by Tony Romm*
Special to iVoryTowerz
In an election cycle largely characterized by underestimation and hyperbole, it is all too convenient to celebrate the evening of May 14 as the moment Barack Obama officially clinched the Democratic nomination. Much as NBC's Tim Russert (among other capricious pundits) wasted no time labeling Obama’s North Carolina win as “the end of the line for Clinton,” the talking heads are sure to transform former Sen. John Edwards’ endorsement last night into yet another narrative that urges Hillary Clinton to bow out in the name of Democratic party unity.
Give the pundits a little credit. Yes, Edwards timed his announcement perfectly. Amid Clinton’s self-indulgent platitudes following the West Virginia primary and the media’s faux-skepticism of Sen. Obama (D-IL) ahead of Kentucky, such a crucial endorsement in a state that’s already had its "primary” – and which “voted” overwhelmingly for Sen. Clinton (D-NY) – portrays Obama as a candidate who’s confident he’ll win the nomination. Worse (at least for Clinton), the appearance that Edwards, a former blue-collar worker, supports Obama clearly truncates the Clinton campaign’s narrative that the Illinois Senator fails to represent white voters. In other words, Edwards’ endorsement reverses most of Clinton’s small (though temperately important) gains from West Virginia.
But no matter how immediately helpful Edwards’ support might seem, this nomination cycle’s climax won’t officially arrive until at least next week. On May 20, Oregon and Kentucky will cast their votes to distribute the two states’ 103 total delegates. Assuming the most recent pre-primary polls are accurate — that Clinton will take Kentucky with 62 percent of the vote, and Obama will win Oregon with at least 53 percent of the vote — even a decent showing by Clinton would inevitably lose her the nomination. Only 86 pledged delegates (split between two states and Puerto Rico) remain after next Tuesday, rendering a Clinton comeback all but impossible — that is, unless she can also win with at least 55 percent in each remaining state's contest and secure 475 superdelegates’ votes (there are 796 total superdelegates).
And Edwards’ endorsement only compounds the implausibility of a Clinton nomination. If Edwards’ 19 pledged delegates defect to Obama — and pundits predict almost all of them will — Obama would be about 45 superdelegates shy of the nomination (at least, according to CNN Politics’ estimate). However, Obama could also add another eight to his hypothetical count, even despite Clinton’s victory in West Virginia and the potential of a win in Kentucky. The Pelosi Club, long believed to be in Obama’s gate, could officially crown the Illinoisan the champion of the popular vote with the most pledged delegates weeks before the primary season officially ends.
True, such arithmetic is always hypothetical. As we’ve learned from every vote since New Hampshire, the pre-primary polls cannot possibly predict the effects vociferous ex-pastors and former presidents-turned-bored husbands have on public opinion. But the numbers, no matter how contested, do somewhat underscore the qualitative importance of Edwards’ endorsement. Despite Obama’s almost guaranteed loss in Kentucky, perhaps a little more “a noun, a verb and poverty” is exactly what he needs to keep the superdelegates deserting Clinton. As MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann suggested during an interview with political analyst Chuck Todd, Edwards’ prominence is sure to resonate among top Democrats who see the “rank and file closing in on Obama” and voters outside of the Beltway who trust Edwards’ judgment. While both effects are certainly unquantifiable, Olbermann’s remarks underscore the mathematical utility of Wednesday’s endorsement spectacle.
Indeed, Edwards said it best during his speech at the Michigan rally: “We are here tonight because the Democratic voters have made their choice, and so have I.” And while Edwards’ logic is inherently flawed — the primary system, which traditionally affords late voting states little say in the nomination process, brought Democratic voters to this undemocratic, premature conclusion — he might be on to something. Obama is mathematically poised to win the nomination (even despite his recent losses), regardless of whether influential former candidates support him publicly or not. The real question is — when?
[Special thanks to Slate for the Delegate Calculator, the primary tool used to compute the numbers in this piece.]
*Tony Romm is currently an intern at Slate.
For more background on the 2008 campaign, please see these archival posts:
- "New Hampshire: Barack Obama's Latest Hope;"
- "The Hillary Clinton Potomac Primary Climate Check;"
- "Texas Democratic Debate Highlights Plus;"
- "John McCain and the Republican Right;" and
- "Wolf Blitzer: Is Human Rights More Important than American National Security?"
West Virginia primary
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