One big fact has largely been lost in the recent coverage of the Democratic presidential race: Hillary Rodham Clinton has virtually no chance of winning.
[Update: I’m reminded that Adam Nagorney and Mark Schmitt deserve credit for helping to move this story from reality into mass-media reality. And others, including Mark Halperin, are piling on. Halperin:
Many of her supporters — and even some of her staffers — would be relieved (and even delighted) if she quit the race; none of his supporters or staff feel that way. Some think she just might throw in the towel in June if it appears efforts to fight on would hurt Obama’s general election chances. … Many of the remaining prominent superdelegates want to be for Obama and she (and Harold Ickes) are just barely keeping them from making public commitments to him.
The betting markets now make Obama the 1-4 favorite.]
The Clinton campaign no longer has any plausible path to victory, and it may be running out of cash. Like Wile E. Coyote, the campaign has managed not to look down until now, but it can’t continue to run on thin air forever.
Ever since March 4, when Hillary Clinton gained only some single-digit number of delegates against Obama in her two “firewall states” (Texas and Ohio), it’s been obvious that Obama is going to go to the convention with a pledged-delegate lead that the superdelegates aren’t going to reverse. That’s why I’ve been calling the Clinton campaign a zombie: dead, but still walking and capable of doing damage.
For a moment, it looked as if the Jeremiah Wright video might be the sort of catastrophic event that could knock Obama out of the race. But his Philadelphia speech seems to have stopped the bleeding as far as the polls go, and there’s reason to hope Obama’s numbers will keep getting better as the positive response to the speech has a chance to sink in. The most striking part of the story in my eyes was “the dog that didn’t bark”: not a single Obama delegate (or endorser) jumped ship, and Clinton picked up only a single superdelegate, John Murtha.
Today’s endorsement of Obama by Bill Richardson, whatever impact it has or doesn’t have on actual voters (and my betting would be mostly on “doesn’t have”) sends an important signal to politicians. Richardson must be confident that Obama is not, in fact, holed below the waterline. Richardson’s speech laid out the perfect narrative for anyone who wants to endorse Obama now: “Obama spoke for racial healing. I’m for racial healing. So I’m voting for Obama.”
Today’s Politico story by VandeHei and Allen doesn’t refer to Richardson; probably it was written before word of the endorsement leaked out. But it suggests that Richardson’s timing was excellent: he may just have picked the moment at which his endorsement can cause the super-saturated solution of fact to precipitate as opinion.
VandeHei and Allen point out the obvious but unstated reality that media accounts have been making the race seem closer than it is.
One important Clinton adviser estimated to Politico privately that she has no more than a 10 percent chance of winning her race against Barack Obama, an appraisal that was echoed by other operatives.
In other words: The notion of the Democratic contest being a dramatic cliffhanger is a game of make-believe.
The real question is why so many people are playing. The answer has more to do with media psychology than with practical politics.
Journalists have become partners with the Clinton campaign in pretending that the contest is closer than it really is. Most coverage breathlessly portrays the race as a down-to-the-wire sprint between two well-matched candidates, one only slightly better situated than the other to win in August at the national convention in Denver.
The Politico story is an event, just as the Richardson endorsement is an event. Any campaign is driven in part by the dream that the candidate might actually win but the Hillary Clinton campaign from the beginning was premised on inevitability. The VandeHei and Allen story, along with the Richardson endorsement, could start a run on the Clinton political bank. (And the reaction Josh Marshall didn’t get when he linked to VandeHei and Allen may be a hint that even the hard-core Clintonites are beginning to face the facts.)
Unless the Clintons are willing to pump more of their own money into the effort, it’s not clear that she will have the cash to compete in the remaining contests. She finished February with only $3 million in primary-spendable funds available, once the campaign’s debts (other than the $5 million the campaign owes the candidate) are offset against its bank account. If the financial picture had brightened in the meantime, I’d expect the campaign to be saying so. Has it, instead, darkened? That would help explain why Obama is now up with three TV spots in Pennsylvania, with no response yet from the Clinton side.
Since Obama is going to be the nominee, it’s best for all concerned that the primary season end sooner rather than later, so we can turn our concentrated fire on John McCain. Who’s going to tell the Clintons that it’s time to fold a losing hand? I’d very much like to know what Charlie Rangel is thinking just about now. (Or, Kossack DHinMI suggests, Vernon Jordan.)