The magnitude of Hillary Clinton’s victory on ‘Junior Tuesday’ may have been small compared to some of Barack Obama’s recent landslides, but its significance is greater than the final delegate count.
In the absence of meaningful policy debate, the battle between Clinton and Obama has been about narrative and momentum. On this count, the results signal trouble for Obama’s campaign and a turnaround for Clinton. They also establish a clear and plausible strategy for a possible Clinton victory.
In the final days of the Texas campaign the narrative began to turn for Clinton. She won the endorsement of a champion middleweight boxer Kelly "The Ghost" Pavlik, who was knocked down in his championship match but got back up to win. "Hillary Clinton is my kind of fighter", he declared in a rally at Youngstown, Ohio.
At her Ohio victory speech, Clinton evoked the same narrative: "For everyone who stumbled and stood right back up and for everyone who works hard and never gives up, this one’s for you. You know what they say: as Ohio goes, so goes the nation. Well, this nation’s coming back, and so is this campaign."
Clinton’s victories in Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island have given her the momentum, and a winning narrative to build upon. Obama’s vaunted political machine failed to win Ohio and Texas despite reportedly outspending Clinton in those States two to one. At best his spending spree may have averted a Clinton landslide.
But just how did Clinton win? And will it be enough to affect the ultimate result?
Exit polls show a Democratic voting base split down the middle. Obama retains big leads among African-Americans, but this is cancelled out by Clinton’s lead among Hispanics. Obama retains a lead among younger voters, but this is cancelled out by Clinton’s lead among older voters. In Ohio, where Clinton made her push for the rural white male with Kelly Pavlick, she won the male vote as well as the female vote. This made her victory there so decisive.
In both big contests however, a crucial factor was the higher turnout of female voters (nearly 60 per cent), and the tendency of "late deciders" to vote for Clinton by two to one. The turnaround in the polls for Clinton began three days ago, and this was reflected in the exit polling – the only group of voters among which Obama won a majority were those who had already made their decision in February.
The exit polls also showed that Clinton’s core messages of "experience" and "solutions" resonated. More voters thought she had "a clear plan for America" compared to Obama, and more voters preferred Clinton as "commander-in-chief". The much attacked "attack ad" featuring the 3am phone call was clearly a wise investment. In Ohio, Clinton also narrowly won the "NAFTA-war" launched by Obama. In a State were 80 per cent of people believe "trade deals lose jobs", 55 per cent of these anti-NAFTA voters went to Clinton.
Obama has been quick to point out that he still technically remains the front-runner. But Clinton’s path to victory is no longer to win the pledged delegate count, and the Obama camp knows it. Tuesday’s results are damaging for Obama because Clinton will use these victories to argue her case with the super delegates – the governors, party officials and other elected representatives – who must ultimately decide the outcome. Had Obama won Texas and Ohio, super delegates would have cascaded his way, but these defeats will sow the seeds of doubt and many will wonder if Obama’s movement may go the way of other messianic fads: swelling, peaking and then ebbing away.
Obama is banking on the democratic dividend from beating Clinton in the delegate count. However, the antiquated electoral system is at once his best friend and worst enemy. Obama performed best in caucuses, while Clinton performed best in secret ballot primaries. This leaves an opening for a democratic deficit whereby Obama may win the delegate count, but lose the popular vote. A little over 30,000 voters in Washington State, for example, elected 78 delegates, compared to the 365 delegates elected by the 4.36 million voters of California. After Ohio and Texas, Clinton is less than 300,000 behind in the popular vote out of some 27 million votes cast. If she now starts winning again in some big States, she will overtake Obama. It’s at this point that she will start selling herself as the more ‘democratically’ legitimate candidate.
This strategy relies on discrediting the caucus system. The Clinton camp has already briefed journalists on voting irregularities in the Texas caucuses. The fact that Clinton won the secret ballot – in which 2.5 millions Texans voted –
but lost the caucuses that evening in which only 100,000 voted, will be used as
evidence of the inherent corruption of the caucus system. The Texas ‘two-step’
was designed by the Democratic Party in that State to "encourage participation" by corralling primary voters into party meetings. While two
thirds of the delegates were awarded according to the ballot primaries, another
third are awarded using the caucus system. Given the disparity in the number of
voters in each, this is obviously less than democratic.
And then there’s Florida and Michigan, States which were stripped of
delegates because of "scheduling" conflicts with the central party, but
which Clinton won decisively.
As the battle drags on, an increasingly likely if risky solution is a Clinton-Obama ticket. But would Obama accept second place after all this? We may yet wait some time for Obama to face the same calls as Clinton did, to "quit for the good of the party". Before then, the Democrats will spend tens of millions more fighting each other, while McCain is finally free to start fighting them.
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