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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Tactical Victory for Clinton

Hillary Clinton has followed up her solid primary win in PA yesterday with what appears to be a tactical victory today: laying down a story-line that the only contest that matters on May 6 is in Indiana, a state she has a decent chance of winning, making NC, where Obama has a big lead in the polls, essentially meaningless.
I call it a success because so far, the news media, and even some pro-Obama commentators, are buying it. In the midst of a generally negative assessment of Clinton’s ultimate, today’s Washington Post article by Dan Balz on the PA results says this:

Clinton expects victories in West Virginia, Kentucky and Puerto Rico. Obama’s team expects to win Oregon, North Carolina, Montana, South Dakota and Guam. That makes Indiana the critical battleground. Obama was there last night and Clinton will arrive today.

Even more interestingly, Ezra Klein of the American Prospect–who usually reflects the pro-Obama leanings of the progressive blogosphere–has an article up today arguing that Obama needs a “knockout” over Clinton on May 6, meaning an Indiana win.
And the articles discussed here at TDS by J.P. Green earlier today all point to Indiana as the next big contest.
Implicit and sometimes explicit in the all-about-Indiana story-line is that Barack Obama can’t claim true and final victory in the nominating contest–delegate-math be damned–until he can finally exorcise the haunting fear that he can’t win states with substantial but not massive African-American populations. And that’s a concern for him beyond Indiana, if he loses there: if the contest is still alive, HRC is almost certainly going to win big in WV and KY, and Obama’s subsequent likely wins in MT, SD and perhaps OR may be written off as irrelevant to his “problem,” which superdelegates will be constantly asked to weigh.
Part of Obama’s current dilemma is that his own campaign can’t seem to get beyond an inevitability argument. Brandishing projected delegate and popular-vote charts, the Obama campaign and its media allies have been dismissing adverse primary results for weeks and even months now, on the reasonable but probably irrelevant theory that it would take a miracle for Clinton to catch him on either measurement. If he’s already won, then it’s psychologically difficult to lay down his own marker for when superdelegates should force Clinton from the race–e.g., the next time she loses, say, in NC.
So: Clinton gets to call the next “meaningful” battle, and thus gets to lose NC with no consequences beyond whatever net gains in delegates or popular votes Obama can squeeze from the Tar Heel State. Those gains would simply represent a small addition to the charts showing Obama’s inevitability, which much of the media and a critical mass of superdelegates have clearly decided to reject for now.
It was particularly crafty of the Clinton camp to get word out today that key supporters close to the candidate would gently push her to withdraw if she loses Indiana–a pretty empty pledge since no one thinks she could survive a loss there. No such promises were made with respect to a loss in NC.
When I called this framing of the contest a “tactical” victory for Clinton, I did mean just that. Obama can take the bait and win Indiana and not only nail down the nomination, but quiet some of the caterwauling about his “weaknesses.” Perhaps a NC win would add just enough to the inevitability argument to begin to tip superdelegates in his direction even if he loses Indiana. And in the end, the math that underlies the Obama inevitability argument is generally sound; something other than occasional must-win victories would have to happen to give HRC a plausible shot at the nomination.
But the chance to pick the battleground remains a precious asset to Clinton, and one rarely available to a trailing candidate.

3 comments on “A Tactical Victory for Clinton

  1. Jon on

    Good points. One thing I’d like to focus on:

    Implicit and sometimes explicit in the all-about-Indiana story-line is that Barack Obama can’t claim true and final victory in the nominating contest–delegate-math be damned–until he can finally exorcise the haunting fear that he can’t win states with substantial but not massive African-American populations.

    There’s an interesting asymmetry in how this is being discussed: why no equivalent haunting fear about how Clinton is unable to win states with massive — or minimal — African-American populations?
    It seems to me that there are a couple of things going on. First of all, there’s an implicit assumption that blacks will actively support the Democratic candidate no matter what: despite what many see as a racist campaign by the Clintons and their proxies, when it comes to November the specter of another four years of Republican presidency will lead to enthusiastic support for Clinton. Maybe, maybe not; there’s been a lot of interesting discussion of this on Jack and Jill Politics. The point here is that unlike all the attention paid to the Obama S-curve, there’s been virtually no discussion of this in the mainstream media or progressive blogosphere.
    Secondly, this concern often explicitly or implicitly ties back to a fear that the US is too racist to elect a black President. Often this is expressed indirectly: “the current voting system gives too much power to those who, unlike us, question whether a black can be President.” The Clinton campaign’s focus on Jeremiah Wright as part of their electability argument is trying to remind superdelegates of this possibility.
    Again, though, the mainstream media and the blogosphere are generally talking around this issue. There’s a lot of value in being more explicit. If Obama is nominated, what percentage of the US public do they think will vote primarily based on race? Are there demographic differences based on age? What are the things that the Democrats could jointly do over the next six months to improve the results here?
    Instead, the current conversations take a phenomenon in the Obama/Clinton demographics and raise the specter of a horrible weakness with unknowable consequences as relates to an Obama/McCain campaign. This is a great narrative from the standpoint of Clinton — or McCain — but is scarcely the only way to approach it.
    Minor correction: here’s the the Ezra Klein article; the link above was broken.

  2. ducdebrabant on

    What’s not to buy? North Carolina has an enormous black population, and at this point, Obama is getting the black vote solidly — 80 percent or so. That vote isn’t up for grabs in the general, no matter who gets the nomination, and Obama’s ability to get that vote CERTAINLY isn’t in dispute. His ability to get demographics which will be in play in Indiana is far more in doubt. Besides, Indiana is surely more in play in November than North Carolina. He’ll get the delegates in NC, but that doesn’t entitle him to portray it as an equally signficant state for determining general election viability. The reason the Obama campaign isn’t trying to elevate NC’s status to equal Indiana’s is that it doesn’t pass the red face test. Hillary’s not “getting away” with anything here. Plus, she may well lose Indiana.

  3. kevko24 on

    Actually, until a few days ago, Obama himself was saying Indiana was gonna be the tiebreaker. He’s recently stopped saying that, but Clinton surrogates jumped all over it.
    SUSA, which has been polling very accurately this year, has HC up 16 in Indiana.


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