It’s true that Barack Obama currently has a narrow lead in delegates and momentum. But despite the results in Wisconsin Tuesday, the whole Democratic race is still only two steps away from becoming a train wreck that could derail the party’s chances of winning in November.
This year’s tight contest for the Democratic nomination is unusual in the modern era, but it is not unprecedented. In 1976, the Republicans faced a barnburner of their own when Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan went through all the primaries and into the convention in a close heat, with Ford ultimately prevailing 1187-1070.
But the Republicans avoided a civil war (though they still lost the election) because their process differed from the Democrats’ current one in two key respects. First, no matter how close the candidates remained, the process was designed so that someone had to win a majority of the delegates selected during the campaign. (There was no large bloc of superdelegates to override the process.) Second, in their “wisdom,” the Republicans hadn’t unseated two of their largest delegations, as the Democrats have done this year with Michigan and Florida, thus leaving their nomination in a state of perpetual chaos.
The first step toward Democratic bedlam could occur on March 4, when Texas and Ohio vote. Demographically, Ohio is made-to-order for Hillary Clinton, with a high percentage of working-class voters, older voters, a relatively low percentage of minorities, and the support of the incumbent governor’s organization. Texas is relatively better for Obama (the primary is more open to Independents and Obama can probably count on the student hotbed of Austin) — but not much so, because the high percentage of Latino voters could well tip the state to Clinton, as it did in California.
If Clinton comes back to win those two states, the Democrats are in trouble. At that point, there are no further significant races until April 22, when Pennsylvania votes. If she’s successful on March 4, Clinton (with the help of the press) will bill the Pennsylvania contest as the ultimate face-off, the proverbial seventh game, even though she’ll still trail slightly in delegates, whether or not she wins.
Again, Pennsylvania favors Clinton, with one of the highest percentage of elderly voters in the country, and a high proportion of working-class and Catholic voters. If she’s won Ohio, there’s no reason to think she can’t win the Keystone State, too — at which point civil war in the party will break out.
Making the case for war
Although Obama will likely still lead at the end of the primaries by around 100 to 200 delegates (not counting the superdelegates), neither candidate will have enough to win. So both will need considerable support from those 796-or-so superdelegates. Clinton will argue she won every large state, save Obama’s home; Obama will argue he won more states, total. Both will be correct.
Clinton will argue that the Florida and Michigan delegates should be seated and primarily awarded to her because she won their primaries (even though Obama’s name wasn’t even on the ballot in Michigan and neither candidate campaigned in Florida). Obama will contend that it’s wrong to change the rules now, and will be forced into the unfortunate position of trying to keep out of the convention the delegates of two states he would need in the fall. (Even if he agrees to “redo” the states in June caucuses — holding the primaries again would require legislative approval unlikely to come — Clinton will probably refuse. Better for her not to resolve the issue than risk losing yet another caucus to Obama.)