It could, however, give Clinton’s sputtering campaign one last chance to alter — or at least mute — the prevailing narrative that Obama’s nomination is inevitable.
And, perhaps more important, a massive margin of victory could bolster Clinton’s central argument to the superdelegates who will ultimately decide the nomination. Her campaign contends that Obama has serious problems with the blue-collar and elderly whites who dominate West Virginia’s voter rolls — and who Team Clinton asserts will be key in a number of states if Democrats are to defeat presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.
So, how to know whether West Virginia is on its way to giving Clinton a narrative-changing win that will sway superdelegates, or at least prolong their decision-making process?
Here are five indicators that the pros will be watching:
1) How goes Mason County? In 1988 and 2000 — the most recent elections with no incumbent president on the ballot — the county of less than 30,000 residents on the Ohio border was within 5 percentage points of the actual statewide primary results.
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That could be good news for Clinton, who had a commanding 65 percent to 16 percent lead in the county in the most recent poll of West Virginia voters, a Suffolk University survey taken May 10-11.
But 12 percent of respondents told pollsters they had no preference or were undecided. That’s equal to the statewide percentage and suggests the possibility of late-breaking votes, which have swung to both Obama and Clinton in their previous contests.
Statewide, the poll showed Clinton with a smaller lead of 60 percent to 24 percent.
2) The Edwards protest vote. John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator who ended his Democratic presidential campaign in January, remains on the ballot in West Virginia. And he polled at 4 percent in the Suffolk poll, popular primarily with men and independents.
If Edwards gets that much of the vote or more, it could add to the night’s woes for Obama and presage problems for him in a general election matchup with McCain, particularly in rural states such as West Virginia.
Both men have courted independent voters, whom Obama needs to offset votes he’s likely to lose from southern white Democrats reluctant to support a black candidate.
“There are people who for some reason won’t vote for Obama,” said David Paleologos, who directed the Suffolk poll. Edwards’ poll showing, combined with Obama’s relatively low favorability numbers (44 percent favorable and 41 percent unfavorable, compared with Clinton’s 70 percent favorable and 21 percent unfavorable ratings) suggest to Paleologos that “Obama may have to write off West Virginia come November.”
The poll also found 40 percent of respondents would vote for the Democratic nominee if their preferred candidate lost, while 23 percent said they would cross the ballot to vote for McCain.
3) Turnout in the southern coal fields, the northern panhandle and the Ohio River counties. These areas, home to some of the most unionized, blue-collar and economically distressed populations in the state, are Clinton country.
The Clinton campaign acknowledges it needs a big win with high turnout to make the kind of statement it needs in West Virginia, and these areas will be key to turnout.
The campaign is clearly concerned that turnout across the state — as well as in Kentucky, another Clinton stronghold which votes May 20 mdash; could be stymied by media reports characterizing Obama’s nomination as inevitable.
“All this stuff you are hearing about is an attempt to discourage you,” former President Bill Clinton told supporters in rural West Virginia on Friday. But he insisted that the crowd could reverse the story line “if you show up in enough numbers, and your neighbors in Kentucky do, and we have a good run through the rest of these states."
4.) Television coverage. The Clinton campaign blames the Obama-as-inevitable story line partly on the saturation television coverage of last week’s huge Obama victory in North Carolina and unexpectedly narrow Clinton win in Indiana. Much of the analysis framed the night as a determinative moment in the campaign. Campaign aides were particularly peeved at Tim Russert’s declaration on MSNBC that “we now know who the Democratic nominee is going to be, and no one is going to dispute it” — even before the network called Indiana for Clinton.
Clinton told several hundred supporters gathered Sunday at a middle school gym in Eleanor, W.Va., that “the eyes of the country and the world will be on West Virginia on Tuesday,” because “there is no other state that everybody is going to be waiting to see.”
Still, there are indications her campaign won’t be entirely pleased by the amount of airtime and tenure of coverage devoted to West Virginia’s results.
“We will not cover this one tomorrow night as we have others, in that we will not do network interrupts,” Paul Friedman, vice president of CBS News, told Politico. “We assume we will be able to make a projection early, and will update the Evening News if — and as — necessary for the West Coast.”
David Chalian, political director for ABC News, said his network will handle its coverage of West Virginia like “previous nights when there is a single small state at stake. It will likely mirror our coverage from the night of the Mississippi primary in March.”
He told Politico the network’s analysis and reporting “will no doubt include an honest assessment of where the race stands overall and how the results in West Virginia will or will not impact the current political environment.”
Chuck Todd, NBC News’ political director, said his network planned “special coverage like any other previous primary night.”
5) Fundraising bounce. Clinton’s campaign has been outspent in nearly every state by Obama’s fundraising juggernaut, and the Clinton campaign acknowledged over the weekend it is $20 million in debt.
Clinton, who loaned her campaign more than $11 million from her and her husband’s assets, boasted that her supporters deluged her website with small contributions totaling $10 million in the 24 hours after her April 22 victory in Pennsylvania — a record one-day haul.
If a huge West Virginia win uncorks a similar contribution surge, it wouldn’t make her campaign financially competitive with Obama’s. But it would help it toward solvency.