Thursday, February 14, 2008

100 is the Magic Number

Being a child of the 70s, I was always taught--by Schoolhouse Rocks--that three was the magic number (Oh fine, I suppose my exposure to SHR was during the 80s when ABC tried to wedge educational material in between my Looney Toons.).

In the race for the Democratic nomination though, a different calculus is emerging. Both campaigns are beginning to cite 100 delegates as the margin to look for as the primary season draws to a close (Yes, it seems weird to talk about the season coming to an end, especially since that end won't come until June. However, things have really slowed down post-Super Tuesday and there are only 16 contests remaining on the Democratic side. It is interesting that there are also 16 weeks left before South Dakota brings up the rear on June 3. That's an average of one contest per week.). The Obama camp is contending that anything over a 100 delegate margin in his favor will be enough to claim the nomination within the court of public opinion. The Clinton folks are hoping to bring that margin under 100 so they can argue that the nomination is still undecided. Even with something as seemingly minuscule as 100 being the magic number, it will be difficult for Clinton to catch up without decisive victories in the states that comprise this stretch run. 51/49 victories in her favor in those primaries (There are only two caucuses left--in Hawaii on Feb. 19 and Wyoming on March 8.) will not allot her enough of a delegate spread to make up that difference or get it under 100 for that matter.

The one wild card, as we've mentioned countless times, is the superdelegate distribution among the two. Obama was out yesterday after his Potomac sweep talking momentum which was no doubt a claim directed at those superdelegates still on the fence. It is a testament to the strength of Clinton's candidacy that, unlike recent cycles, these superdelegates aren't already coalescing behind Obama at this point. And here's where another calculus enters the discussion; the calculus that each of these undecided superdelegates is going through. They have to not only balance their own personal feelings, but must also consider (at least those holding elective office) the feelings/decisions of their constituents in the primaries and caucuses. Of course those "personal feelings" include considerations of their own upward ambition within the party, their perceptions of general election electability and their relationships with the candidate (if they exist).

So what are the knowns and unknowns
within that calculus (and further, how do we weight each)?
1) Electability: Well, the head-to-head general election polls conducted recently give us some indication there: that Obama has the edge over Clinton in hypothetical races against McCain (Real Clear Politics: Obama v. McCain; Clinton v. McCain). Obama has a consistent lead over McCain while Clinton and McCain are within the margin of error of each other. On the electability issue, the scale tips toward Obama.

2) Primaries and Caucuses so far: We also know the decisions of voters in 34 states plus DC. In those 35 contests, Obama leads 22-13. Sure that's as misleading as using a predominantly red electoral college map to demonstrate a close election (Remember those maps from 2000? Looking at them, you'd think a person making that claim was crazy.), but these primary/caucus results carry weight with the elected officials in those states. On the one hand you have evenly divided states like Missouri and New Mexico and on the other caucus states that have given Obama between 2:1 and 3:1 level victories. One could argue that a greater proportion of Democratic elected officials in those latter states would break for Obama than the proportion in the contest. Whereas in those evenly divided states, superdelegates could break either way. The bandwagon effect is clearly a resultant factor in these individuals' calculi. So too though is the idea that this segment of the delegates to the convention will be the decisive one. Going against the constituency is generally considered in a negative regard when this issue is raised.

The rest of these factors are less known than the above and fall into the unknown category:
1) Personal feelings/relationships with the candidates: Look, public officials are, more often than not, going to go public with incendiary remarks concerning another public official (...unless this is a discussion about Dick Cheney and Patrick Leahy inside the Capitol.). So this one is a tough one to get at. We can probably glean some of these feelings from the relationships we know exist. Both Obama and Clinton have some relationship with Democratic senators. Some of those folks have weighed in, others haven't (Here's the full list.). Further, you'd imagine that Obama has some relationship with the Democratic members of the Illinois Senate as well. But for those still undecided, good luck attempting to ascertain these factors.

2) Upward ambition: Well, everyone of these elected officials could be considered upwardly mobile to some extent. But that's the catch, we don't know the extent to which these folks are upwardly ambitious. One thing we do know, is that, on the whole, these folks want to keep the spots they've got if not move up. We also know that all the members of the House, some members of the Senate and some members of state legislatures are up for re-election this fall. And choosing incorrectly in this fight wouldn't necessarily help. Politicians, like elephants (Oops, wrong party. I don't have a sense about how strong donkey memories are.), have long memories and won't soon forget someone who chose incorrectly.

This is where the strength of Clinton's candidacy is most likely to figure in. For starters, she has nearly half of the delegates allocated thus far. Without that and under the circumstances of the typical nomination campaign of the last ten years or so, Obama would have this thing wrapped up. But if 2008 has proven anything, it is that it is not a typical cycle. In other words, until Clinton is out, you can't count her out. Those on the fence then are more likely to remain there if Clinton's bid is still perceived to be legitimate.

This is a lot for these undecided folks to weigh and underscores the potential for division within the Democratic party as it heads toward the Denver convention in August. Both the candidates and these superdelegates are treading a very fine line on this and it is still very much up in the air as to how this whole thing will play out. With all the usual indicators pointing toward a Democratic win this fall, squandering the opportunity would be a real defeat for the Democrats. And I suppose that is another factor to consider.


Robert said...

Fascinating. Thanks, Josh. I think that many of the Superdelegates are holding out until a magic number is reached. It seems that 100 will suffice, but I'm not sure there would be a major difference between 95 and 105 for instance. James Carville has stated that if Hillary loses one of the three states (TX, OH,PA) she is finished, but if she wins all three she will probably be the nominee. Let's say that she wins the first two big ones, that could mean that all the marbles are on the line in PA. If there is no real resolution after PA, that is when Howard Dean will be on the line to the Superdelegates to reach a solution.

On another matter, is Chelsea's trip to HI bait for the national press? I sht Clinton campaign trying to get the press to go after Chelsea so they can claim foul? I still think Chelsea is going to be a factor here somewhere.

Josh Putnam said...

I tend to agree with Carville on that. Psychologically, those races loom large in this race. It is that simple. Mathematically, if Obama can break through in one of the three, he'll have enough to keep Clinton at bay in the delegate count. Obama is going to take his momentum talk straight to the superdelegates in an attempt to get them to jump aboard. But I still don't have a sense as to whether that will work.

I don't understand this Chelsea thing. I get using her as a bridge to the youth vote, but that's a stretch at best. I get using her as "Hillary's daughter" to humanize Clinton. In the end though, I just don't see how useful that is. What is her background in politics other than being a kid in the White House for eight years? Is someone who is so completely non-political a valuable surrogate?

Having said that, I can't wait for the 2028 election between Chelsea Clinton and George P. Bush. It should be fascinating. The Legacy Election.

Robert said...

The point the former MSNBC commentator was making on Chelsea is that she is getting more and more involved in the campaign and apparently effective where she goes (those districts perform better than those she does not go to), but she is off limits in interacting with the press because the Clintons feel the need to protect her from being a public figure. The commentator was saying that if she was being used as a campaigner she should also be available to the press. I think 27 is a little old to be protected. The Romney sons were active campigners, but they also gave interviews.

As far as legacy elections, this one was supposed to be the Jeb/ Hillary version, but that did not work out.

Robert said...

Have you seen the final results from New Mexico?

Does this count as a break in the Obama winning streak, or do we count this as residual from Super Tuesday?

dr said...

I had seen this morning that The New Times map had colored New Mexico in for Clinton, but didn't have a chance to check on that. I think I come down on the "residual from Super Tuesday" side, but only just barely. However, she has now built a bridge of wins from California all the way to Texas' doorstep. She has definitely made the southwest her territory and that can be a powerful message in Texas.

One thing is for sure: this is a good story for their campaign. It may not break the streak Obama has run up over the last week, but it does break a streak of negative stories in the press.

Yeah, 27 is to old to be protected. If you are going to be such a public part of the campaign, then there needs to be some open line of communication with the press. It's interesting to me that she's having an effect.

Robert said...

I see that Scott has changed his commitment from Clinton to Obama, and Lewis may not be too far behind. It will be interesting to see if this is just a blip or the start of a surge to Obama. A Lewis switch could have a significant impact as he was one of the true early fighters with great credibility in the community.

dr said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dr said...

All the news is Lewis. Who is the Scott you're referring to? I'm ashamed to admit that my usually good internet searching skills have failed me in my limited attempts to find out.

Lewis is a good get for Obama. It would be one thing if he had been uncommitted, but the fact that this is a switch is even more telling.

This phenomenon will be an interesting one to track over the next month or so.

Robert said...

