Clinton’s Magic 8-Ball

By Christopher Beam and Chadwick Matlin

By everyone’s account, March 4 is a fork in the road. But it’s a fork with all sorts of twisted, intersecting prongs. And because the primary has gone on so long, everyone from voters to pundits to the candidates themselves will be hypersensitive to every datum that emerges from the day’s four primaries. What does it mean if Obama saps Hillary’s strength among Latinos in southern Texas? How should we interpret a Clinton surge among Vermont’s Ben and Jerry’s-swilling college population? And what of the all-important left-handed female Catholic immigrants who voted between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m.?

We could spend all day dissecting all the mini-scenarios. Instead, let’s take a look at some of the broad situations that might play out over the next few days.

Scenario 1: Hillary wins Texas and Ohio.

a) She wins both big. Clinton would be back in the game, even if Obama wins Vermont. “Momentum” narrative would swing back her way, catapulting her into the long the stretch until Pennsylvania on April 22 (even if she loses in Wyoming and Mississippi next week). Her campaign may also prove it can pull off the decisive victories needed to make up Obama’s delegate lead.

b) She wins both narrowly. She would stick around, but pressure to exit the race would build. Much would depend on whether superdelegates swing toward her or Obama after the race—if Edwards or Richardson endorsed her, she’d still here to stay. If they went to Obama, Hillary could bow out. Still, her victories would raise questions about Obama’s ability to win big, Democrat-rich states in the general election.  

c) She wins Ohio and Texas primaries, but loses Texas caucus. We would see another battle of semantics. Clinton would claim to have won Texas and would raise hell about the system being unfair. ( Lawsuit , anyone?) Obama would argue it’s “about delegates.” Clinton would likely stay in the race, but the next few weeks would be long and bloody.

Scenario 2: Split decision: Clinton loses in Texas, wins Ohio.

If Obama’s judgment-over-experience narrative works in Texas but the NAFTA flap dooms him in Ohio, things get messy very quickly. Clinton has the money to stick around, but with the GOP race settled, Democrats will be hankering for a nominee. Odds are she’ll leave us within a week. But if she convinces superdelegates to resist Obama, she may have bought enough time to survive the span between Mississippi (March 11) and Pennsylvania (April 22). In that case, she could assume John Edwards’ middle-class avenger mantle and campaign hard on a populist message. However, her biggest obstacle could be her own husband—Bill said Hillary had to win both Ohio and Texas or the gig was up.

Scenario 3: Obama beats her—twice.

a) Obama wins big. By “big,” we mean a margin of seven or more points. Confronted with Obama’s come-from-behind victory, daunting delegate math , and likely superdelegate defections, Clinton would have to ring her own death knell. We may even see a full concession speech Tuesday night. Even Bill would start endorsing Obama—and he’s a superdelegate.

b) Obama ekes out two wins. If it’s a squeaker, Clinton will probably meditate on things for a bit. The delegate math will still be overwhelming, but she may be able to spin the narrow losses as ties that got out of hand. The press and Democratic Party officials won’t buy this argument, but her supporters may. If she doesn’t drop out quickly, look for previously sheepish superdelegates to flock to Obama as all of his high-profile surrogates start calling for Clinton to bail. Once that happens, it’s only a matter of time—whether or not Clinton admits it.