Can Hillary Clinton still win?

In the past week, Obama has won eight consecutive landslide victories. The closest contest was Maine, where he beat Clinton by a mere 19% of the vote. In terms of pledged delegates (the ones determined by the actual voters), Obama is now ahead by about 120 delegates, depending on which news source is projecting and how they do their math. The Clinton campaign has unintentionally resorted to the Giuliani strategy of pinning all hopes on a few distant contests that might be winnable and hoping it doesn’t come too late. What are the chances that she can pull this off? Let’s explore the most probable way she can do this.

Since we are looking at ways in which Clinton could win the nomination, we’ll make a few assumptions in her favor. First, we’ll restrict Obama’s lead to 120 delegates. There are a good number of delegates the news sources are still working to assign, largely in states Obama won by a large margin, but we’ll assume the best case for Clinton scenario and divide them evenly. To pull ahead, Clinton somehow needs to gain 120 delegates on Obama. Secondly, we’ll assume that Obama will suddenly stop having 2 to 1 victories in all the small states Clinton hasn’t campaigned in. I’m not sure how that would happen—but if she’s going to remain competitive, Clinton will need more than narrow victories in large states.

The Smoke-Filled Room Tactic

Of course, the Democratic party isn’t as democratic as you might believe—at least, not according to party rules. There are about 800 party bosses and big wigs called “superdelegates” who are allowed to vote for whomever they feel like, possibly while smoking cigars. Of these superdelegates, about a hundred have declared for Obama and about 200 have declared for Clinton. Chelsea Clinton has been making phone calls to the rest, trying to lure them into the Clinton camp. Even counting Clinton’s advantage with the party establishment, Obama is still slightly ahead. However, if the Clintons can call in a few more favors, it’s possible that the superdelegates could swing the nomination to her, regardless of what the voters said.

That said, this probably won’t happen. Recently, a few superdelegates have openly said that they aren’t comfortable overruling the popular vote. All of them are politicians and realize how bad it will look if Obama is the clear favorite of the voters but somehow Hillary wins the nomination. It is unlikely that the superdelegates will overrule the actual delegates if there is a significant gap.

Still, there is more to the hazy, back-room politics than superdelegates. There are the mock primaries in Michigan and Florida. Due to an earlier decision by the Democratic National Committee, both Michigan and Florida have been stripped of their delegates. It’s undemocratic and regrettable—but those are the rules established before the primaries started. Neither Hillary nor Obama campaigned in either state. Hillary was the only major candidate left on the Michigan ballot, so she won an unconvincing 55% of the vote (beating out her strongest competitor, “uncommitted”, by 15%. Notably, the ballots of anybody who wrote in Obama or Edwards were thrown out.). Just before the Florida primary, where Hillary was polling significantly ahead, Hillary announced that Michigan and Florida’s delegates should count and that she would hold a large, publicized “fundraiser” in Florida just before the election. Once again, Hillary won by a moderate margin, predominantely on name recognition.

Now that she has won, Hillary is pushing to seat Michigan and Florida delegates. If she manages to do this, she will pick up a few delegates—though not half enough to tie up the race. Once again, it is highly dubious that this effort will succeed. Excluding two states looks bad for the DNC, but changing the rules at the convention in order to favor one candidate over another looks terrible. Even if Hillary’s pledged delegates are willing to do this, the superdelegates, politicians all, will realize how bad this looks. Unless Michigan and Florida hold some sort of revote—perhaps a caucus—they are likely to remain excluded. Since Obama does well in caucuses and the Big Cheeses of the Michigan Democrats are Hillary supporters, the caucus is unlikely to happen and Michigan and Florida are probably off the map as far as the Democratic nomination is concerned.

Since many of the 800 superdelegates who could sway the voting are going to have troubles with their own reelection campaigns if the electorate perceives the Democrats as shady and corrupt, Clinton will have trouble winning through back-room dealing. If Clinton is going to win, she will probably have to do it above the table. Hillary will need to win more pledged delegates in states with real elections.

Can Clinton Win Above the Table?

If the race goes all the way through the Puerto Rico contest on June 7, there are 1312 delegates left to assign. If Hillary gets 55% of those, she would (narrowly) regain the lead. Mathematically, it’s possible. However, she would need to hold her campaign together long enough to make her victory look probable. And a Hillary victory in many of the undecided states looks distinctly improbable. Obama won Washington, Idaho, North Dakota, Utah, Colorado, and Nebraska by gigantic margins. Can Clinton win in Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, and South Dakota? Obama won Illinos by a similar margin. Can next-door Indiana go for Hillary?

The next contest is Wisconsin and Hawaii. Obama grew up in Hawaii and is expected to win there in a landslide. Wisconsin is just north of Illinois—also an Obama stronghold. Neither of these looks like a likely win for Clinton, but she’s at least running attack ads in Wisconsin, targetting Obama for ignoring her request for weekly debates. Doing well enough in Wisconsin and Hawaii that Obama’s delegate lead does not increase is the best Hillary can reasonably hope to do. Perhaps she could win a narrow victory in Wisconsin and at least show up on the charts in Hawaii. This would leave 1191 delegates left in play. Clinton will need just over 55% of these.

The next big test for her would be March 4 when Ohio, Texas, Vermont, and Rhode Island all have contests. Vermont is surrounded by New York, New Hampshire, and Massachussetts, all of which went for Clinton, so it will probably go for Clinton as well. Rhode Island borders Massachussetts, which also went for Clinton, so it could concievably follow suit. If Hillary can capture all four of the states voting that day, she could effectively kill Obama’s momentum and signal that she is still in the race. However, a mere hair’s breadth victory won’t be enough. She will need to pick up a good number of the delegates. After March 4, there will only be 747 delegates left to award. Worse yet for Clinton, the next two contests are Wyoming and Mississippi, both of which Obama should easily win, so Clinton will not be able to claim much momentum of her own going toward the April 22 contest in Pennsylvania. Hillary needs to win both Ohio and Texas by a comfortable margin. If she can win all four states, she will still need to pick up at least 250 or 56% of the 444 delegates at stake on March 4 to make any meaningful dent in Obama’s lead. This would leave her still down by 56 delegates or so, but possibly give her enough momentum to have a chance at gaining that back in the upcoming challenge. It would require her to do better than her 9% victory margin in California and much better than her even narrower margins in Arizona and New Mexico. She would not only have to win, she would have to win decisively. If she loses any one of the states, she will need a wider margin to show that, mathematically, she is still in the race. If Obama can win Ohio, even narrowly, Clinton will need about a 20% margin of victory—or better than she did in New York—to remain competitive. If Obama can win Texas, there is virtually nothing Clinton can do to catch up.

Even if she pulls this off, Clinton will have an uphill battle. If she can win Ohio, New York, and New Jersey, Pennsylvania should be winnable, though she will need to win it by a lot. But Indiana, North Carolina, Kentucky, West Virginia, Montana, and South Dakota are all going to be particularly difficult. Hillary has won a lot of large states, but she has not won by the kind of margins Obama has won by. He is better funded and better organized than her. If she can’t find a way to start winning some of the smaller states, she will have to pin all her hopes on Puerto Rico, whose powerful governor has just endorsed Obama.

If Clinton is going to win the race fairly, she has a challenging road ahead. If Obama can do as well as he has been doing, he may be able to cinch the nomination within a month and end his supporters worries about what the Clintons will try to pull at the convention.