David Scott is an African-American Congressman from the Atlanta area whose district went 80% for Obama. He had endorsed Clinton, but he is now switching to Obama.

dr said...

Thanks Rob. Given how Georgia went on Feb. 5, it may not be that surprising. Here's Lewis' denial of the NYT report I cited in the previous comment...with a blurb about Scott. That one isn't confirmed yet either (or at least denied).

Robert said...

This morning on WSB TV as well as on Georgia Public Radio, it was indicated that Scott had changed and that Lewis was expected to make an announcement today. I suspect that the Clinton campaign has been putting some heat on the two. The bus is leaving the station in the African-American community for Obama as the acknowledged leader (irregardless of whether he gets the nomination). Scott, Rangel, Sharpton and even Jesse Jackson need to hop on board soon if they wish to continue to have an impact in that community or they will be left behind. John Lewis is a bonafide hero, only outpaced by MLK in the African-American community and could probably still command attention if he does not get on board, but his reputation will be harmed if he becomes too tentative.

Rich Clark said...

A spokesperson for John Lewis did not deny the NYT assertion that he may vote for Obama at the convention, but he still supports Clinton in the primaries (and admires Sen. Obama). I think that super delegates who have endorsed a candidate do not necessarily see such an endorsement as a promise of a vote.

Thank you, Josh and Rob, for this great dialog you've been keeping up.

dr said...

That's a great distinction to be made: the convention vote and the endorsement. Thanks Rich.

I don't know that that assertion will hold water though. Lewis is trying to have it both ways on that one. Have Democrats learned nothing from the John Kerry experience. I realize Lewis has no presidential ambitions, but I would assume that the Democratic party would want to avoid any such flip-floppery in the short term (even if it isn't true flip-floppery).

Plus, don't positions like this one only stir the hornets' nest of division within the party potentially?

Rich Clark said...

I think the "flip flopping" of voting for a candidate you hadn't endorse is as much about party unity (recognizing your prefered candidate lost and rallying behind the victor) as it is about having it both ways.

[On a side note, the polar opposite of flip flopping is staying with a position no matter how much evidence has been compiled in favor of the opposite side, and I think we've seen great harm from that.]

dr said...

Isn't that dangerous if it goes to the convention though? If Obama gets the nod, Lewis is in the clear, but if it is undecided he's in a tricky spot.

The polar opposite scenario you described didn't escape me. Finding the happy medium between those two extremes is what separates the good politicians from the not as good ones.

Robert said...

If John Lewis is going to change his mind, now would be a good time. He can change his mind once, particularly since 75% of his district voted for Obama. He could also wait until after the big primaries coming up. He cannot go back and forth, however. To those in my generation who followed the civil rights movement closely the big five heroes were MLK, E.D. Nixon, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall and John Lewis. Lewis can get away with much more than people like David Scott and the other African-American leaders who endorsed Clinton early and had their districts go big for Obama.

On another matter, I'm getting the delegate counts from RCP and from CNN. Obama gained 6 candidates on the the RCP count today, but he picked up 56 in the CNN count. CNN has him 98 delegates ahead, very close to your magic 100, Josh. Any idea where these delegates are coming from? I didn't think there were any contests today.

BTW, I see that Hillary said yesterday in Ohio, that she doesn't necessarily need to win in Ohio to win the nomination. Is she delusional? Now is not the time to be playing expectation games. The polls seem to be going well for her in TX and OH, though. Plus she is only 4 points down in WI. It will be interesting to see if there is any movement either way this weekend. Looks like they are both starting to get nasty again in their WI ads.

dr said...

Lewis definitely has more slack on this, but as we've said, he can't go back and forth. This episode underscores again how evenly divided the two vying for the nomination are.

I'm trying to stay away from the delegate counts. You can get a headache trying to reconcile all the numbers that are out there. There weren't any Democratic contests today, but Michigan kicked off its GOP state convention (no delegates at stake). I have no idea where those numbers are coming from (or why they're separated by 50). One thing that all the numbers show: Obama is ahead and Clinton is going to have to mount a heck of an effort to get back into the race for pledged delegates. You'd think a move of 56 delegates would make a bigger splash the news though.

I'm going to pass on Texas and Ohio for now. I'll hopefully have something up tomorrow that is tangentially related to them both.

Ooh, leaving my readers with a teaser for tomorrow. Ha!

Robert said...

The CNN count is back down to a 50 delegate advantage. I'm looking forward to your next post. What a teaser!