Political Hay

The Democrats’ Quagmire

Pennsylvania brings the protracted nomination battle no closer to conclusion.

By 4.23.08

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Freeze!

That's the message that Pennsylvania voters delivered to the Democratic Party last night by handing Hillary Clinton a sizable but not landslide victory in the Keystone State.

For all the buildup to the primary over the past six weeks, by the end of the evening the Democratic race remained largely the same as it was going in. Clinton's chances of overtaking Barack Obama in the delegate count or popular vote are still remote, but questions remain about Obama's ability to win over key demographic groups in large swing states.

For all the talk about how volatile this primary season has been, it has actually proven quite predictable. In states where there is a critical mass of older, white, working class voters, Clinton wins; where there is a critical mass of young voters, black voters, and affluent whites, Obama wins.

Clinton, no doubt, came into Pennsylvania with a huge advantage in the state, and benefitted from the backing of Gov. Ed Rendell. But Obama dug into his war chest and poured a tremendous amount of money into the Keystone State.

If the goal wasn't to win, it was at least to narrow the gap enough to prove to superdelegates that demography is not destiny -- that he can attract white working class voters who have resisted his charms thus far.

WE WILL NEVER know how much the firestorm over Obama's associations with Rev. Jeremiah Wright and domestic terrorist Bill Ayers hurt his showing in the state. But while it is inconclusive, there is at least some data suggesting that Obama's comments about small town voters clinging to guns and religion out of bitterness hurt him in Pennsylvania.
In Ohio -- a neighboring state with similar demographics to Pennsylvania -- Clinton edged out Obama among weekly churchgoers 51 percent to 47 percent, according to exit polls. But that was before his controversial comments. Last night, Clinton dominated Obama among this voting bloc by a 58 percent to 42 percent margin.

This is especially worrisome for Obama looking forward to the general election, because he has pitched himself as a Democrat who could reach out to religious voters who have been historically neglected by liberals.

While Obama did slightly improve his showing among white and rural voters, he still did badly with those two groups -- attracting just 38 percent and 39 percent, respectively. Among gun owners, Clinton trounced Obama by 62 percent to 38 percent in Pennsylvania (but no similar statistic is available for Ohio).

Obama, tellingly, was in Evansville, Indiana last night, his schedulers having essentially conceded Pennsylvania before the voting started.

In her victory speech, backed up by supporters sporting boxing gloves, Clinton showed no signs of throwing in the towel. "Some people counted me out and said to drop out, but the American people don't quit and they deserve a president who doesn't quit either," she boasted.

While Clinton scored a much-needed win last night, it wasn't large enough to change the dynamics of the race. As of this writing, Clinton's victory margin in Pennsylvania was hovering at just under 10 points.

While the precise delegate breakdown is not yet clear, her failure to achieve a blowout means that she still trails Obama by well over 100 delegates with just over 400 delegates to be awarded in the remaining Democratic primaries.

Her solid but not stellar win also makes it unlikely that Clinton will be able to catch Obama in the crucial popular vote. Of the states remaining, North Carolina on May 6 is the biggest prize with 115 delegates, and Obama should win comfortably there, eating into gains Clinton made Tuesday.

When Indiana votes the same day, it will be a much more even match, and Clinton will have her last chance to embarrass Obama with a win in his neighboring state, although a win there wouldn't change the math.

But while Clinton marches on, her money woes may catch up with her. Her campaign is currently over $10 million in debt. In her victory speech, Clinton acknowledged her financial disadvantage, and made a desperate plea for supporters to visit her campaign Website and make a donation.

The next few days will be a good indicator of whether Clinton's fans have as much fight left in them as the woman herself. Another question mark is how much of their fortune she and Bill will be willing to spend on the campaign.

THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY faces the same dilemma it has for over two months. On the one hand, Clinton is all but mathematically eliminated under the rules she agreed to at the start of the process.

For superdelegates to nominate her would not only alienate black voters who make up the party's most loyal voting group, but turn off a new generation of young voters that has been inspired by Obama. Exit polls consistently show that Clinton's level of support decreases among each successively younger age group.

However, the results of Pennsylvania reinforce the fact that Obama has consistently underperformed in large swing states, and among working class voters who will be crucial to the party's chances of winning in November.

Democrats started off the year believing that the election would be a cakewalk. But it's looking more and more like a quagmire.

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About the Author

Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein