Crack in the firewall

Like a circus performer trying to spin one too many plates on poles, Hillary Clinton’s campaign is having trouble managing its messages lately. Oh, the candidate is sticking with the plan in her stump speeches; it’s when she and her shuffled staff try to explain the progress of her campaign that they’re having trouble keeping their spin straight. Let’s see, Obama’s early primary wins don’t count because independents could vote and it takes real Democrats to win the nomination, then his sweep of caucus states should be ignored because only Democratic activists turned out, and then none of it mattered because when Bill Clinton ran in 1992 he lost all those states but still wound up winning the presidency. It is the big states where the delegates are, and Clinton has a lock on those, especially ones with large Hispanic populations and blue-collar Democrats.

That lock doesn’t look so secure after the Potomac primaries this week. Clinton continued to win a majority of white women, but in both Virginia and Maryland Obama not only held the support that has propelled him this far but expanded his coalition deep into Clinton territory. He won among all women nearly 60–40, got a similar margin among voters making less than $50,000 per year and even won Latinos by 10 points. Granted, the Latino population in Virginia and Maryland is only a fraction of what it is in Texas, but Tuesday was a clear crack in that Clinton firewall.

A lot can happen between now and March 3, as we’ve seen throughout this election year. But if these trends continue, Texas and Ohio start to look very competitive. Obama’s victories in rural states demonstrate he has appeal outside of upscale urban areas. (One big surprise on Super Tuesday was Idaho, a state popularly known for potatoes and neo-Nazis. Obama won 80 percent of the vote there. Not a lot of delegates, but a clear indication that the West is changing and that a new face can find a lot of support in red states.)

So now the Clinton spin has turned to delegates. No longer able to claim a lead after his recent string of victories has given Obama a 25-delegate advantage, according to The Associated Press, Hillary’s campaign has begun to talk about her superdelegate lead. Of the 796 such delegates, she claims 242 to Obama’s 160. If that proportional spread remains, we could see a repeat of the 1984 convention when former Vice President Walter Mondale overpowered then-Sen. Gary Hart with superdelegates to win the nomination.

Except that a couple of things are different this year. First, there are signs that the Clinton campaign has collected all the low-hanging fruit — that those who have not yet committed are either truly open to either candidate or reluctant to sign on with the Clintons. Their team has been working those delegates very hard, in classic Clinton style. The former president is said to have had an angry exchange with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former Democratic presidential candidate himself. Richardson was refusing to commit. “What, isn’t two Cabinet posts enough?” screamed the former president. There are a lot of these delegates who want to keep their options open despite a long history with the Clintons — or because of it, some insiders say. They may not be committed to Obama yet, but they are keeping their options open.

And well they should. So far Sen. Obama has won 23 of 35 state contests and a majority of delegates elected in caucuses and primaries. He has brought millions of new, excited and engaged voters into the process. Should he go to the convention with more popular votes and more elected delegates but still be short of the nomination, we may well see a civil war in Denver. If party officials, officeholders and other superdelegates turn their backs on “the will of the people” and throw their support to Sen. Clinton, there could be disastrous results. Most Democrats would fall in line and support the nominee, even if she had not won her delegates at the ballot box. But many would see such a result as a replay of the 2000 election when a handful of appointed Supreme Court justices gave the presidency to George W. Bush. A Florida outcome in Denver will not send the right message to the American people, and could well send a lot of impassioned Obama voters looking for an alternative. President Bloomberg, anyone?

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com