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Clinton Down, but Not Out, for the Count

By Peter Baker
Forget Wii. The real computer game for those of us mesmerized by Ohio and Texas today is located over on the site of our corporate cousin, Slate. As Dan Balz mentions in this morning's "8 Questions" that could be answered by today's primaries, "every political junkie around the country is spending hours with Slate's delegate calculator on the Internet or with more complex spreadsheets that are being passed around by e-mail." We think he meant us!

Slate's delegate calculator is reasonably simple but ingenious. It lists all the remaining Democratic contests, starting with the four today -- Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont -- all the way through Puerto Rico on June 7. You can plug in what percentage of the vote you think Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) will win in each of these states and the calculator then tells you how many pledged delegates each of them will have at the end of the primary season.

It doesn't actually take hours playing with it to understand just how deep a hole Clinton really is in. On the surface, it wouldn't seem like she's that far behind even before the two big primaries that she may win today. After all, by the count of NBC News, which is what Slate uses as its basis, Obama has 1,192 pledged delegates and Clinton has 1,036, a difference of just 156. (This does not include the much-discussed superdelegates, but let's leave them aside for the moment.) Given that a candidate needs 2,025 delegates to win the nomination, it would seem the contest is still very tight.

But let's go ahead and plug in some numbers. Let's assume Clinton wins three of four states today -- Ohio, Rhode Island and Texas. And let's assume she wins by the average of recent polls, as tabulated by the Web site, Real Clear Politics, and split the undecided evenly between the candidates. That would mean she would win Rhode Island with 55 percent, Ohio with 54 percent and Texas with 51 percent. Obama would take Vermont with 60 percent, judging by the latest polling. That would obviously be a great night for Clinton and one that she hopes would revive her flagging campaign. She would prove that she continues to win the big states even if Obama still has the lead among delegates, and it would raise questions about why he has not been able to close the deal.

If all of that happens, then, what would Clinton need in the remaining contests to catch up among pledged delegates? There are a dozen contests still to come after today, starting with Wyoming on Saturday and Mississippi next Tuesday. Then you have Pennsylvania on April 22, followed over the next few weeks by Guam, Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon, Montana, South Dakota and finally Puerto Rico. Working the Slate calculator, she would need to win 62 percent in each of those states to pass Obama in pledged delegates, giving her a total of 1,605 to 1,604.

For starters, the idea that she would win, say, Mississippi or North Carolina may be a stretch under any circumstance. The latest polls show Obama with a double-digit lead in North Carolina, while Mississippi has similar demographics to other Southern states that he has won in landslides. But even assuming she could win those two states, to understand just how steep a hill it would be for Clinton to get 62 percent in the remaining states, all you have to know is that she has gotten that much in only one state in all the voting so far -- her onetime adopted home of Arkansas. Even in New York, where she is the sitting senator, she won 57 percent. She won 55 percent in Michigan where Obama was not even on the ballot.

Now, the Slate calculator is imperfect, of course, and the vagaries of caucuses and delegate rules and so forth mean this analysis is inexact. And this does not include Florida and Michigan, whose delegates were ruled ineligible by the Democratic National Committee because those states held primaries earlier than allowed under party rules -- delegates Clinton would like to seat since she won those states. But you get the point. And this is why the Obama camp remains confident that he will finish the primary season with a lead among pledged delegates no matter what happens today.

Of course, there are nearly 800 superdelegates, and the Clinton camp hopes victories today would give it enough momentum to keep those party elders from flocking to Obama at least until Pennsylvania. If Clinton could prove in the interim that Obama is a paper tiger and not up to the scrutiny a front-runner invariably attracts, her strategists think the superdelegates will decide they have to go with her for the sake of the party.

It's a big gamble, and few at Clinton's headquarters in Arlington are fooling themselves about the odds. But this year has shown that anything can happen and that politics are not so neat and predictable as we might think. Or at least not as neat and predictable as Slate's delegate counter.

By Washington Post editors  |  March 4, 2008; 10:52 AM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Barack Obama , Hillary Rodham Clinton , Morning Cheat Sheet , Primaries , The Democrats  
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