After six weeks of campaigning, mudslinging, and silly questions to candidates befitting a B-level reality show, Pennsylvania Democrats finally had their say handing Senator Hillary Clinton an important victory over Senator Barack Obama. The win may well be the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, it gives Clinton added momentum and justification to continue in the race. On the other hand, it raises legitimate questions about Obama's ability to close the door on the nomination and lets fester concerns about his toughness. That's bad news for Democrats seeking closure in the nomination contest.
Clinton's win was expected, but the margin exceeded most forecasts. The punditocracy seemed to coalesce around the notion that a 10 percent or larger Clinton victory would be meaningful, contending that anything below that number would be a psychological win for Obama (Don't you just love it when round numbers taken out of the sky are bandied about as rational?) Her performance will temporarily quiet those who have called upon her to exit the race. While it is still very unlikely she can win the nomination, her Keystone State win allows her to continue to craft an argument that she's best positioned to win the states that Democrats will need in November. She has won the popular vote in eight of the nine largest states (North Carolina, ranked 10th, will vote on May 6). While two of those states -- Florida and Michigan -- require an asterisk, the reality is Clinton has done much better than Obama in the states that matter most to Democrats.
The Clinton coalition was as it has always been. She won nearly 70 percent of votes from Catholics, 53 percent from Jewish voters, 56 percent of Protestants, and 63 percent of seniors (Pennsylvania is the second-oldest state in the country). She carried late deciders, churchgoers of all frequencies, rural voters, and those without college degrees. An interesting exit poll finding is that Iraq seems to be receding as an issue. A New York Times exit poll indicated that 55 percent of voters identified the economy as the most important issue facing the country, nearly doubling the 28 percent of voters who identified the Iraq War as most important. That statistic suggests that the ground may be shifting in a way that works against Obama's campaign rationale. What good is being a strong opponent of the war if it no longer matters as much to voters?
Obama has some reasons for optimism. He won nearly two-thirds of 18-24 year old voters and, in what has to be an encouraging sign going forward, he also won a big majority of newly registered voters. His ability to expand the electorate is amazing and presents a great base going into the general election, should he get that far. He continued his overwhelming support among African Americans, winning 92 percent of the Black vote, and carried self-identified liberals. An ominous sign, however, could be his showing among churchgoers; he won 56 percent of those who never attend church, while losing in all other categories.
While Obama is still the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination, he now has some nagging questions to answer. Is his bulging war chest a cover for inherent weakness that could be exploited in a general election? Why is he unable to close the deal in some of the biggest states? Will he have to go negative to close out the race in North Carolina and Indiana on May 6? What would going negative mean to his image as a "new" politician?
For all that we think we know after months and months of campaigning, in many ways, things are still unsettled.
Michael K. Fauntroy is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of the recently released book Republicans and the Black Vote. A registered Independent, he blogs at: www.MichaelFauntroy.com.