Clinton’s top supporters, including her husband, have suggested in recent days that amassing more votes than Sen. Barack Obama, while it has no formal meaning, could offer a key rationale for laying claim to the nomination. The theory: Winning the popular vote might give party leaders known as superdelegates a reason to take the nomination away from Obama, who is virtually sure to earn more pledged delegates.
"If Sen. Obama wins the popular vote then the choice will be easier. But if Hillary wins the popular vote but can't quite catch up with the delegate votes, then you have to just ask yourself, 'Which is more important, and who is more likely to win in November?'” former President Bill Clinton told ABC earlier this week.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a key Clinton ally, painted the same path to victory.
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"Let's assume that Sen. Clinton goes ahead in the popular vote count," he said in a March 13 conference call with reporters. He then asked, “Which is more Democratic”: the measure of delegates won or of votes received.
But it’s assuming a lot to give Clinton anything but the slimmest of chances to lead in the popular vote. It’s impossible to project turnout in the 10 states and territories left to vote, but Clinton will have to close a deficit of more than 700,000 votes. That means, even with extremely high turnout estimates, she would have to win by huge, double-digit percentages in the states where she could have an edge — Pennsylvania and West Virginia — while holding Obama to tiny gains in states such as North Carolina and Oregon, where he is heavily favored.
Without those blowouts, many influential Democrats contend, she will find it hard to convince superdelegates of a legitimate victory.
“It would be a particularly poisonous Pyhrric victory if she gets the nomination after losing the delegate count and the popular vote,” said Dan Gerstein, a political consultant who said he supports Obama. “Many Democrats would see the result as illegitimate, particularly in the black community. As such, it could cause a real rupture in the party that would not just threaten Hillary's chances in November but could lead to lasting bitterness and even a full-on rebellion after the campaign is over.”
Obama currently leads by 703,523 votes by the clearest count on the site RealClearPolitics, which excludes the uncontested contests in Florida and Michigan, and also the results of four caucuses that didn’t report participant numbers.
The margins in Florida, where both were on the ballot, and Michigan, where Clinton faced off against “uncommitted,” are a mark of how much Clinton loses by missing out on mutually accepted, contested elections in those states. Her margin in Florida was 294,772; in Michigan, where Obama was not on the ballot, she won by a margin of 90,141 over “uncommitted.”
But with the prospect of new votes in Florida and Michigan now dim, Clinton is stuck trying to squeeze more than 700,000 votes out of just 10 states and territories. And interviews with close watchers of Democratic politics in the largest of those states suggest that Clinton will find it extremely hard to make up that ground.
In Pennsylvania, for instance, more than 1.2 million Democrats turned out for the last contested Democratic primary, the 2002 governor’s race. Given the higher interest, Democratic operatives there — who declined to be quoted speculating — said they could imagine the vote getting as high as 2 million.
Under that, highly optimitic scenario, an unprecedented blowout for Clinton — a margin of 20 percent, for instance — would give her 400,000 more votes in the state, and still leave her with more than 300,000 to make up.
And few Pennsylvania Democrats actually expect such a result, despite Clinton’s lead in many state polls. Clinton’s convincing victory in Ohio, for instance — a whiter, more conservative state — was by a margin of 10 percent.
“It should be a 10-point, eight-point race,” said Saul Shorr, a veteran Democratic consultant based in Philadelphia, who suggested polls could be underestimating the share of African-American voters in the race. Obama is also conducting his own voter registration drive.
The second biggest state, North Carolina, reveals one of the key underlying obstacles for Clinton: Obama’s solid base of African-American voters offers him a base beneath which he’s unlikely to fall.
“You look at areas across the state, and there are pockets of African-American voters in almost every city. It will set up an absolute floor for [Obama],” said Morgan Jackson, a North Carolina Democratic consultant.
Jackson estimated that 700,000 would be extremely high turnout for the state (the last competitive primary included about 550,000 Democrats). That would give Clinton, even if she managed an unexpected win, little hope of chipping away at Obama’s current margin.
And if turnout is higher, that likely means bad news for the former first lady. “Anything more than 700,000 — it may be a huge Obama wave,” said Jackson.
The next big state is Indiana. There, Democratic officials estimate that turnout, on the high end, could touch 1 million.
“Three quarters of a million to a million votes would be very, very high,” said Jennifer Wagner, the communications director for the state Democratic Party.
Highly optimistic estimates for those three big states put fewer than 4 million votes up for grabs. The remaining seven contests will produce far fewer votes and include the small numbers of Democrats expected in Guam, South Dakota and Montana.
Clinton’s strongholds are thought to be Kentucky, West Virginia and Puerto Rico, where turnout estimates weren’t immediately available. In the largest state, Kentucky, about 713,000 voted for John F. Kerry in 2004 — a number far higher than could be expected to vote in any primary. In West Virginia, 327,000 people voted for Kerry. Obama’s remaining stronghold is Oregon, where Mark Wiener, a veteran Democratic consultant, estimated that some 550,000 might vote in an extremely high-turnout election, a little more than half the number that voted for Kerry.
A high, rough estimate of all the remaining states then would leave between 5 million and 6 million popular votes on the table.
For Clinton to pick up her lead in the popular vote with 6 million ballots cast, she’d need a 12 percent margin across the states — that’s a 56 percent to 44 percent average win. With 5 million ballots, she would need a 14 percent margin — that’s a 57 percent to 43 percent overall victory, including expected defeats in states counting for well over 1 million votes.
Removing North Carolina and Oregon from the list, Clinton’s wins would likely have to tally well over 60 percent of the vote.
So far, however, Clinton has broken 56 percent in just four states, including her home state of New York. Her two best states have been Rhode Island, where she topped 58 percent, and Arkansas, where she won more than 70 percent of the votes.
Now her path to victory seems to depend on all her future wins going the way of Arkansas.
Avi Zenilman contributed to this story.