 elected delegates to Obama's 71 - a 16-delegate gain for Clinton. Obama's current 162-elected-delegate lead will be reduced to a 146-elected-delegate lead. If she wins Pennsylvania by ten point, the TV talking heads will blather endlessly about her tremendous win - but in reality, a ten-point win would be a terrible loss, putting Clinton mathematically even further behind than she is now.

As of today, before Pennsylvania, Clinton needs to capture 64% of all the remaining delegates (including Pennsylvania's) to catch up to Obama. Every time she wins a state by less than that, she falls farther behind. After Pennsylvania, there will be nine remaining primaries carrying a total of 408 elected delegates. If Clinton wins Pennsylvania by only 10 points (55%-45%), then the mathematical reality is that she'll have to win more than 277 of those 408 remaining delegates to beat Obama. That's 68% - worse odds than the 64% she needs today.

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. And 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."

Does Clinton have a rational chance of winning all the remaining contests by at least 28 points? Reality check: according to a pollster.com mashup of nearly 60 polls, Clinton has 48% of the Pennsylvania vote - 16% less than the 64% she needs just to avoid losing even more ground - and to make things worse, she's been trending downward (though I expect her to get a bump tomorrow that's not predicted in the polling data, as conservative Undecideds finally make up their minds for Clinton at the last minute):

Wait: it gets worse for Clinton than that. After Pennsylvania, the most delegate-rich primary is North Carolina on May 6, with 115 delegates. According to pollster.com's mashup of 45 polls (24 in 2008 alone), Obama's not just projected to win North Carolina, but to win it by over 17 points - AND he's widening his lead over time:

It's unrealistic to predict that Clinton go from an overwhelming loss in North Carolina (garnering only 36% of the vote) to winning it overwhelmingly (nearly doubling her base of support to 64%). In general, Obama closes gaps with her as elections near, not the other way around. But since we're doing thought experiments anyway, let's throw her a bone and say she somehow manages to come back from a 17 point deficit to tie in North Carolina, splitting those 115 delegates evenly with Obama. If she can tie North Carolina, then once again she'll need to pick up 68% of all the remaining delegates, including Pennsylvania's, to gain any ground at all.

So that's where it stands, not as a matter of hope or faith or wishing really really hard or running up the Philadelphia museum steps like Rocky, but in hard numbers: unless Clinton can win Pennsylvania tomorrow by 28 points, and make up a 17-point deficit to tie in North Carolina, and win 68% of all the remaining delegates, she simply can't, by any reasonable analysis, catch up to Obama, let alone beat him, in the upcoming elections. And the first hurdle in that triple-jump comes tomorrow: again, if she doesn't win Pennsylvania by 28 points, then she can't win the election democratically; her only hope would be a near-unanimous sweep of the undecided Superdelegates plus a mass defection of many of the Superdelegates currently endorsing Obama - which ain't likely. And if anyone believes there is a serious possibility of such a mass migration of Superdelegates, prepared to engineer an outcome opposite of the one chosen by their collective constituents, then we need to stop pretending that it even matters whether Clinton can "win elections" and re-focus the debate on whether it's wise or proper for party officials to override millions and millions of its members.

"But wait!," someone's hollering at their computer, "what about Michigan and Florida?!?" A legitimate question; let's talk about Michigan and Florida.

First, some practical politics. Like it or not, even Clinton's most ardent supporters have to admit there's almost no chance that those delegations will be seated at the Convention in the way Clinton wants. Sure, they'll be able to participate at the Convention - why alienate their voters more than we already have? - but with Howard Dean as Chair of the DNC and the Rules Committee unanimous in their earlier decision to disqualify them, any agreement to seat their delegations will be negotiated after the Supers wrap up the nomination contest in June - or they'll be seated under an agreement to split their votes more or less evenly - or their votes will be counted after all the other states' delegates and Superdelegates at the Convention instead of in alphabetical order, so that they don't affect the outcome. I'm not saying this is right or wrong, just talking practical politics: there isn't a snowball's chance in heck Clinton will manage to get credit for all the delegates she claims she won in those states.

