The best news for Hillary Clinton’s campaign may be that it’s headed over a cliff. In a campaign season where conventional wisdom has been so wrong so often, she can take heart that the current view among the political class is that Obama is marching unstoppably toward the nomination.
Obama has won the last five contests by wide margins and looks on course to win all three primaries on Tuesday. The Clinton campaign predicted this would be a good period for Obama and that they could take this in stride, but their nonchalance crumbled when Clinton replaced her campaign manager this week. (We’re winning; time to fire the quarterback!) Obama is also ahead of Clinton for the first time in a national poll and outperforms Clinton in head-to-head matchups with likely opponent John McCain. Obama has more money, can raise it easily, and still draws those blockbuster crowds. (He should travel with his own overflow room since they are so often required at the venues he uses.)
But all is not lost for those who support Hillary Clinton. Here are a few reasons to keep hope alive (why let Obama own that word?):
1. Clinton has a floor: Despite Obama’s successes, he has been unable to make significant inroads with key voting blocs. Women, Latinos, and less-prosperous voters all have continued to support Clinton. Obama is the candidate who is supposed to have the crazed supporters, but when the Washington Post recently asked Democratic voters how adamantly they supported their candidate, it was Clinton whose troops were more committed.
These are the groups that helped sustain Clinton in big states on Super Tuesday after Obama won in Iowa and South Carolina. Obama has had a few scattered wins among them (leading with women in Iowa and Maine), but he has not had great success reaching into these still-for-Clinton groups.
Clinton’s support among these key demographics also provides her with her electability argument as she tries to make the case that Obama is a modern-day George McGovern—the pet rock of the party’s wealthy liberal wing. “How can we have a nominee who can’t win the votes of working-class people?” says one Clinton strategist. It’s a good question.
Clinton is banking on her loyal constituencies for her comeback day on March 4, where she hopes working-class whites in Ohio and Latinos in Texas will give her victories. An early test of whether blue collar voters are holding for Clinton might come in pockets of Wisconsin, which votes next week. The college towns will go for Obama, but much of the state resembles Ohio. These areas should back Clinton. If not, she’s in trouble.
2. Front-Runner Blues: Who would want to be the front-runner in this race? Every time someone is thus anointed, he or she falters. This isn’t just superstition. There are specific pressures that come with being at the front of the field. Buyer’s remorse can set in. As more Democrats look at Obama in nominee focus, they might start to worry over his general election liabilities. He may have experience, but he’s never really been tested. (These unresolved qualms may explain why voters who make up their mind on Election Day go with Clinton).
The press might start pushing harder on Obama, too. The stories that weren’t followed up on during the galloping horse race stage of the early primaries might get a second look. Plus, there are more reporters covering fewer candidates, and perhaps the press will feel compelled to extensively vet a candidate who looks like he’s on his way to the nomination.
3. Cynics for Clinton: The Democratic nomination may come down to the 796 superdelegates. How these Democratic elected officials and party insiders will vote is a mystery. They could back a candidate based on their own independent judgment; they could opt to follow the will of the voters; they could split on that question. If Obama scores some upsets in states he’s not supposed to win, he may be able to convince a big chunk of superdelegates that he’s the candidate, and that’ll be the end of it. But if the race remains close, the backroom battle seems to favor the Clintons. They have more ties to these party insiders, and they know how to play the game (that’s in Part 1 of the arguments Obama is making against them). Obama can stir a crowd of 20,000, but it’s the Clinton team that can make the insider case. For example, when Clinton talks about being able to fight the Republican attack machine, party insiders who have seen the combat up close may be apt to buy the argument that despite Obama’s inspiring language, only the Clintons understand what’s necessary to combat the GOP.
In a race where so much that seemed certain has not been, any struggling candidate can find a reason to persevere, especially perhaps a candidate who was once seen as inevitable. Of course the race’s switchbacks have now become such a predictable part of conventional wisdom that it may be time now for the undulations to stop and for momentum to start playing a role again. In that case, Clinton is doomed.