How Clinton Could Win

Adam Nagourney offers a “bruising scenario” by which Hillary Clinton could still pull out the Democratic nomination. It’s not a particularly novel one; indeed, it’s the one that Clinton has been banking on for weeks: the superdelegates put her over the top.

There are about 800 of them, and they are going be weighing two main arguments: Mr. Obama’s contention that the Democratic rank-and-file has expressed its will and superdelegates shouldn’t overturn it, and Mrs. Clinton’s brief that she offers the party the best chance to defeat Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, this fall.

Mr. Obama’s side of the argument has become almost unassailable, while Mrs. Clinton’s is, at the least, open to debate. Mrs. Clinton’s best hope now is that Mr. Obama, as a candidate, suffers a political collapse akin to what has happened to the subprime mortgage market, a view shared by aides in both campaigns.

While this is presented as something akin to the apocalypse, recall that this is precisely the role envisioned by party elders when they gave themselves this role. If there’s a clearcut favorite among the nominating electorate, the superdelegates merely ratify the outcome of the primaries and caucuses. If not, then they use their influence to pick the candidate they believe best serves the party’s interest. Certainly, if Obama somehow become obviously inviable between now and the convention, the party wouldn’t want him as their standard bearer.

Nagourney posits that the fallout from the controversy over Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright’s, racially charged comments could do the trick. Or that landslide wins by Clinton in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Puerto Rico would demonstrate that Obama can’t win blue collar whites or Hispanics.

At the same time, however, the fact that Obama has more delegates and has won more states has hardly escaped the superdelegates.

Superdelegates are, by nature, political animals. They appreciate the potential political price if they are perceived as overturning the will of voters, and blocking what so many Democrats view as a historic candidate. They are also hungry to win the White House and, in many cases, more committed to the success of the Democratic Party than to the fortunes of any specific candidate. They surely will pause if polls two months from now show Mr. McCain with a sudden and sizable lead over Mr. Obama.

This, however, is unlikely. A Gallup poll released yesterday seems to indicate that the Wright controversy had little lasting impact. Obama has moved from a 44-48 deficit to a 47-46 lead in the head-to-heads with Clinton. In a hypothetical matchup with McCain, he’s gone from a 46-44 lead to a 44-47 deficit while Clinton has gone from a 47-45 lead to a 45-47 deficit.

Gallup Democrats 24 March 2008Gallup Obama-McCain 24 March 2008Gallup Clinton-McCain 24 March 2008

All these are variations within the margin of error. Unless something happens to break these trends dramatically in Clinton’s favor, the superdelegates are likely to go mostly to Obama. If there’s an Obama collapse, they’ll step in and hand the nomination to Clinton. Which, again, is precisely what they are supposed to do when no clear winner emerges from the primary process.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Michael says:

    There is also the coat-tail effect that many super delegates will be taking into consideration, and the common wisdom is that Obama will help more candidates down-ticket than Hillary will, especially in swing districts and red states.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Unless something happens to break these trends dramatically in Clinton’s favor, the superdelegates are likely to go mostly to Obama. If there’s an Obama collapse, they’ll step in and hand the nomination to Clinton. Which, again, is precisely what they are supposed to do when no clear winner emerges from the primary process.

    It’s hell when things work out just the way you’ve planned.

    In the eventuality that the Democratic candidate, whoever he or she is, loses in November, I expect to see some changes in the rules in the Party’s nominating process.

  3. Tom Kelly says:

    Many of the super delegates have elections of their own that need to be won. If they dump Obama, the black voters don’t show up. If the black voters don’t show up, they lose not only the presidency but their own races as well. They will sacrifice the presidency by running a weakened Obama before they will let it affect their own livelihoods.

  4. Insufficiently Sensitive says:

    All delegates are created equal, but some delegates are equaler than others.

    Only in the “Democratic” Party.

  5. Christopher says:

    I was of the thinking that Hillary would be the better candidate because she was beatable.

    Now? Who cares. Both candidates are the worst possible picks for the democrats. The best part? The democrat base picked ’em! LOL!

    People like Hal and other liberals are gonna be so drunk from being so distraught election night. It’ll be so much fun!

  6. yetanotherjohn says:

    The democratic party’s nomination is set up that unless one candidate gets 62.5% of the delegates from the primaries/caucuses, they need super delegates to get them over the top. Neither candidate is going to get the regular delegates to achieve the magic number. So by the rules, we get to hear their back and forth sniping for the next 5 months.

  7. Bear says:

    A hundred million Democrats to pick from and these two are the best they can find ! That’s just sad.

  8. JohnMc says:

    Mr. Joyner,

    I think you miss totally the nature of the Super Delegates. They are ALL political animals. No spine. So take a look at those that are up for reelection this year. NOT a one of those will vote against the will of their electorate for fear it will kill them personally. So if Obama won that State no governor SD is going to go for Hillary.

    The other is fear factor. There is already a movement afoot — ‘Recreate ’68’ that will guarantee a riot in Denver. Were Obama to be overturned, Chicago would be a cakewalk and the SD’s know it.

    The whole idea of proportional representation and super delegates is flawed. So the whole deal is going to come crashing down around them in Denver and the SD’s won’t have the stomach to make a decision. Count on it.

  9. leisa says:

    Are you serious? Lets get the bookies out and learn what odds they offer… money rules the world of politicians and gamblers, whom often keep company…