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The Five Stages Of Political Grieving: Acceptance Comes to Camp Clinton

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One school of psychiatric thought holds that there are five stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While Senator Clinton has of late been loath to throw her lot in with elite experts (presumably this includes psychiatrists as well as economists; basically any "-ist" profession), the passions on display in both camps of Democrats indicate that we're all due for a little head-shrinking, so here goes. (In fairness, I'd note that if the shoe were on the other foot, and if it were Obama's candidacy facing its waning days, his supporters could be similarly characterized by these same stages of grief.)

Denial -- The Clinton team has been impressively steadfast in their constant denial of their waning chances for the nomination at every turn, stump speech, and press conference since Obama established himself as the frontrunner after his dominating wins in mid-February. Part of that denial was earned (Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania) and part was merely fortuitous (Reverend Wright). Part of that denial was also the familiar candidates' game of "we're in it to win it!", a stubborn optimism (Dean's scream speech being the archetype) until, all of a sudden, you're out of it.

And to show that denial is not just for on-air campaign surrogates, last night's comments on Hillary Clinton's official blog reflected similar emotions: "I am still praying that the results are not real that somehow at least the results are just single digits in NC. . . ."; and, "I can't believe it --- I really thought we were going to do it finally!!!"

Anger -- As for this most visceral stage, consider what has become the pundits' favorite post-primary metric: the McCain defection rate. That is to say, what percentage of Clinton supporters will defect to McCain or stay home in the general election rather than vote for Obama, and vice versa. These percents reached new highs yesterday, with half of Clinton's Indiana supporters refusing to vote for Obama in the general (1/3 would pick McCain and 17% wouldn't vote at all), and 50% of Clinton's North Carolina supporters refusing to back Obama in the general (38% for McCain and 12% staying home).

Without getting too "meta," I think that the McCain defection rate has taken on a life of its own. The defection percentages may have ballooned over the last few contests not only because Clinton and Obama supporters are genuinely caught up in the swell of pre-primary emotion (including floods of negative mail and TV spots), but also because those polled about their Democratic loyalties are trying to get the attention of superdelegates, party leaders, and the media. To indicate one's acceptance of the other candidate is to "weaken" your own--albeit ever so slightly. I'd also note that the apparent greater potential acceptance rate by Obama supporters if Clinton were to become the nominee (59% of Obama Hoosiers would back Clinton against McCain, as would 70% of Obama Tarheels) is reflective of his supporters' more certain belief that he will be the nominee. Certainty and strength makes magnanimity easier.

Bargaining -- This stage can be summed up in two words: Florida and Michigan. Over the past few days, Clinton's strategists have indicated a willingness to pursue the so-called nuclear option to try and seat the Florida and Michigan delegations according to their prior votes. Last-ditch efforts to improve one's lot are perfectly consistent with this third stage. And lest I be accused of abetting any disenfranchisement, let me direct you to the audio of Senator Clinton noting that "It's clear, this election [Michigan is] having is not going to count for anything."

Depression -- "I have been watching the news and getting depressed also." (another of last night's comments on the Clinton blog).

Acceptance -- In their speeches last night, both candidates emphasized that the Democratic party will coalesce around the nominee and work to take back the White House in November. Acceptance was always stage that either disappointed Obama or Clinton supporters would have to face, and while it won't come immediately, never underestimate the power of your candidate making nice with her opponent and stumping for him. Take the following Clinton blog comments: "Hillary will be behind Barack Obama if he's the nominee, we should be too"; and, "Obama is a good Democrat. I probably would vote for him if he is the nominee. If I wouldn't I surely wouldn't vote for McCain, I'd rather not vote at all in such case."

Wounds may heal more quickly than thought and rumors of the demise of Democratic chances may be greatly exaggerated and too much for Republicans to hope for. Perhaps the only other acceptance-related question that remains is whether Obama would offer Clinton the Vice-Presidency, and whether she would accept.