Beyond the spin

Why Clinton's commanding West Virginia win is more show than substance
By PETER KADZIS  |  May 14, 2008


The day after Barack Obama, the Democratic leader in terms of primary votes and convention delegates, inched ahead of challenger Hillary Clinton in the superdelegate count, the indefatigable Clinton won the West Virginia primary. This, of course, was no surprise. Her commanding margin of victory was extremely impressive, but to what end? The perversity of the West Virginia aftermath is that the Clinton campaign is approximately $20 million in debt and, assuming she splits the remaining primaries relatively evenly with Obama, she needs to win more than 90 percent of the uncommitted superdelegates to best her opponent.

Clinton’s West Virginia victory did win her some interesting bragging rights. Since 1916, no Democratic president has won the White House without also winning West Virginia in the general election. Clinton cited this in her gracious and powerful victory speech. And it made for some swell post-speech chatter among cable TV’s talking heads.

More emotionally persuasive, even historically redolent, is the analogy that Clinton drew between her West Virginia victory and John Kennedy’s. Catholic Kennedy’s victory in Protestant West Virginia was a key step in his road to the nomination. The problem with the analogy is that JFK stole the West Virginia primary. The Wall Street Journal had the goods, but editor Barney Kilgore, in those primitive days when the press thought twice about upsetting the national apple cart, killed the report. Clinton’s very real and very big win may amount to little. JFK’s bogus victory is now the stuff of legend. History is even crueler than politics.

West Virginia is largely poor, uneducated, and old. Clinton’s lopsided victory certainly underscores the rift among Democrats relative to income, education, and age. The more affluent, Internet-oriented, new-economy voters are with Obama. The less well-off, retired daily-newspaper readers truck with Clinton. The difference may be uncomfortable, but the rift is not hard to comprehend.

Close encounters
A lot of hot air has gone into pondering the deep meaning and apocalyptic implications of the narrow margin of votes separating Democratic front-runner Obama from Clinton. I’m not sure the situation is all that complicated.

Thin (even razor thin) margins are common currency in presidential politics. Consider the record for the past 48 years, and never mind the electoral votes: Kennedy beat Richard Nixon by just 0.2 percent of the popular vote (1960); Nixon trumped Hubert Humphrey by just 0.7 percent (1968); Al Gore edged George W. Bush by 0.5 percent but “lost” when the US Supreme Court awarded victory to Dubya (2000); and Bush triumphed over John Kerry with 2.4 percent (2004), a victory that was much narrower — in retrospect — than most pundits would have us believe. Narrow, however, is in the eye of the beholder.

Once elected, only Kennedy was hamstrung by his slender victory. Republicans Nixon and Bush, despite opaque mandates, ruled with a divine vengeance that would be the envy of any mere constitutional monarch: the former prolonging a foolish war, the later starting one; both subverting the Constitution, with only Nixon, alas, getting the boot. (Dick Cheney turned out to be a great insurance policy.)

The political yield of narrow presidential elections may not be inspiring, but the principle they establish seems clear: the equation matters less than the result. For those with a craze for true power, being president is on a par with being Pope, China’s top chairman, or Vladimir Putin, whatever his title happens to be at the moment.

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