Politics & Policy

Clinton’s Last Gasp

Two endorsements and three last-ditch arguments for Hillary.

After last Tuesday’s result in Indiana and North Carolina, most people consider the race for the Democratic nomination to be over. Finished! Done with! To hold otherwise would require, in the words of one New York senator, “the willing suspension of disbelief.”

But in that case, why would freshman Reps. Chris Carney (D., Pa.) and Heath Shuler (D., N.C.) throw their support behind Clinton last week, just as Barack Obama appeared to become the inevitable Democratic nominee? In Carney’s case, the endorsement came a full three weeks after Clinton carried his state and just after her disappointing May 3. Shuler endorsed Clinton the day after she carried his congressional district by 13 points. Isn’t it too late for such theatrics when the race is over?

Both Shuler and Carney represent overwhelmingly white and Republican congressional districts, and so one could ascribe to both the same self-serving reason for joining the losing team after the game is already over: Without hurting Obama’s chances of closing up the nominating contest for good, both have distanced themselves from his name in time for November. This explanation seems best because it conforms to the motives of all involved and to the crookedness of most politicians.

Then again, perhaps these two congressmen really are trying to help Hillary as superdelegates in pectore, revealed late to create an illusion of Clinton momentum. After her poor performance last week, they could have changed their minds, but they endorsed her anyway. If that is true — and assume it is, for today’s thought experiment — then they must still believe she still has a chance. Hillary is not in it for the party platform, and she probably won’t be offered the vice presidency. So can she still win? Can anything justify her continued presence in the race, or are the endorsements from her late-blooming super-delegates futile gestures that only mock her agony in a defeat she cannot accept?

Hillary Clinton certainly does not consider this contest finished. She has made a new personal loan to her campaign. For a candidate who has already lost, she remains surprisingly strong in the national tracking polls against Obama. And Hillary is guaranteed to rack up substantial margins in West Virginia today and in Kentucky later this month — bigger than the margin by which she is expected to lose Oregon. She should win Puerto Rico as well and perhaps gain momentum for the final contests in Montana and South Dakota.

Still, Hillary will definitely finish with fewer pledged delegates than Obama, and so these details become meaningful only if she has a good argument to sway the 251 super-delegates who remain uncommitted as of today. There are a few arguments she can make — whether they will be persuasive remains to be seen.

Argument #1: I might win the popular vote. Sort of.

By one count of the national popular vote, Clinton trails Obama by only 113,000 votes. She could conceivably catch him after Kentucky and West Virginia have voted. She leads in polls there by upwards of 30 points, and Obama isn’t really trying to win. Of course, this is the vote count most skewed in her favor. It includes totals from both Florida (where Obama did not campaign) and Michigan (where Obama was not even on the ballot). But even this deeply unfair vote tally might be enough to soothe the consciences of a few still-uncommitted super-delegates, should they consider picking Hillary at the convention.

Argument #2: The “Electoral College.”

Sen. Evan Bayh (D., Ind.), a Clinton supporter and an A-lister for the vice presidency in a Clinton administration, had another idea in late March that was probably too clever by half. He argued that Clinton had won states with more electoral votes than Obama. Since Bayh made the suggestion, Hillary’s “electoral” lead in the primaries has widened — she is winning that imaginary contest, 251 to 217, and that’s without even counting Michigan or Florida. One could argue that Clinton won’t win Texas, Indiana, or any of the other deep red states where relatively small communities of Democrats favored her, but Obama probably won’t win anywhere in the south, either.

The strongest counterargument to this is that Democrats consciously created their delegate rules to closely reflect the will of voters — to prevent it from becoming like the Electoral College. After the convention of 1968, they changed the mathematical formula for giving delegates to states, giving “bluer” states a disproportionate number, and forced all states to adopt more or less proportional systems for awarding their delegates. If this contrasts with the strict population and winner-take all rules of the Electoral College, it is because they wanted it to.

Argument #3: The delegate rules are broken.

If all of the pledged delegates in the Democratic primary had been awarded on a winner-take-all basis, Obama would now have roughly 1,358 pledged delegates to Clinton’s 1,660. Assuming that the committed superdelegates go exactly as they have so far (Obama 277, Clinton 273 — per CNN), Hillary would lead, 1,933 to 1,635.

Clinton could argue that the Democratic nominating process, having created an eternally close contest, would heavily favor her if it more resembled the Republican process. As muddled as the Republican field seemed after former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s victory in the Iowa precinct caucuses, the GOP process yielded a clear result, thanks to delegate allocation rules (winner-take-all and by winner-by-congressional-district, for example) that richly reward the overall winner and give the losers only a small consolation prize.

Lay these three arguments end-to-end, you still don’t end up with much beyond self-serving justifications for a Clinton nomination. But even that is something, and some justification is better than none at all.

According to DemConWatch, only a handful of the uncommitted Democratic superdelegates have promised to declare themselves after the primaries are finished. If the nomination goes to convention, it is not impossible to imagine several uncommitted Democratic superdelegates waiting until the convention begins.

If enough of them feel that Obama is a a sure loser against John McCain by the time the convention rolls around, might these arguments tip them away from the audacity of hope, and toward the suspension of disbelief?

David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.

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