Big Trouble in Denver

Last night’s Texas, Ohio, Vermont, Rhode Island primary outcomes were very bad news. I say this in part because I am coming around to Barack Obama — he has shown some wonk and some fight — in part because I am seriously put off by Clinton campaign racist nastiness but mostly because I am a political realist: at this point, Senator Obama has the advantage.

Senator Obama is up around a hundred delegates and the Democratic primaries divvy up their delegates proportionately. With the electorate split nearly evenly, delegates will continue to be divided 51-49 between the candidates and while Senator Obama may go up or down a few delegates each primary, his approximately 100 delegate lead becomes structural.

What I think is really bad is what the Clinton end game has got to look like. Earlier in the primaries there was a lot of talk of the super delegates overruling the will of the people by voting en mass for Senator Clinton even though Senator Obama came to convention with the majority of the regular delegates. A lot of commentators tried somewhat successfully to dispel this idea, arguing that the super delegates wouldn’t do that, that they mostly follow the will of the people, that Senator Obama is having no problem picking up super delegate pledges himself.

Grant that the super delegates will follow the will of the people. What happens if the situation above plays out: say Clinton wins the remainder of the primaries and so has “momentum” and perception once more on her side. But the 51-49 wins keep up so that the Senator Obama’s 100 delegate lead more or less persists. Going into convention in this situation, there simply wouldn’t be a “will of the people” for super delegates to ratify, or at least they could overrule Senator Obama’s regular delegate majority and plausibly say that they weren’t involved in some act of anti-democratic treachery, that Senator Clinton in fact was the latter day choice of the Democrats.

The means of turning the super delegates as well as those remaining primaries will be an increasingly negative campaign. We end up with the first convention battle since — what — 1968? There will be a huge convention fight over whether or not to seat the Florida and Michigan delegations. That and the tremendous expenditure of money and effort spent by two Democrats hammering away at each other could be trouble for the eventual nominee.

But I don’t think necessarily. A convention battle could garner all sorts of free, exciting news coverage that could cement the Democratic candidate’s name in the minds of many an undecided voter and the pathos that accrues to the eventual winner could make for a compelling narrative. That and people constantly under-estimate the WWF factor in U.S. politics.

I happen to think that a Clinton victory in this scenario is highly unlikely because Senator Obama is having little trouble picking up super delegate pledges himself. And where he lacks the backroom advantage, he will have the likes of Ted Kennedy and John Kerry — both super delegates — working that angle for him. Nonetheless, this is the strategy that the Clintons are playing by staying in.

The certain danger is that Democrats forfeit precious time. John McCain has proven an lackluster fund raiser, has allowed his political persona to go off the rails and is really in the squeeze between the need to bring out a less than enthusiastic base and regain his independent appeal. As Carl Bernstein pointed out that night on CNN, what John McCain needs is time and by not dropping out, what Senator Clinton has given him is just that: time. Time to store up some cash, time to continue to pander to the base without having to worry about a dedicated opponent making hay about it and time to get his personae back on track.

And then there’s money. Barack Obama raised $50 million last month, Hillary Clinton raised $30 million. If Senator Clinton would drop, Senator Obama couldn’t capture it all, but could start to approach $80 million months. As it is, all that money is going to be blown on Democrats pillorying one another.

The dramatic high point of last night was Barack Obama’s speech. First of all, this scenario caught him unaware. A couple of minutes into his speech, I asked a viewing companion, “Is he just going to deliver his standard stump speech?” I imagine his campaign having prepared some magnanimous speech complementing his opponents on a campaign hard-fought and honorably conducted, outlining a vision for the future of the party, etc. only to have to abandon it at the last minute for some tweaks to what they had on hand.

Second, Obama was visibly pissed. His eyebrow smoldered and his eyes flashed angrily as he delivered the speech. It was quite an impressive display.

But Senator Obama continued his recent strategy of meaning John McCain when he refers to “my opponent” and “Hillary who?” Act like the winner and people will respond accordingly. Again, some fight.