Raleigh, N.C. – It was an energetic sprint and a desperate leap — but in Tuesday’s primaries, Hillary Clinton’s long(shot) jump fell short of the mark. She was hoping for decisive outcomes in North Carolina and Indiana. I think they occurred, but for Obama.
In North Carolina, the demographic number-crunchers proved to be better predictors of the outcome than most of the public pollsters. The black share of the Democratic vote exceeded a third, while Clinton got a bit less than the two-thirds of the white vote she would have needed to produce a competitive result. Turnout was massive in the Triangle area, where Obama devastated Clinton among upscale voters and the young. Turnout was less impressive in the small towns and rural areas down east and through the Piedmont where the Clintons had more of a potential following. Her best counties were in the western mountains, not exactly the place that typically decides statewide Democratic primaries.
A single-digit loss in North Carolina wouldn’t have stung the Clinton campaign much. They had come to expect a loss. It was factored into their popular-vote strategy as a hurdle to overcome by winning big margins in the upcoming contests in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Puerto Rico. But a 14-point, 220,000-or-so-vote blowout? In a stroke, this result erased the popular-vote gain Clinton won in Pennsylvania.
Turning to Indiana, Clinton managed only a modest victory. Sure, her team immediately spun the win as a major achievement because of Obama’s media-attracting tenure as senator from a neighboring state, but there’s not a lot of cyclonic action in that spin. He is a freshman, after all. The truth of the matter is that Indiana was enough like Ohio and Pennsylvania to give Clinton a real opportunity to keep her momentum alive. It just didn’t work out for her. Team Clinton (and Operation Chaotics) may feel a crushing sense of disappointment, but that’s life. My advice is to try not to be bitter about it.
Here’s what I think happens next. The Clintons won’t be willing to go out on Tuesday’s poor showing. They’ll wait to win the West Virginia and Kentucky contests, at least. But the uncommitted super-delegates are going to stop trickling and start streaming into the Obama fold. The national media will (rightly this time) declare her chances remote of accumulating enough popular votes to convince the delegates to pick her instead. Some of the disappointed Clinton base will, indeed, prove to be persuadable by John McCain in the fall, but Republican partisans are dreaming if they think that permanent, irreparable damage has been done to the Democratic electoral coalition. The American public has heard troubling things about Barack Obama. But it heard them in the spring, not in the fall. All the basic rules of political science tell us that McCain has a steep uphill climb ahead of him. These rules haven’t been eradicated by a few impolitic words and a couple of weeks of bad press.
Finally, my home state of North Carolina has had its moment in the presidential-primary spotlight. The last time our state primary really mattered was Reagan’s pivotal victory in the 1976 Republican primary. Apparently, our next regularly scheduled moment of political significance will be in 2040 — though by then, perhaps the Libertarian presidential primary on the Moon Colony will prove more consequential.
– John Hood is chairman and president of the John Locke Foundation