The West Virginia Pasting

Is Obama’s lead durable enough to withstand Tuesday’s rout?

When a stunt man falls from a skyscraper, it’s hard not to draw a short breath even if you know he’s going to land on a puffy air bag. Barack Obama lost West Virginia by 41 points, which looks like an enormous fall. Clinton was favored to win the state, but Obama is the all-but-named nominee. Shouldn’t that have prevented such a rout?

Whether Obama suffered any damage will be determined by the behavior of the superdelegates in the next few days. Will any of them embrace Clinton after her victory? Right now, Obama’s cushion seems intact. Even after the West Virginia loss, he leads Clinton in all the metrics that matter: He’s ahead in pledged delegates, the popular vote, and states won. This week he overtook Clinton among superdelegates, who continue to march toward him at a regular clip. Unless Clinton can get the delegates from Florida and Michigan seated in her favor—a big longshot—she must reverse the math by convincing more than 70 percent of the remaining superdelegates to initiate Party Armageddon by denying Obama the nomination.

This bad math for Clinton is what made the days before the West Virginia blowout victory seem darker and darker. Her campaign is reportedly $20 million in debt, and she’s dipping regularly into her own bank account. The tide of opinion in her party is moving against her. John Edwards warned her hardball tactics risked damaging the party. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, officially neutral, suggested Obama had the nomination all but locked up. So did Clinton supporter James Carville. Former DNC Chairman Roy Romer came out for Obama and said: “There is a time we need to end it and direct ourselves to the general election. I think that time is now.” This echoed former presidential candidate George McGovern, who dropped his support of Clinton in favor of Obama.

So, the Democratic race may supply us with the kind of headline you’d expect to see in the Onion: “Clinton Wins in Landslide, Drops Out of Race.” Obama is not without flaws. It’s just that Clinton can’t exploit them in a way that helps her. In the wake of West Virginia, Clinton will claim more evidence for the already overwhelming case that Obama can’t win among white working-class voters. Clinton is suggesting Obama is fundamentally dead to these voters and therefore can’t compete in the general election against McCain, but the evidence isn’t there. In a recent Los Angeles Times poll, Obama performs only a little worse among white working-class voters than Hillary Clinton does in matchups against McCain. More broadly, in other surveys, such as a recent Washington Post/ABC poll, he is still running as well or better than Democrats have in the past with white voters. Unless white voters are lying to pollsters consistently and in huge numbers, Obama’s problems in the primary don’t seem to translate into the general-election campaign.

As the debate plays out with remaining undecided superdelegates, the Obama campaign has other arguments against the big Clinton win. Clinton won impressively in a swing state, but Obama crushed her in the swing states of Colorado, Minnesota, and Virginia.

Obama’s problem with white working-class voters does suggest that his powers of persuasion have real limitations. Throughout the campaign, he has touted his ability to reach out to people and to bring them together. His rallies, fundraising, and huge army of volunteers prove he can mobilize many Democracts and some independents as well. But he’s been trying to woo working-class whites for months and months—arguably since the start of the campaign—and he can’t get a handle on them. This is not an electoral problem, perhaps, but it’s a governing problem. How can he make the case for his special ability to rally all Americans of diverse backgrounds and interests, yet have such a big problem with one group? For a while, Obama’s supporters said that the more voters got to know him, the more they were disposed to vote for him, which suggested a powerful ability to sway people of all types. They don’t make that case any more.

In her Tuesday victory speech, Clinton didn’t sound like a candidate who is giving up. She made the case for including the Florida and Michigan delegations and continued to draw sharp contrasts with her Democratic opponent. She didn’t mention Obama by name, but argued that he couldn’t represent the party’s core values and win in swing states.

The Obama team, by contrast, was praising Clinton’s win everywhere. None of his advisers, even with the protection of anonymity, were making the case that she’d won by playing the race card or were trashing her in any other way. They know that the best way to keep her in the race is to appear that they are trying to force her out of it. There was no visible sense of tension and urgency in their response. It almost seemed as if they were relaxing on a giant air cushion.