Rather, he’ll tiptoe right up to the line, without explicitly asserting the race is over.
While it may sound like an exercise in hair-splitting, the conscious decision not to declare victory is a revealing measure of the sensitivity surrounding overtures that appear to disrespect Clinton and her supporters.
It’s also a reflection of the Obama campaign’s supreme confidence in the delegate math at this juncture—the campaign now appears secure enough in its commanding position that it no longer feels compelled to declare victory in an attempt to marginalize Clinton.
That marks a departure from the stance the Obama campaign took after his blowout win in North Carolina and narrow loss in Indiana May 6.
An Obama senior adviser, who asked that his name be withheld to speak candidly, told Politico the next day: "On May 20, we’re going to declare victory.”
Three days after those contests, Obama hinted that amassing the majority of pledged delegates following Tuesday’s Kentucky and Oregon primary elections meant his campaign could claim victory.
“That will be an important day,” Obama told NBC’s Brian Williams when asked if he would declare victory after the May 20 Kentucky and North Carolina primaries. “If at that point we have the majority of pledged delegates, which is possible, then I think we can make a pretty strong claim that we’ve got the most runs and it’s the ninth inning and we’ve won.”
The NBC quote was widely interpreted as a move by Obama to end to the race, but context was missing: He went on to state that he wants to “let this play out.”
After an ABC News blog used Obama’s NBC quote to question whether he was making a “huge miscalculation,” the campaign sought a clarification, which was posted, saying Obama was not talking about winning the nomination but rather an “important metric.”
Indeed, Obama aides have spent the last week trying to reverse the perception that he will declare victory May 20 – saying instead that he will simply recognize a milestone – in an attempt at message shifting that underscores the sensitive nature of this phase of the campaign.
When asked again Wednesday whether he still planned to declare victory following the results from Oregon and Kentucky, Obama dispatched the suggestion with a cool stare.
“We will declare that we have the majority of pledged delegates,” Obama said, giving the question only three seconds of his time before pivoting towards the front cabin of his campaign plane.
Obama said Sunday that he has not sent mixed messages.
“What we have consistently said is that we will have the majority of pledged delegates at that point and obviously ware going to make the argument to any superdelegates remaining that we should be the nominee,” Obama said. “But until those pledged delegates actually commit to us, we won't have achieved that number yet."
Although not declaring victory, Obama is returning to Iowa May 20, the state that launched his campaign, offering a symbolic bookend to the primary season. He acknowledged Sunday that holding his rally there Tuesday was a “terrific way to kind of bring things full circle.”
“We still have some contests left, but if Kentucky and Oregon go as we hope, then we think we will have a majority of pledged delegates at that point, and that's a pretty significant mark,” Obama told reporters at an ice cream shop. “That means that after contests in every state, or almost every state and the territories, we have received the majority of the delegaes that are assigned by voters.”
A second later, though, he emphasized he was not claiming victory.
"It doesn't mean we declare victory because I won't be the nominee until we have enough of a combination of both pledged delegates and superdelegates to hit the mark. But what it does mean is that voters have given us the majority of delegates that they can assign. And obviously that is what this primary and caucus process is about.”
Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the senator will campaign in the two remaining primary states and perhaps Puerto Rico – a move that contradicts suggestions that he views the race as over.
At the heart of the bid to steer reporters from the he-will-declare-victory narrative is a recognition that Clinton, who trails by a historically small margin, claims millions of supporters who don’t want her unceremoniously pushed out of the race. And the Democratic party views its chances in November as dependent upon its ability to reunite these opposing camps.
“Right now, it is all about unifying the party,” said Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist unaffiliated with either campaign. “This election should be won by the Democrats if the Democrats unite behind a candidate. The one hope that McCain has is if the party splits. For Obama, who has so far been very concerned about antagonizing Clinton’s supporters, you are walking a fine line.”
Not to mention the fact that the Clinton campaign refuses to recognize the Obama math, stoking an intra-campaign conflict at a time when both candidates are avoiding personal attacks.
In e-mail updates to reporters titled “Countdown to the Nomination,” the Obama campaign lays out its math, which adheres to Democratic National Committee rules: 3,253 in total pledged delegates, 1,627 needed for a majority of pledged delegates, and 2,025 delegates needed for the nomination.
As of Friday, Obama claimed 1,610 pledged delegates—or 17 short of a majority. The campaign also reported 293.5 Obama superdelegates, for a total of 1,903.5 total delegates.
Clinton subscribes to a different nomination metric – 2,210 delegates, not 2,025– a figure that includes Florida and Michigan, which were stripped of their convention delegates by the party as punishment for moving up their primary election dates.
“Declaring mission accomplished doesn’t make it so and taking victory laps before the nomination is actually secured is a slap in the face to the voters of Florida and Michigan, and the states that have not yet voted,” Clinton strategist Howard Wolfson said in a statement Sunday. “There is no standard under which Senator Obama will have secured the nomination on Tuesday night.”