A Primary with No End

5 minute read
Amy Sullivan/Washington

A few months ago, the only people who talked about the possibility of a contested Democratic nomination fight extending all the way to the party’s convention in August were hopeful pundits, desperate Republicans, and Chicken Little Democrats.

Most of the rational world looked at the political landscape and foresaw a smooth ride to victory for Democrats. They had, after all, the wind at their backs from the 2006 midterm elections, and a Republican President with record-high disapproval ratings thanks to an unpopular war and a tanking economy. The dueling landmark candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama seemed an embarrassment of riches, fueling record-breaking fund raising and bringing a flood of new voters to the party.

If there were any true believers in such a rosy scenario still to be found within the Democratic party, they were likely disabused of that notion by the results of Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary. After six weeks of an increasingly negative contest, Clinton’s solid, 10-point victory almost guarantees that the Democratic race will continue into June. The once-gleeful pundits now find themselves turning their rental cars toward Indiana while Republicans marvel at their luck and Democrats try to game out a resolution that doesn’t involve a convention-floor battle in Denver.

Had Clinton’s margin been slimmer, the end of the nomination battle might be in sight. Indeed, early in the night, some commentators speculated (perhaps hopefully) that she might use a Pennsylvania win as a chance to “go out on top.” Any lingering thoughts along those lines evaporated when Clinton arrived at her victory rally in Philadelphia and triumphantly declared: “The tide is turning!”

Clinton could be excused for engaging in that bit of wishful thinking herself. The win capped off a final week of campaigning in which she was remarkably focused and upbeat, particularly during an endurance swing through Scranton, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia on Monday. She prevented Obama from running away with votes in upscale suburban counties like Bucks and Montgomery. The victory gives her one last chance to convince donors to invest in her cause — a cause that even with the victory is in dire need of new funding. And it provides more ammunition for the argument she and her supporters have been pressing with the superdelegates who will ultimately put one of the candidates over the top — that she is better positioned than Obama to win in November.

But while it was undoubtedly a good night for Clinton, her opponent could take comfort in the results as well. Six weeks ago, when both candidates turned their attention to this contest, Obama had just gotten thumped in Ohio, a state with an open primary and demographics that are actually somewhat friendlier (younger, more black) for him than Pennsylvania. Obama trailed Clinton by an average of 18 points in Pennsylvania polls at the time. And that was before the toughest six weeks he has endured thus far in the campaign, before Jeremiah Wright and the Tony Rezko trial, before “bitter” and flag pins and Charlie Gibson.

If an Obama collapse of the sort Clinton needs to gain the nomination was ever going to happen, it was in that month and a half between Ohio and Pennsylvania. Yet despite increased criticism and scrutiny, Obama has expanded his lead over Clinton in national polls. He cut her margin in Pennsylvania down to 10 points, and he actually improved his performance from Ohio in the demographic groups he needed to demonstrate he could win: voters with no college education or those over 65, white men, those making less than $50,000, and self-described conservatives.

Even so, the real winner of the Democratic race in Pennsylvania is John McCain. The most significant number coming out of Tuesday night wasn’t Clinton’s 10 point margin of victory, but 43. That’s the percentage of Clinton voters who say they would stay home or vote for McCain if Obama is the party’s nominee in November. It is no longer just the Chicken Littles within the party who openly worry about an outcome that leaves large blocks of women or African-Americans frustrated and alienated.

The extended race is also clearly getting to Obama, who is noticeably fatigued on the stump and lacks the energy that drew in so many new voters earlier in the primary season. The largely positive media coverage he previously enjoyed has been replaced by a tenser relationship. The candidate now limits his availability to the political press corps, and recently snapped at a reporter who tried to ask a question while he was eating breakfast at a Pennsylvania diner.

At the same time, Tuesday night’s results may require Clinton to alter her case against Obama in ways that could do real damage if he becomes the nominee. His ability to improve his standing among key constituencies while withstanding intense scrutiny makes it more difficult for her to argue that he could not win in November. (Clinton admitted as much in their 21st debate, answering “yes, yes, yes” when asked if Obama could beat McCain.) That means she’ll have to instead argue that he should not be President. And that’s music to Republican ears.

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