The Wide Mississippi

Obama will win today’s Mississippi primary. The question is by how much. But there’s still room for small surprises. Here are a few factors to keep an eye on as the Magnolia State’s results roll in this evening (8 p.m. ET):

It could be closer than you think. Clinton’s people have been playing down the importance of Mississippi—each candidate held all of two events there in the past week—so a narrow win by Obama could be construed as a surprise pseudo-victory for Clinton. Mississippi’s Democratic electorate is about 55 percent black, which bodes well for Obama. But they need to turn out if he’s going to deliver the trouncing everyone expects. One bad sign is that African-American turnout in Texas was lower than expected—even lower than in the 2004 primary. If the same thing happens in Mississippi, Clinton’s estimated 40-point lead among whites could help her close the gap.

Could Obama cancel out Clinton’s March 4 winnings? In the states that voted March 4, Clinton netted about 15 delegates. (Texas is still tallying its caucus results.) Obama closed that gap by two delegates with his win in Wyoming on Saturday. Could he close it the rest of the way tonight? Doubtful. He would need to win 69 percent of the vote in order to beat Clinton by 13 delegates, according to Slate ’s Delegate Calculator . Even in his most decisive Southern victory, Georgia, he took only (“only”!) 66 percent. More likely, he will net a handful of delegates today—plus most if not all of the state’s six superdelegates .

Would Obama put Mississippi in play? Some folks have floated the theory that if Obama wins the nomination, he could turn Mississippi blue in the general. The RNC protests the claim, pointing out that he would be up against some tough ideological barriers. (Think immigration, abortion, stem cell research.) Furthermore, a recent survey by American Research Group shows 48 percent of white voters saying they would not vote for Obama. But blacks make up 37 percent of Mississippi’s population. A huge turnout among that cohort in November, combined with a small percentage of white voters, could conceivably hand Mississippi to Obama. Today’s numbers will be a good indicator.

The last word … for a while. Mississippi is the last primary before we embark on the Bataan Death March to April 22. With today’s results, Obama has the chance to slingshot himself into the next few weeks. Clinton is still far ahead in Pennsylvania, so for Obama, April will be all about gap-narrowing. But a devastating victory today would start him out on the right foot—and remind people that in terms of pledged delegates, he is way ahead of Clinton.