Will The Democratic Race End On May 21?

Barack Obama's campaign hopes it will. They're putting out the word that they hope to announce on the night of May 20, after the results come in from the Kentucky and Oregon primaries, that their candidate has the 2,025 votes needed for the Democratic nomination. That would mean that the nomination would be settled before the May 31 rules committee meeting on the status of the disqualified Michigan and Florida delegations; this would deprive Clinton of a grievance but would not deprive Obama of the nomination. The June 1 primary in Puerto Rico, in which it seems possible Clinton could win a big popular-vote majority, would become moot. So could the June 3 primaries in South Dakota and Montana, which Obama is expected to win, but not by wide popular-vote margins. But he may not win: On May 13 he won the nonbinding primary in Nebraska by just 49 percent to 47 percent, with a popular vote margin of just 2,665--a vivid contrast with his 68 percent to 32 percent, 13,681-vote margin in the February 9 Nebraska caucus. (Which is more representative? Some 38,571 Nebraskans voted in the caucus, while 93,757 voted in the primary.)

There are a number of reasons to believe that Obama's May 20 scenario won't come to pass.

Obama is not likely to have enough superdelegates lined up by next Tuesday night. As this is written, RealClearpolitics.com has Obama at 1,891 delegates. Current polling gives him 58 percent of the two-candidate vote in Oregon and 34 percent of the two-candidate vote in Kentucky. That should give him, under the proportional representation rules, about 17 delegates in Kentucky and about 30 in Oregon. That puts him at 1,938. That means he needs to add 87 superdelegates between Friday and Tuesday night. He's been getting four or five a day, it seems, even after his bad defeat in West Virginia, but he needs a lot more than that.

Actually, he needs more than 87. Conversations with Democratic superdelegates and insiders have convinced me that no one wants to be identified as the superdelegate who single-handedly decided the Democratic nomination--that is, who rejected either the first woman or the first black with a serious chance to be nominated. I expect the Obama campaign to announce a whole bunch of superdelegates at once that, together, put him well over the top. My guess is that the Obama campaign is trying to compile such a list, and that it will come up short.

Also, it won't be particularly graceful to make such an announcement on the evening of May 20--or, rather, at least in the Eastern time zone, in the early hours of May 21. The last Kentucky polls close at 6 p.m. Central time, which is 7 p.m. Eastern time. My experience has been that Kentucky counts votes very quickly, so the result will probably be known before 8 p.m. Central. Moreover, Kentucky is likely to give Clinton a solid majority--solid enough that the state can be called for her at 7 p.m. Eastern time. She will add to the popular vote plurality over Obama (if Florida and Michigan are counted) that she had after Pennsylvania, lost after North Carolina and regained again after West Virginia.

That's not likely to be erased by the Oregon result: Oregon is smaller than Kentucky, and Clinton's percentage of the two-candidate vote in polls in Kentucky is notably higher than Obama's in Oregon. But we will be waiting a while for the Oregon result. Oregon has all mail-in ballots, and they must be in the hands of election officials by 8 p.m. on May 20. That's 8 p.m. Pacific time for most of the state, which is 11 p.m. Eastern time. Nor is there an exit poll (there are not polling places at which to accost exiting voters). So we'll have at least four hours between the time we know the Kentucky result and the time we begin to get the Oregon results.

If I were the Obama campaign, and I had a passel of superdelegate votes putting me over the top that I wanted to announce,would I want to do it during the daytime of May 20? It hardly seems sporting to do that while Kentuckians and Oregonians are voting, and when no one can be sure exactly how many delegates Obama has won in those states. Would I want to do it in the evening, when Kentucky has announced and Oregon hasn't? It seems kind of weird to announce victory after you've been shellacked in two primaries within a week. Would I want to wait till the Oregon count is in? At that point virtually everyone in the Eastern and Central time zones will be in bed. Would I want to wait till the next day? Probably so. But you then let Hillary Clinton have an opportunity for a victory speech after the Kentucky results are in. And the Clinton campaign will claim, as it has been doing lately, that the number of delegates required for the nomination is not 2,025, but 2,209. Which is true if the Florida and Michigan delegations vote at the convention--which the rules committee won't begin deciding, at least publicly, until May 31. Which gives Clinton a warrant to go on campaigning--and to fight to seat Florida and Michigan--right up through June 3.

As the Baseball Crank blog points out, Obama has not had a good March, April, and May. Starting with the March 4 primaries, he's trailed Clinton by 346,004 popular votes, and the blog estimates that he'll lose the still-to-come primaries by another 186,497 popular votes. That would put Clinton ahead of Obama not only counting Florida and Michigan, but also counting Florida and Michigan and the imputed totals in the Iowa, Nevada, Washington, and Maine caucuses.

One more point. The Obama campaign makes much of the fact that its candidate leads Clinton in "pledged delegates," those chosen in primaries and caucuses. He has--by 153 more of those, according to the latest RealClearpolitics.com count. As this Wall Street Journal articles notes, Obama has picked up a net 145 delegate advantage in caucuses and a net delegate advantage of exactly seven delegates in primaries. Seven. And as the article also notes and as I noted above, Obama did much better in caucuses than in nonbinding primaries in the two states that held both, Washington and Nebraska. Obama and many, possibly most, superdelegates believe that he has a moral claim on superdelegate votes by virtue of his lead in pledged delegates. But that lead comes almost entirely from caucuses, which have many fewer participants and are presumably less accurately representative of the mass of Democratic voters than primaries.

Moreover, the Democrats' systems of allocating primary delegates by proportional representation in congressional (or state Senate) districts as well as statewide gives a premium to a candidate who can monopolize the vote among an identifiable bloc of voters that tends to be heavily concentrated in certain congressional districts. I can think of just one such group: blacks. By carrying 80 percent or 90 percent of black voters, Obama has won 7-to-2 or similar margins in black-majority congressional districts, while in other districts with even numbers of delegates Clinton could win but do no better than 2-to-2 or 3-to-3 splits.

The Obama campaign has counterarguments to all this. Delegates are the metric by which the nomination is determined. Clinton had the chance to organize better in caucus states and inexplicably failed to do so. Everyone knew the proportional representation rules before the contest began. From these arguments, superdelegates could reasonably conclude that Obama has a moral entitlement to the nomination. But there are other arguments, which I've suggested above, from which superdelegates could reasonably conclude that Clinton is morally entitled to the nomination. So it's possible that the Democratic race will be over on May 20--or, rather, May 21. But I think it's more likely to go on to June 3, and maybe beyond.


By Michael Barone
  • CBSNews

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