By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Here’s how Clinton could win

If Hillary Clinton is to have any chance at all of winning the Democratic presidential nomination, she’s going to have to make a strong moral claim. By the time the primaries and caucuses are over, Barack Obama is almost certainly going to have won more pledged delegates and more states.

Clinton’s possible arguments — that she’s done better in traditionally Democratic big states like New York and California, or that the unpledged superdelegates should slide her way because she’s somehow more electable — aren’t going to cut it. That’s a profoundly undemocratic case, and the Obama delegates (not to mention general-election voters) would react with revulsion.

But there is one unlikely possibility: she could wind up winning the nationwide popular vote. If that were to happen, then it would be the Obama campaign suddenly having to talk about delegate counts and party rules, the very sort of inside baseball that turns voters off.

Could it happen? Take a look at last night’s results. Clinton succeeded in slicing quite a bit off Obama’s lead in the popular vote. According to the numbers, Clinton picked up 328,589 votes in winning three of the four primary states. The lion’s share — 227,556 — came from Ohio, where she won a decisive victory.

According to Real Clear Politics, Obama as of this morning has won 12,946,615 votes and Clinton 12,363,897 votes, not counting Florida — which shouldn’t count given that a party-rules squabble prevented both candidates from campaigning there. That gives Obama 51.1 percent to 48.9 percent for Clinton, or a margin of 582,718 votes. It also means that Obama lost a whopping 36 percent of his popular-vote lead yesterday.

When you look at the calendar, you can see that it’s going to be very difficult for Clinton to pass Obama in the popular vote unless she starts winning by large margins everywhere. The next big prize is Pennsylvania, which doesn’t vote until April 22.

But let’s say Obama and Clinton go into the convention with Obama ahead in delegates, but with neither having won enough to clinch — a very likely scenario. If Clinton has somehow built a lead in the popular vote, no matter how narrow, Obama’s margin among pledged delegates starts to look like the Electoral College: an undemocratic vestige of a bygone era.

And, at that point, the superdelegates, impressed by Clinton’s rather startling comeback, could award the nomination to her on the grounds that they were merely following the will of the people.

File photo (cc) by Daniella Zalcman and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. Geoff Green

    It’s an interesting point, and a good one. But one key difference is that the popular vote means different things in the primaries versus the general election. In each state, the outcome in the general election is determined by the popular vote in that state. Even in Florida, theoretically. And voters in every state get to participate. But the primaries are very different. There are certainly a majority of states which use a straight popular vote. But then you have states like Texas, which had not only a popular vote but also a caucus. (Who thought that up?) Then there are the states with just caucuses, many of which Obama won handily. I’m not sure if the numbers you cite include results from caucuses, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that in a given state fewer people would participate in caucuses than would vote in elections. Obama thus would get less credit for winning caucuses than Hillary would get for winning primaries. So I don’t think that going by the straight popular vote is particularly equitable, especially if it’s a close call.

  2. Patrick McManus

    Note that the Obama popular vote total is actually somewhat stronger right now than you indicate. This is because several of the caucus states that he won have not released popular vote totals (Iowa, Nevada, Washington & Maine) – see those aren’t huge states, but there aren’t a lot of huge states left on the map, either.If the argument is going to come down to counting popular votes – then you have to count all the valid ones.Which of course reopens FL and MI and the definition of valid. fun.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Patrick: You’re right about the caucus states. But I just don’t see how you count Florida and Michigan, given the circumstances.

  4. Anonymous

    The DNC reaps as it sows — they wanted Transparency and democracy but an early winner. Transparency and democracy are all very well and good as aims, but they may get none of the above, having tried for all. Proportional-rep combined with super-delegates defeats early-winner and transparency+democracy. A McCain-Huckaby ticket is beatable ONLY if the Dems unite SOON behind a ticket that can motivate both Obama and Hillary’s “bases” to get out the vote in November. If they can’t make nice and decide who’s VP and who’s POTUS *now*, hope Obama pulls it out. We can hope the annoyed aging white feminists who dreamed of seeing the first Female president in their lifetime will realize a vote for McCain/Huckaby is a vote to stack the court against Roe v Wade (and stay-home/Nader half-a-vote), and so vote Dem anyway, even though they’re still miffed with Oprah’s presumption that she alone would sway them. If Hillary uses Mich/Fla Mulligans or Convention Credential fights or back-room super-delegate arm-twisting to take the nomination in line with the DNC rules, but against both pledged-delegate results and Electability polling v McCain, what hope is there to get Obama’s suddenly cynical young and black first time voters back to the polls in November?Is a Hill-‘Bamma or Obama-Hillary ticket “balanced”? Who would you add? Edwards couldn’t carry his own state. They have enough home-states between them, plus special connections with various minorities, that even though it is as close to unconstitutionally IL-IL as the Bush/Cheney was to TX-TX, it could work. [I am amused at today’s spin that McCain tieing up the Rep. nomination so early is BAD for him, as it pushes him off page 1 and nightly news, and he has to split his message. I don’t see how fratricide between now and DNConv can be *good* for D’s.]Bill R

  5. Michael Pahre

    The issue of Florida’s primary may very well be revisited. The governor has proposed holding a new (Democratic) primary before June 7, and the DNC’s Rules Committee appears ready to hold a public hearing on the proposal.Clinton could very well gain a sizable number of votes out of Florida in order to retake the lead in the primary popular vote.But, as noted above, this still dodges the issue of caucus vs. primary votes.Your primary argument of popular vote vs. delegates seems to me to hark back to high school civics class. Everyone’s gone through the debate of electors vs. popular vote. I don’t think it is difficult for any candidate for the presidency to explain away the popular vote because it is electors (or delegates) who matter in the end.

  6. mike_b1

    Dan, where do you stand on the media’s decision not to project a winner until after the polls have closed?

  7. lou

    One could argue that Gore also won the popular vote against Bush. And Kerry might have too, I don’t recall. Unfortunately, that has never counted in presidential politics.

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