Campaign Crystal Ball

UPDATE 8:58 p.m.:   NBC and Fox News have called the Pennsylvania primary for Hillary Clinton. Once you get past your initial excitement, it’s clear that a win by one point and a win in the double-digits mean very different things. Earlier today we predicted what the different scenarios would mean for the race moving forward.

The choice metaphor for the campaign season is that the candidates are on the road to the White House. If that’s the case, then Pennsylvania’s primary is a five-way intersection for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Behind them lies the wake of 45 primaries and caucuses, six former contenders, and hundreds of millions of dollars. In front of them are four branching paths, each of them leading to a new narrative that will determine when this whole shebang will end.

So, it is with only a pinch of tongue-in-cheek hyperbole that we suggest tonight’s results will change the course of this election. We tapped into our inner Nostradamus, rummaged around for our crystal ball, and read the tarot cards to predict what each path holds in store for the two candidates.

Hillary Clinton wins big (by 10 points or more): Emboldened by her victory, Clinton will certainly press on to Indiana and North Carolina. She almost certainly can’t win the Tarheel State, according to polls, so she’ll double-down on the Hoosiers and ignore Carolina, even though the latter has more pledged delegates.

Most important, this scenario justifies Clinton’s main plea to superdelegates: that Obama can’t win the big states needed for a November triumph. He’ll have lost Pennsylvania, California, New Jersey, Ohio, Florida (sort of), and Michigan (sort of). Granted, this argument is deeply flawed , but it’s still a convincing one on its surface, and it buys her some traction with the party elites.

Moreover, a double-digit victory implies that she cleaned house among white middle-class voters. That means she can spin the exit polls to suggest Obama’s “bitter” comments and the Rev. Wright flap have alienated him from middle-class voters that the party will need to beat John McCain in November. Again, this is an argument for superdelegates more than the average voter, but Clinton’s hopes rest primarily with supers at this point.  

All of this means superdelegates will continue to refrain from forming a single-file line behind Obama and company. Plus, if turnout is high— which it’s reported to be —a big Clinton margin will help chip away at Obama’s popular vote lead. She needs to make up significant ground on that metric to convince supers to not vote for the guy with the lead in pledged delegates.

Clinton wins semi-impressively (by 5-10 points): She’s bought herself some time, but the end is still fast approaching. A win this size confirms that she’s still a force to be reckoned with in the party but that she still can’t bury Obama in contests that he singularly devotes his attention to. Obama has received 60 percent of the vote or more in 16 states; she has only done that once, in Arkansas. (Her biggest win outside of Arkansas and New York is in Oklahoma by 24 points, but Obama never campaigned in the state .)  

She’ll stay in the race through Indiana and North Carolina, but superdelegates may start to slide toward Obama at an accelerating pace. An average-size victory in Pennsylvania makes the delegate math even more oppressive and makes Indiana a go-big-or-go-home affair. That’ll be tough to achieve if she has to do damage control in North Carolina and Obama feels secure enough in his Tarheel lead to double-down in Indiana.

The key drawback for Clinton is that a win of this size doesn’t change the narrative of the campaign. Pundits ( guilty as charged ) will still say that it’s just a matter of time before she drops out, and Obama will have batted away claims that his questionable comments and friendships have hurt his standing with the electorate.  

Clinton wins narrowly (by .1-5 points): The Baja Men will re-emerge from anonymity to record a new smash hit: “Who Let the Superdelegates Out?” Expect uncommitted superdelegates to flock to Obama while a significant chunk of Clinton supers switch over to the other side. It’ll be like watching a fruit gradually go rotten over a series of weeks.

A Clinton win by a small margin means that the delegate math has completely buried her. She will be even deeper in pledged delegate debt, and now she’ll have no chance of catching Obama in the popular vote tally—even if Florida and Michigan are included. Couple that with a moral victory for Obama—even if he says he doesn’t believe in such things —and Clinton’s path to the nomination isn’t obstructed or blocked; it’s a dead end.

Making matters worse, a narrow victory means she can’t replenish her campaign’s wallet, which is feeling a little light lately . Without more money, she can’t air enough ads to combat the hefty amount of airtime Obama has been purchasing. If she can’t fight back over the air, then Obama’s allure becomes even more magnetizing.  

Obama wins (by any amount): That’s it. It’s over. It’s just a matter of time. Expect a biblical exodus of superdelegates to Obama and mounting pressure for her to drop out. She probably won’t make it to Indiana and North Carolina. The deed is done.