A month from now, the last Democratic primaries and caucuses will be over, and it will be left to the superdelegates to settle the race for the nomination.
Our esteemed press corps just can’t wait. “We now know who the Democratic nominee is going to be, and no one’s going to dispute it,” Tim Russert imperiously declares. David Gergen, Bob Schieffer, George Stephanopoulos, and Bob Frank, among others, all followed suit in declaring that the race is over, and Barack Obama is the victor.
Last month Obama said, quite reasonably, that “Indiana right now may end up being the tiebreaker.” From the tone of the coverage you might conclude that he had won the Hoosier State, but of course he lost. The conventional wisdom is turning against Hillary Clinton because her victory was narrower than expected, but without an outright loss it’s silly to think that she’d throw in the towel now.
“But what about the math?” cries the Game Over Chorus. What about it? As everyone who follows politics closely knows by now, neither candidate can reach a delegate majority with pledged delegates alone. Obama currently enjoys a pledged delegate lead of roughly 160, and because of the Democrats’ embrace of proportional representation, that number won’t change much in the remaining contests. Factoring in superdelegates who have endorsed a candidate, Obama’s lead is somewhere in the neighborhood of 150. The Democratic National Committee’s Rules & Bylaws Committee will meet on May 31st to discuss the fate of the Florida and Michigan delegations, and if those delegations are seated — which is quite possible, given the make-up of the committee — Obama’s lead shrinks to around 100.
As of this writing 267.5 superdelegates remain undecided (the .5 comes from the Democrats Abroad delegation, which is only allotted half a vote per delegate). So Team Clinton needs to persuade about 184 of these politicians and party hacks to hand her the nomination. Is that really so inconceivable?
If it comes down to a bidding war over political favors — which for many superdelegates, it will — Clinton has an important card to play: As a member of the Senate Democratic Steering Committee, which helps shape the agenda of the Democratic leadership on the Hill, she can offer to press for superdelegates’ policy priorities — or threaten to press against them. Obama has less senatorial power to leverage. And there’s always the possibility that Obama will commit some gaffe that so shakes superdelegates’ confidence in his electability that they become willing to throw him overboard.
THIS ISN’T TO SAY that Obama isn’t the favorite, even the overwhelming favorite, for the nomination. Nine of the uncommitted superdelegates, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have promised to support the pledged-delegate leader — i.e. Obama — and many more are likely to follow their lead. Because the Indiana result was close, Clinton’s shot at a popular vote victory has dwindled, denying her an argument to make to superdelegates. The race for the Democratic nomination is close to the end, and Hillary’s chance of victory is about one in ten.
But that’s more than zero, and the eagerness of the talking heads to end the race prematurely is more than a little revealing. Political coverage, especially in primary season, is usually somewhat distorted by reporters’ bias in favor of viewing races as tighter than they are, which makes the job of reporting on politics more interesting. This tendency has been swamped by an overwhelming affinity in the press for Barack Obama. If he does prevail with the superdelegates, he will have as shameless a media cheering section as any nominee has ever had.