There are 10 scheduled contests left, but thanks to proportional allocation, not enough pledged delegates to be had for either Barack Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton to clinch the nomination. And, because of increasingly firm demographic voting trends, it appears to be a foregone conclusion who will capture most of the remaining states.
So on June 3, when South Dakota and Montana end the current voting calendar, the contours of the race aren't likely to be much different from what they are today.
That means 2 1/2 months of conference calls, attacks, counterattacks and millions of dollars spent, all to move the political needle just a few inches.
“It’s going to be a long, hard slog,” predicted Jim Jordan, a veteran Democratic strategist not working for either candidate. “It’s not good for the party.”
Pennsylvania, which votes on April 22, and Indiana and North Carolina, which both go to the polls on May 6, will be closely watched, as will Florida and Michigan if they vote again. But the stretch otherwise lacks any obvious primary of consequence or other decisive moment that could spell the end for either candidate.
“We'll have a race that doesn't look that different than it does now, in either pledged delegates or the popular vote” at the end of voting, predicted a top Obama campaign official.
Clinton’s campaign thinks it can cut into Obama’s lead on both counts but concedes that, barring unforeseen results or events, the stalemate won’t break before June.
“All the voters ought to have a chance to speak, and we’ll let them speak,” said Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee. “At that point, we expect some clarity.”
So increasingly it appears that the actual contests themselves may not determine the Democratic nominee.
Yes, there will be the usual commercials, speeches and town halls in the remaining states. But the prime audience for the candidates isn’t to be found in Altoona, Evansville or Chapel Hill. The voters will merely be playing a supporting role in a race likely to be decided by the party's superdelegates.
Clinton's overarching mission now is to raise doubts among the superdelegates about Obama’s viability as a general election candidate. The primary results, then, are relevant only to the extent that they drive — or, for Obama, dispel — that argument.
“We believe that [the Pennsylvania results] will show that Hillary is ready to win, and that Sen. Obama really can’t win the general election,” Clinton’s chief strategist Mark Penn said on a conference call with reporters Thursday.
Penn subsequently modified his analysis to say that losing Pennsylvania would only raise questions about Obama's ability to win in November. But the point was made nonetheless.
“A lot of these superdelegates are sitting back and waiting,” a Clinton aide said. “When they see us racking up wins in big states … that sends a very strong signal to them.”
In addition to the unambiguous Obama-can’t-win line put out by Penn and broadly hinted at by others, the Clinton campaign is hoping to overtake Obama in another way that is outside the parameters of the actual contests.
It’s a more subtle version of questioning Obama’s viability, leavened with a strong dose of suggesting to Democrats, especially superdelegates, that they don’t actually have to choose.
“He would win the urban areas and the upscale voters, she would win the rural areas that we lost when President Reagan was president,” Bill Clinton said of a Hillary-Obama ticket last week while stumping for his wife in Pass Christian, Miss, before the primary there. “If you put those two things together, you'd have an almost unstoppable force.”
So while Bill Clinton is touting the strength of a fusion ticket, he’s also reiterating the Clinton campaign theme: Obama’s appeal is limited, and only Clinton can secure those key areas that Democrats have lost in the past when they appealed to some but not all of their traditional coalition.
Primaries and superdelegate strategy aside, the last best hope of the Clinton campaign is a serious unforced error.
“She’s hoping for a whopper of a mistake,” is how Jordan puts it.
Such a major gaffe or revelation could be a game-changer, and it's more likely to occur now than ever before because of the increased daily scrutiny of Obama.
“Cumulatively, the question now will be: Is there any risk associated with nominating Barack Obama?” observed political analyst Charlie Cook. “We’re very cognizant of the downside of what a Clinton nomination would be. The next couple of months will be about Clinton arguing what” the downside of an Obama nomination would be.
Day-by-day, Cook said, the focus will be on Obama and whether he can withstand the intensive scrutiny of Clinton and a newly-energized political press corps.
“How does he hold up over time?” Cook asked. “Obama is in his third week of legitimate press coverage of his career. So does he come across as steady or does he come across as wobbly? His comeback on the VP issue was good. If he’s doing that with any consistency, he’s not going to have a problem.”
Jordan said that at times Obama’s campaign has seemed “too invested in their brand,” which is to say that the campaign has hesitated to counterattack out of concern such action may sully its well-cultivated post-politics-as-usual image.
But, Jordan added, “he’s punching back harder now.”
So assuming the remaining primaries and caucuses go as anticipated and no unexpected events transpire, Clinton’s task will be more about lobbying than campaigning.
“She’s going to have to convince a huge portion of uncommitted superdelegates to overturn the will of Democratic voters and risk blowing up the party,” Jordan said, citing the potential wrath of African-Americans and young voters that Obama has brought into the process.
The protracted race and lack of any apparent end point has unaligned Democrats concerned.
“The primary race is no longer about Democratic ideas or policy initiatives — it's about process, and that is the last thing you want your candidate talking about,” said another Democratic strategist and veteran of Sen. John F. Kerry's campaign. “This is increasingly in the hands of the superdelegates, whose minds can change on a daily basis. What started out as a better path to a faster nomination has resulted in a party without a nominee and a ticking clock.”