No Really, Hillary, You Should Go

Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., cups her ear as reporters ask her about Mark Penn, the pollster and senior strategist for Clinton's presidential bid who left the campaign Sunday, at the airport in Albuquerque, N.M., Sunday, April 6, 2008.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
This column was written by Jonathan Chait.

Last week, Senator Pat Leahy suggested that Hillary Clinton ought to quit the presidential race. How insensitive! How boorish! Pundits gasped, Clinton took umbrage, and even Barack Obama was forced to concede that Clinton has the right to run for as long as she desires.

The persistent weakness of American liberalism is its fixation with rights and procedures at any cost to efficiency and common sense. Democrats' reluctance to push Clinton out of the race is the perfect expression of that delicate sensibility.

There is some point at which a candidate's chance of winning becomes so low that her right to continue is outweighed by the party's interest in preparing for the general election. Does Clinton have a chance to become president? Sure. So does Ralph Nader. Clinton's chances are far closer to Nader's than to either Obama's or John McCain's.

Almost nobody contends that Clinton has a chance to overcome Obama's lead in pledged delegates. The spin now is that Obama's delegate lead is "small but almost insurmountable" (USA Today) and that, since neither can clinch the nomination with pledged delegates alone, "the nomination is expected to be in the superdelegates' hands" (Los Angeles Times). These beliefs reflect the mathematical illiteracy that has allowed the press corps to be routinely duped by economic flim-flammery. A lead that's insurmountable is, by definition, not small. The very primary rules that make it impossible for Clinton to catch up--proportionate distribution of delegates that award tiny net sums to the winner--are exactly what made Obama's lead so impressive.

The notion that the superdelegates will decide the race implies that pledged delegates won't matter--like a sports event that goes to overtime. Obviously, though, the pledged-delegate count determines how many superdelegates each candidate needs. Depending on how the remaining primaries go, Clinton will need about two-thirds of the uncommitted ones to break her way. Problem is, over the last month, superdelegates have broken to Obama by 78 percent to 22 percent.

And the supers who haven't endorsed are even less likely to side with Clinton. Numerous reports on uncommitted superdelegates have made clear that they have remained on the sideline out of an exquisite fear of stepping on the results of the voters. As my colleague Noam Scheiber reported, "Just about every superdelegate and party operative I spoke with endorsed Nancy Pelosi's recent suggestion that pledged delegates should matter most" ("Slouching Toward Denver," April 9).

Some have gamely insisted that a long campaign actually helps the Democrats, as evidenced by high primary turnout and new voter registration in states like Pennsylvania. But, to believe this argument, you'd have to believe that many of the voters flocking to the primaries would otherwise not have voted in the general election--an absurdity, given that even the high Democratic primary turnout is a fraction of normal general election turnout. You'd have to ignore Obama's foregone opportunities to start organizing nationally and making his general election pitch. And you'd have to explain away the fact that, in recent weeks, Obama has gone from leading McCain in the polls to trailing. (Clinton has trailed McCain for months; now her deficit is growing.)