Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A dead heat down the homestretch

News outlets depend on drama, even when there isn't any. And sometimes they choose the wrong drama, as they did this morning with all kinds of pro-Clinton headlines (at least in the San Francisco area). The real story here is that rank-and-file Democrats are split down the middle and that means the party leaders get to choose the nominee.

Nothing really happened yesterday to swing the Democratic nomination either way. Neither candidate scored big enough to win. Depending on which wire service or political poll site you believe, the delegate count last night had Clinton's net gain somewhere between +11 and +23, out of 370 available. Total pledged so far are something like Obama 1,340, Clinton 1,206 (needed to win: 2,025). Clinton is ahead by about 10% among the unpledged "superdelegates"—the big wigs who are allowed to change their vote—so Obama's overall lead is 1,542 to 1,447 (both totals +/-25 depending on how you count the supers).

With just over 600 pledged delegates left to select, a candidate would have to win all 12 remaining primaries, by 100% to 0%, to lock up the nomination. And that ain't going to happen. Ordinary-people voting is so close that the superdelegates are going to decide this.

What will happen: over the next couple of months, if one candidate wins a really big chunk of the remaining primaries (say, 10 out of 12) or more than 2/3 of the remaining delegates, there will be a lot of pressure on the other one to drop out. Enough of the 350 or so not-yet-announced superdelegates will start declaring themselves for the candidate who has momentum that people will say the other candidate "ought" to drop out for the good of the party.

If the two candidates split the wins and split the delegates, then the supers will wait until the convention, in August, to make their decision. They'll do that because they'll know they can go there and be treated like royalty, each side begging for their vote—and because they will want to seriously sniff the public-opinion aroma as long as they possibly can before committing.

By the way, I don't have any problem with the presence of superdelegates. I think this election is exactly proving the value of the setup the Democratic Party installed after McGovern. No winner-take-all primaries—a good thing. A mix of primaries and caucuses—another good thing. In most elections, someone builds a big enough lead and they're nominated. But when nobody gets clear of the competition, the nomination is brokered by a combination of public opinion and party leaders. I would change the timing (I'd like the whole process to take place from March to early June), but I wouldn't modify anything else about this.

That's the horse-race portion of my musing. I'm putting my comments about the substance of the two candidates in a separate post.

(n.b. I love it when I'm right. I said two weeks ago that the opera wasn't over yet and that the candidates could be tied going into the convention.)


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