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Hillary Drawing Thin

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In the aftermath of her long-expected victories in Texas and Ohio, many of Hillary Clinton’s supporters are reveling in long-awaited cheering sessions and drawing convoluted scenarios for her nomination. Unfortunately for them, however, Clinton remains behind the eight-ball on the only metric that matters — delegate count. And she can’t beat math. There are few opportunities available for Clinton to make up the 100-vote lead that Obama holds among elected delegates.

The scenarios that Clinton needs to come to fruition in order to trump the elected delegate math are fraught with difficulty and disadvantage.

SCENARIO ONE: The superdelegates to the rescue. Clinton’s primary campaign strategist Mark Penn has long signaled an attempt to strong-arm so-called “super-delegates” into the Clinton camp with a classic Clintonian back-room maneuver. The trouble is that such an effort would almost certainly backfire. Super-delegates are comprised of elected officials who are unlikely to want to be seen caving in to an open and ham-handed effort to force them to defy the will of many of their own constituents simply to serve the interests of a Clinton family dynasty of which many in the party are weary. The most likely breakdown of remaining super-delegates is about 50/50, with little potential for Clinton to make up 100+ votes. Clinton’s earlier advantage among superdelegates has already shrunk dramatically and any reversal will be insufficient to make up the margin against Obama. In fact, there are rumors that the Clinton campaign is already attempting to desperately stem a tide going against them among superdelegates. Even if successful, such an effort indicates that there is not in fact a rich pool of superdelegates just waiting to flow towards Hillary Clinton.

SCENARIO TWO: John Edwards to the rescue. Both Obama and Clinton have strongly courted John Edwards’ endorsement and there have been persistent rumors that one or both campaigns have dangled the promise of another vice-presidential nomination for Edwards. The problems, however, are that Edwards only has 26 pledged delegates to offer and that a trade for his endorsement could likely backfire. Even if Edwards were to accept another consolation prize VP nomination, such a payoff would be seen by many in and out of the party as corrupt dealing. Furthermore, Edwards’ tired class warfare memes might damage the Clinton campaign by undermining one of Clinton’s only bases of appeal to moderates — her claim of relative policymaking centrism.

SCENARIO THREE: Remaining primaries to the rescue. Clinton’s campaign has repeatedly indicated that they feel Texas and Ohio are merely the beginning of a run through the later primaries, especially Pennsylvania. What they try desperately to obscure, however, is that many of those primaries are in southern states where Obama is likely to be very strong. Furthermore, the long-running Clinton campaign strategy of demeaning all states with fewer than 15 electoral votes as insignificant and unimportant weakens her ability to run close in those campaigns even if she were to reverse her previous course and start to seriously contest them. And unless there is a unprecedented meltdown in the Obama campaign, the sole “significant” state remaining — Pennsylvania — is unlikely to generate a large enough margin of victory for Clinton to overcome the lead that Obama already has, let alone the modest padding he will add in the “insignificant” states in between.

SCENARIO FOUR: Dirty tricks to the rescue. If there is anything that the Clintons are known for, it is hardball politics, matched with a nearly boundless ability to claim to be the one aggrieved. Hillary Clinton has repeatedly played the “victim card” with one hand while, with the other, mounting coded and uncoded attacks instructing voters on why they should vote against her opponent. The negative strategy is widely seen as paying off in Ohio and Texas, making it likely that Clinton will escalate the tone and volume of anti-Obama attacks even further while downplaying talk about her own thin record of achievement and experience. The problem here is that such a strategy damages Clinton nearly as much as Obama. Already unusually high for a major-party candidate at this stage of a presidential election, Hillary Clinton’s negative perceptual ratings among voters will only escalate if she continues to reinforce her image as a dirty fighter who will do or say anything to win power and, even better, to personally punish anyone who opposed her. And to the extent that Clinton continues to receive votes from some voters with explicitly racist justifications, she risks alienating one of the party’s most loyal constituencies and dividing the party ala 1968. If successful, such a strategy would produce potentially crippling disadvantages for Clinton in the general election. And if unsuccessful, such a strategy may amount to “scorched earth” by providing the McCain campaign with massive amounts of ready-made grist for use against Obama. Either by being seen as an unacceptably vicious candidate or the person who killed the party in trying to become the candidate, Clinton loses.

SCENARIO FIVE: Florida and Michigan to the rescue. By breaking her promises not to compete in Florida and Michigan, Hillary Clinton built a back-up pool of unauthorized delegates. Her campaign, again speaking through hard-line strategist Mark Penn, has already telegraphed an intention to try to force the credentialing of those delegates at the convention in order to put Clinton over the top. Such an effort is unlikely to help Clinton in the long term, however. First, Obama’s lead among already credentialed delegates might well be sufficient to block such a move on the convention floor. Second, even if successful, such a maneuver would highlight Hillary Clinton as blatantly dishonest. A large part of the party would feel that she had only won by pure cheating. Such a party would be unlikely to unite behind Clinton. This scenario is the only one that has a reasonable potential to play out differently if, as both campaigns have suggested, Florida and Michigan are allowed to redo their premature primary voting.

Intellectual honesty requires acknowledging that Clinton’s campaign victories of March 4 allow her to remain in the race as a credible candidate, probably right up to the convention. But the same intellectual honesty should motivate her supporters as well as dedicated Obama opponents to acknowledge that she is still, as the poker players say, “drawing thin“, with only long-shot prospects for actually obtaining the nomination in a state fit for a viable general election campaign.

(Cross-posted from PoliGazette)