Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Sound and fury, signifying nothing?

So what's gonna happen, anyway? Beats the heck out of me. There are too many scenarios to contemplate, too many potential plot twists still in the offing, more trash-talking that needs to play out, too many lies that still need to be sorted out, and no way of knowing who will be left standing at the end.

But enough about HBO's Sunday finale of The Wire.

By comparison, the Democratic presidential contest is a cakewalk. All we need contemplate tonight are these possibilities:

1. Obama wins decisively in Texas, Ohio, and Vermont, losing only Rhode Island - thereby virtually cementing the nomination in the minds of everybody except the Clintons and their most loyal allies.
2. Obama wins Texas and Vermont decisively, wins Ohio narrowly, but loses Rhode Island decisively - another scenario that would put pressure on Clinton to quit.
3. Obama wins Texas and Vermont decisively, but loses Ohio and Rhode Island decisively - thereby setting off a spin war over the results.
4. Obama wins Texas narrowly and Vermont decisively, but loses Ohio narrowly and Rhode Island decisively - thereby encouraging Clinton to fight on, particularly since most Democrats apparently would applaud her decision to stay the course in the event of a split verdict.
5. Clinton wins Texas, Ohio, and Rhode Island decisively, but loses Vermont decisively - thereby encouraging her to behave as if she has won the nomination.
6. Clinton wins Texas narrowly, and Ohio and Rhode Island decisively, but loses Vermont decisively. See her behavior in #5.
7. Clinton wins Texas and Ohio narrowly, and Rhode Island decisively, or maybe narrowly, but loses Vermont decisively. See #5, but take her behavior down half a notch.

Then we have to determine the proper definitions of narrow and decisive. In the scenarios above, I consider a narrow margin to be two points or less, but it would not be a surprise tomorrow if the Obama and Clinton campaigns offer warring definitions of their own, depending on how they want the media to frame the story line.

But here's the thing: With the possible exception of #5, Clinton at this point has virtually no chance to change the fundamental dynamic of this race.

Obama has a triple-digit delegate lead going into tonight (with roughly 150 more pledgees than Clinton), and he will likely emerge tomorrow with a similar delegate lead. In that sense, the contests in Texas, Ohio, Vermont, and Rhode Island are not nearly as important as they seem. Arguably, to paraphrase Shakespeare, they're a lot of sound of fury, signifying nothing. I'm betting that, in the end, it'll all be a wash - with Obama and Clinton basically splitting the new delegates - just as Tsunami Tuesday proved to be. Translation: Advantage, Obama.

My seven scenarios are even more complicated than they appear, because it's quite possible that Clinton wins the Texas popular vote narrowly, yet still racks up fewer delegates than Obama. Under the Texas rules, the primary votes are broken down by state senate districts. Each of the 31 districts has a pool of delegates, but those districts that voted heaviest for the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 and the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2006 are given more delegates as a reward. Clinton is reportedly stronger than Obama in Texas' Hispanic districts, but those districts were not nearly as loyal to the Democrats in 2004 and 2006 as the black districts were. So the black districts have more delegates, and Obama is stronger than Clinton there. The white liberal districts around Austin (a university town)also have more delegates than the Hispanic districts, and Obama is stronger there as well.

Then remember that Texas has a two-step process: a primary, followed by an evening caucus. Only people who voted in the primary can join the caucus. A separate pool of delegates is awarded in the caucus, and Obama repeatedly demonstrated, during February, that his people are better organized to win caucuses. The Clinton people, overconfident during the planning process, never thought they would need to be.

Then remember that, because Ohio's Democratic delegate rules are similar to the Texas rules, Obama could lose the state and still garner a hefty share of the delegates (particularly in heavily-black enclaves, which are delegate-rich as a reward for their loyal Democratic performances in previous elections). Just a few weeks ago, Clinton was leading in the Ohio polls by as many as 17 points. That's still the winning margin she needs, to really narrow the delegate gap. I doubt she'll get that now. Then remember that the likeliest prospects for a blowout are in Vermont, where Obama is strong, and where he could wind up netting around five delegates, cushioning whatever marginal slippage he might suffer in the big states.

And then remember what comes next: Wyoming holds caucuses on Saturday (another state where Obama is organized at the grassroots), and Mississippi holds its primary next Tuesday (a heavily-black electorate, and thus another Obama victory). So those are two more pit stops where Obama can refuel and add to his delegate count, further mitigating whatever erosion occurs tonight.

If Clinton wins three out of four tonight, in terms of the popular vote, her spin tomorrow will be about "momentum" and about anti-Obama "buyers' remorse." Her people will conveniently forget spokesman Howard Wolfson's prediction on Feb. 11: "I think we will be ahead in the delegate race after Texas and Ohio."

But smoke and mirrors are no substitute for the delegate math - which is precisely what the Clinton team would be arguing if the positions were reversed.


Regarding the primary results and the state of the Democratic race, I'm slated to share my thoughts on C-Span tomorrow morning, from 7:30 to 8 am.