The tenacity of Hillary Clinton

I forgot to post my column on Hillary’s wins in Ohio and Texas. For the many readers of this page (I know there are dozens of you) who get to the column through my portal, apologies. Here it is, in full, to save you any further clicking around.

Tenacity and hard work check Obama momentum
By Clive Crook
Published: March 5 2008 19:41 | Last updated: March 5 2008 19:41
Barack Obama remains favourite to win the Democratic nomination, but his advantage over Hillary Clinton has diminished.

Thanks to Texas and especially Ohio, there is a gleam in Mrs Clinton’s teeth once more. Just as in New Hampshire, just as on Super Tuesday, she has checked his supposedly irresistible momentum. Will commentators now stop saying that anything about this race is “inevitable”? The answer, inevitably, is no: we are as slow to learn as Mrs Clinton is to know when she is beat.

Mr Obama is still the favourite because he continues to lead in pledged delegates, allocated by the primaries and caucuses. Overturning this lead appears, as a matter of arithmetic, to be beyond Mrs Clinton. However, this by no means assures Mr Obama the nomination. The winner is going to be chosen, in effect, by the party’s unelected “superdelegates”, who can vote as they like.

The two campaigns will bring every pressure to bear. Mr Obama will say his lead in elected delegates obliges them to vote his way. Mrs Clinton will strive to neuter – I mean neutralise – that position. She will call for the disqualified delegates of Florida and Michigan (which broke the rules on the timing of their primaries) to be reinstated; she will call for Mr Obama’s caucus victories to be given less weight (arguing that the caucuses are not proper elections); above all, if she leads in the popular vote, she will say that this trumps Mr Obama’s delegate lead. This last seems especially important and it is now within her reach.

If you include Florida and Michigan (where Mr Obama was not even on the ballot, but so what?) then she already leads in the popular vote. Excluding Michigan but not Florida, she is within 300,000 votes of catching Mr Obama. Without either of those states, she is within 600,000 votes, out of a total cast of nearly 25m. Pennsylvania and the other remaining states give her a reasonable shot at closing that gap. If she does, watch the zeal with which she adopts upholding “the will of the people” as her watchword, elected delegates be damned. If she does not, her chances are less, but there will be other angles to work.

What went wrong for Mr Obama this week? The main answer must be Mrs Clinton’s remarkable tenacity. For once, her posture and her strategy have fully conformed to each other: she has been fighting hard, while making the case that the country needs a fighter in charge. She has also talked up her supposed advantage on national security, using an advertisement that asks voters who they want picking up the White House phone at 3am to deal with some emergency. John McCain also approves of that message, but this fight can wait.

And pity Austan Goolsbee, Mr Obama’s brilliant economic adviser, who dropped his boss in it by apparently assuring Canadian diplomats that Mr Obama’s tough talk on the North American Free Trade Agreement was political positioning and no cause for alarm. The timing could not have been worse, since no state is more sensitive to the supposed hurricane of destruction unleashed by imports than Ohio. Unfortunately, Mr Goolsbee’s steer was probably wishful thinking on his part. In any event, Mr Obama will now need to toughen up his anti-Nafta line even more, if that were possible.

Months more of vicious intra-party strife, and a tainted winner at the end. Of course, John McCain, as of Tuesday the anointed Republican nominee, is still favourite to lose in November. Many commentators regard it as inevitable.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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