04/21/2008 08:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is Wednesday D-Day For Superdelegates?

Barring a huge upset, Hillary Clinton will win Pennsylvania tomorrow by about 5-10 points. The media will act surprised, Barack Obama's campaign will say she still can't win the nomination with pledged delegates, and no new points will be scored. Clinton will then lose North Carolina spectacularly, win Indiana narrowly and the two will split the remaining states. Florida's delegates will be seated after the winner is already determined -- it's too big a state to piss off, and the arguments against are undemocratic. Finally, in spite of echo chambers on both sides claiming otherwise, this race will end in a tie, with either candidate able to claim a victory of up to about 350,000 votes.

I know that Democrats on both sides have perfectly plausible explanations as to why this simply is not the case, and their candidate has a clear moral, mathematical or practical claim to the nomination. Obama won the pledged delegates (a safe prediction, I'd say,) but Clinton would have won a general election. He won the popular vote, or she did. He's more electable, or she is. Either way, it's going to take some rationalization to call either a clear winner.

The system, to put it mildly, stinks. But for now, we're stuck with it. And as much as they would love to shirk the responsibility, superdelegates will eventually be forced to decide the nominee. So forget Tuesday. I say Wednesday is the day to watch this race.

Barack Obama was widely rumored to have had 50 superdelegates ready to endorse if he had won either Ohio or Texas. He didn't, and they held back. This gives some credence to the oft-repeated Clinton claim that she can win the nomination with victories in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- not because of the delegates won so much as the superdelegates won over. Add to that a long hold-off on major Clinton endorsements even through some major rough patches for Obama, as well as rumblings that it will "all be over very soon," and one is invited to imagine a superdelegate power play in the works. Maybe even two.

Clearly, this is speculation on my part. However, both candidates must be aware that they each need a major show of force going into this round, and Clinton especially needs it before Indiana. But which way will support swing? Is that same group standing by to boost Obama after a Pennsylvania loss, or to seal the deal for an Indiana victory? Or will they defect to Clinton, or split between the two? Does Clinton have a few dozen up her sleeve to narrow the gap going into the post-Pennsylvania endgame? Or are they really just... waiting?

It has been repeatedly observed that the holdout superdelegates are looking for a general election winner, knowing that the electability question has been recklessly placed in the hands of those least qualified to answer it. They've tried waiting for a Howard Dean meltdown on either side, some revelation about either candidate, and it's just not coming. My guess is that Democrats will now turn where they always turn in times of trouble: Turn to the polls.

The problem is, they aren't much help either.

A few times every election cycle, we are met with what I call a New Jersey Shocker Poll. The New Jersey Shocker Poll suggest that a large, reliable state (often New Jersey,) is either suddenly competitive or has altogether flipped from red to blue or blue to red. In 2004, this laughably resulted in Dick Cheney's last minute flight to the garden state. A few months ago, Democrats were popping nitroglycerin and breathing into paper bags over polls predicting a devastating Obama loss to McCain in the same state -- just weeks after other other pollsters had predicted that he would be competitive there against Clinton. Of course, none of these were or are predictive of election outcomes, because a state's voting history must be weighed against any polls suggesting a sudden shift in preference.

So polls indicating that Hillary Clinton can carry all three major swing states without worrying about losses in the west and great lakes regions are... well, almost as absurd as polls indicating Barack Obama can win just one of them and make up for it with gains in the mountain west. Both scenarios sound good, but neither is a serious plan for victory in November when weighed against the voting records of the "flipped" states.

It all averages out to this: Hillary Clinton would likely find herself defending some reliably Democratic states, while Barack Obama would face an uphill battle in the ones that typically produce presidents. A joint ticket seems the most logical solution, but is all but out of the question at this point.

The good news is that there are palpable advantages for Democrats this year. Both candidates have strong ground operations and remarkable abilities to turn out the vote. But again, these translate only into possible general election gains, not reliable action by reliable voters. And the bad news is that reliable general election voters like John McCain. A lot.

So which is the more plausible path to the White House? Clinton's better chance in the king maker states, or Obama's shot at putting new ones into play? Or will the turnout advantage hold, making the party virtually unstoppable regardless of the nominee? If it all seems a bit much for you to sort out, imagine how hard it must be for Democratic Party officials, whose inability to identify a winner must be chromosomal.

The decision they come to -- or their choice to dodge it -- should become apparent between Pennsylvania and Indiana. If they believe that Clinton's elector-rich wins outweigh Obama's delegate-rich wins, this will be the time to speak up. If they do, Obama is officially in trouble. If they don't, Clinton is almost certainly fighting a losing battle.