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.