On from Wisconsin: March 4 is the Day of Decision for Hillary Clinton

William A. Galston
Bill Galston
William A. Galston Ezra K. Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

February 20, 2008

In the aftermath of the Wisconsin primary, John McCain is for the first time calling himself the nominee of the Republican party. He has every right to do so. Not only did he win by a wide margin, but the exit polls also showed that he prevailed in virtually every category of the electorate. He even managed to best Mike Huckabee by 4 percentage points among self-identified conservatives. This is not to say that McCain has or will overcome the doubts of those Republicans who have long regarded him as unreliable. But clearly he is moving to unite his party behind him by beginning to articulate the case he will take to the people in the general election.

In his post-election speech, McCain assumed that his opponent would be Barack Obama. It is not hard to see why. With victories in the Wisconsin primary and Hawaii caucuses, Obama has swept all ten contests since Super Tuesday and has established himself as the clear front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. He earned his victories through meticulous preparation and organization. By contrast, the Clinton campaign’s failure to plan and budget adequately for contests after February 5 represents one of the greatest strategic errors since the modern nominating process was established more than three decades ago.

Even more impressive and significant than this string of unbroken victories has been the manner in which Obama has achieved it. He prevailed in Wisconsin by an unexpectedly large margin of 17 points, continuing the trends observed in Maryland and Virginia, and cut deeply into Hillary Clinton’s formerly solid base of support. In Wisconsin, Obama tied Clinton among women while overwhelming her among men. He won every income group and every age cohort under 65 years. He won the white as well as the black vote, non-college educated as well as college graduates, Democrats as well as Independents and Republicans, moderates and conservatives as well as liberals, suburban and rural as well as urban voters, union as well as non-union members, and veteran as well as first-time primary voters. (He remains relatively weak among Catholics, a possible warning sign for the general election, especially in the Midwest.)

Since Tuesday, Obama has won a remarkable 65 percent of the pledged delegates, expanding his margin in that category by about 130. According to a widely followed tracking web site, he now leads Clinton in pledged delegates by 1185 to 1024 while trailing her 169 to 239 among superdelegates, for an overall lead of 91—1354 to 1263. The remaining contests—14 states plus Puerto Rico—offer a total of 972 pledged delegates. If he were to win 65 percent of them—631 versus 341 for Clinton—he would finish with a total of 1985 delegates, only 40 short of the 2025 needed for the nomination, while she would trail with 1604. More significantly, he would finish with a margin of more than 450 pledged delegates, which would almost certainly bring into his camp the modest number of additional superdelegates needed for outright victory.

The contest may effectively end before then, however. Most outside observers believe that Clinton must win both Texas and Ohio on March 4, and do so by margins wide enough to eat into Obama’s lead in pledged delegates. This will not be easy. There are signs that her formerly large leads are shrinking in both states, and Texas’ arcane system of allocating delegates tilts toward districts where Obama’s strength will be at its peak. If Obama’s margin on March 5 is at or near its current level, many of the nearly 400 superdelegates who are now officially undecided will likely decide that it is time to bring this historic contest to a close. While Clinton can ask the party to wait until March 4, she cannot hope to prolong the verdict for an additional seven weeks until her next bastion—Pennsylvania, on April 22—unless the March 4 results indicate that she has halted Obama’s surge.

Even if March 4 yields results that outside observers view as disappointing, the Clinton campaign may be tempted to soldier on. The flow of funds would surely slow, however, and the victory scenarios would become increasingly problematic. A narrow majority based on superdelegates against a clear majority of pledged delegates for Obama would create a furor, as would successful raids on delegates elected to support Obama. Worst of all would be a majority built on delegations seated pursuant to the contested primaries in Michigan and Florida. At some point, the Clinton campaign would have to ponder the relation between the worth of victory and the manner in which victory is achieved. Democrats old enough to have endured the agony of their 1968 convention cannot forget its electoral consequences.