But even if it's ridiculously improbable, let's imagine it anyway: that those delegations are seated and that they give Clinton every vote she's asking for. In Michigan, where Obama's name wasn't even on the ballot, that would mean a net Clinton gain of 18 delegates. In Florida - where Clinton told a crowd on election night (though she wasn't "campaigning" there) that she had won a "tremendous victory" - her perfect outcome nets her 38 more delegates over Obama. How would those 56 additional Clinton delegates affect the math?

Answer: it would affect it significantly enough to make the Pennsylvania election more interesting, but probably not enough to make a difference in the outcome. Giving Clinton every delegate she's claiming from Michigan and Florida, and additionally assuming that she can recover from her huge deficit to manage a tie in North Carolina, would reduce Obama's lead from 162 to 106 with nine contests to go. Yet even with such incredible good juju, Clinton would still need to make up a 56 delegate deficit to catch up to Obama in the pledged-delegate count by winning 254 of the remaining 451 elected delegates, or 56% to Obama's 44%. In other words, even with impossible breaks going her way, deus ex machina, Clinton could only win by managing a 12-point spread across all the remaining contests, starting (but emphatically not ending) with Pennsylvania.

The important thing about these numbers is that while the politicians are playing the expectations game, and the TV pundits will proclaim a stunning victory if Clinton wins by five or more, and Howard Wolfson will talk about how Obama's on the ropes, the numbers will let us focus on the issues that matter, according to how well Clinton does in Pennsylvania:

If Clinton wins Pennsylvania by 28 points or more, then every Democrat should acknowledge that her candidacy is unquestionably viable and stop squawking at her to bow out, at least unless and until future elections changed the calculus.

If she wins Pennsylvania by more than 12 points but less than 28, then the only way she can win the nomination without some kind of Superdelegate gamesmanship - which almost certainly would have some blowback for the Democratic Party in November - is if the Michigan and Florida delegations are seated as-is. Even though I don't think there's any chance that's going to happen, a Clinton win in the 12 - 28 point range would definitely put the debate over what to do with those two states back on the front burner, with the heat turned up high.

If she wins Pennsylvania by fewer than 12 points, let alone loses it, then Clinton can't win the race for pledged delegates even if Michigan and Florida are handed to her on a platter. Pennsylvania's one of her strongest states, with an immensely powerful pro-Clinton Democratic machine and where every significant politician but one has endorsed her; if she can't make the necessary margin there, then she's lost the "election." And if she can't make that margin, but still doesn't drop out, then her plan necessarily is to win the nomination by persuading Superdelegates - and maybe, according to her unusual interpretation of party rules, even some non-Supers pledged to Obama - to override the democratic choice, effectively making all of the primaries and caucuses utterly irrelevant. If that's the case, we need to stop wasting our energy pretending that the elections actually matter, and stop talking about Michigan and Florida, and start focusing, hard, on the real issue, which is whether we're OK with our nominee being chosen by aristocrats instead of voters.

My purpose in presenting this analysis isn't to pick a fight with Clinton supporters. I considered publishing this post AFTER the Pennsylvania primary, showing why the outcome - assuming it doesn't meet the 28-point margin I believe actually governs Clinton's chances - means Clinton can't win. But I'm not interested in playing "gotcha" with Clinton backers, who mean well, share most of my values, and hopefully will support any Democrat running against McCain in November. Instead, I'm interested in determining whether Clinton has a serious shot at winning, how she might win (democratically or with a Superdelegate override), and using tomorrow's election results to help focus the discussion among different cadres of Democrats who need to resolve their differences and learn to work together so we can start the serious and vital business of whupping John McCain, in a unified way, as soon as our nominee is chosen. And if Clinton does manage to pull a stunning upset in Pennsylvania - which in my book requires her to win by 28 points, and in everyone's book should require her to win by at least 12 points - then I'm perfectly willing to eat crow, admit she's still in the game, and rethink my positions. Hopefully every Democrat who sincerely cares about regaining the White House, whichever side of this debate they're on, will be willing to do the same.