124 Days and Counting

Welp, here we are, 124 days after Iowa caucus-goers had their say, and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are still campaigning to make sure the sun rises tomorrow morning. They’ve made more than 100 stops in Indiana and North Carolina, and, after tonight, there are more uncommitted superdelegates to be coerced than there are pledged delegates to be earned. For Clinton, the two states can improve her still-distant chances of winning the nomination. Obama, meanwhile, has been closing in on the nomination for weeks, but superdelegates won’t let him get there without the approval of the Hoosiers and Tar Heels.  

From where we sit, the primary can split in four different directions, depending on tonight’s results. As usual, it all depends on the margin of victory. Below, we offer up four scenarios based on over-unders of the margins in each state.

Over-Under in North Carolina: Obama by 10 points.  

Over: A double-digit victory in North Carolina—where 1.5 million people might vote—would send Obama’s popular-vote tally out of Clinton’s reach, even if Florida and Michigan were included. The popular vote is a flawed metric, especially when Michigan and Florida are factored in, but Obama’s popular-vote dominance would eliminate Clinton’s last quantitative piece of evidence that she is the deserving victor. Uncommitted superdelegates wouldn’t be able to ignore the numbers any longer. Depending on the outcome in Indiana, there would either be a slow trickle or a steady flood of superdelegates in Obama’s direction. That doesn’t mean Clinton would withdraw—quite the opposite, if she wins Indiana—but, rather, the arithmetic disadvantage would eventually end her candidacy.

Most importantly, a big Obama win in North Carolina would mean white voters have returned to the fold; 40 percent of the 400,000 early voters have been black, and observers suggest that in the end, African-Americans will have cast about 35 percent of all votes in the primary. Given that Obama’s expected support among black voters is north of 85 percent, he probably would hit double digits only because 40 percent of white voters saddled up with him . That’s a number he didn’t hit in Ohio or Pennsylvania, and it’s a threshold that may show superdelegtes that Obama has moved beyond the Rev. Wright imbroglio.  

Under: North Carolina was always supposed to be Obama’s state, and a single-digit loss or a Clinton win would mean that she still owns the white vote. Even if she lost the state, she and her surrogates would have enough grist to stall superdelegates. Coupled with a win in Indiana, Clinton could make the case that Obama’s lead still isn’t safe .

Over-Under for Indiana: Clinton by One Point.

Over: If Clinton wins, she won’t drop out. Instead, she’ll continue to draw out the election until at least June 3, when the final states vote. (At that point, most superdelegates will presumably decide once and for all whom they support.) Sure-thing victories in Kentucky and West Virginia in the weeks to come will only help her cause. She’ll hit the phones hard, trying to persuade the superdelegates that nominating a Democrat who is too flashy to win rural votes in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Ohio is like marrying somebody who will only disappoint you when it’s time to pay the bills. Messy breakups ensue in both scenarios.

Under: If Obama wins Indiana, that means he’ll have gotten his groove back among white voters and that Clinton’s populist appeals worked about as well as they did for John Edwards. The media will view the loss as a referendum on the gas-tax holiday, and Obama will emerge as a nominee that superdelegates can be comfortable with. Even if Clinton doesn’t drop out, the superdelegates will move toward Obama. A loss in North Carolina—all the more unlikely if he wins in Indiana—will delay the race’s resolution by a month or so, but for all intents and purposes, Obama will already be the nominee.