The Big Costs of Clinton’s "Big Wins"

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton may have won three of four primaries last Tuesday, gaining needed momentum for her flagging campaign, but in the end the cost of these wins may prove too high.

First and foremost, is the fact that, despite the victories, she still cannot capture the nomination unless there is a party-splitting fight or equally damaging rule change.

After Super Tuesday, Senator Barack Obama proceeded to win twelve contests in a row, amassing an elected delegate total that Clinton cannot surpass. Before last Tuesday, Obama had won twenty-four state contests to Clinton’s eleven, and he led by 160 delegates. Clinton’s three victories will only net her campaign an extra six delegates, reducing Obama’s lead to a still insurmountable 154.

Political analysts, looking forward to the remaining twelve states to hold primaries and caucuses, argue that unless Clinton wins them all by an average of sixty-five percent (an impossible scenario), she cannot catch up. This, therefore, means that Obama will go to the convention in Denver with more elected delegates than Clinton, though not the outright majority needed to win the nomination.

Two options will then remain. One, of course, is that superdelegates will decide the winner. The danger here is that if the superdelegates vote to give the nomination to the second-place Clinton, the Democratic Party may well emerge from the convention divided, and with a wounded nominee.

Barack Obama has not only energized African Americans, but mobilized a movement of young people with a restored faith in politics. Along the way, he recruited tens of thousands of volunteers and received contributions from an unprecedented 1.1 million donors (most of them for $100 or less). His campaign bears many of the trademarks of a social movement. Because of this, many of those he has energized and mobilized will not simply follow a nominee whom they feel won a "fixed" contest, and represents "politics as usual."

Another party-splitting scenario proposed by the Clinton campaign is their insistence on having delegates from Michigan and Florida seated at the convention. Michigan and Florida broke party rules, had their delegates cancelled, and saw none of the candidates campaigning in either state. These elections were not real contests. Clinton won in Michigan because she was the only major candidate who remained on the ballot (the others having withdrawn their names); and she won in Florida largely because of name recognition, since Obama honored the party’s pledge not to campaign in the state. Therefore, to reward both states’ bad behavior would compromise the integrity of the election and result in a divided and possibly rancorous Democratic convention.

Nevertheless, most Democrats want the Florida and Michigan problems to be fixed – but not in a manner that would have their non-sanctioned primaries decide the outcome of the convention. A number of options are currently being discussed, and it is hoped that this matter can be resolved before too long.

Another major reason why the costs of Clinton’s victories may be too high has to do with the tactics they utilized to achieve them. Almost since the beginning of this campaign, Hillary Clinton, her husband (the former president) or campaign operatives, played many negative cards in an effort to slow Obama’s growing momentum. They played the "Muslim card," the "race card," the "experience card," the "drug card," and the "gender card." None succeeded.

And so when, in the last two weeks, the Clinton campaign promised a stepped-up negative assault, it was not surprising to see them find still more cards to play. There was, for example: the "fear/security card" (with Clinton claiming that only she – or her Republican opponent! – had the experience to defend the country from a terrorist threat), or the "cynicism card" (with Clinton mocking Obama’s political rhetoric), or the "scandal card," or the "victim of unfair media card," or the "plagiarism card." All of these combined took a toll, not only on Barack Obama, but on the Democratic constituency.

The constant attacks did, at times, appear to throw the Obama campaign slightly off-kilter; but, more than that, they opened up and deepened some fissures within the Democratic Party itself. As a result, following primaries, it now appears that about one-fifth of those who voted for Barack Obama have been so angered by these negative tactics that they would be hard-pressed to support Clinton if she were the nominee. Similarly, Clinton has now succeeded in molding the attitudes of about one-fifth of her voters who now say that they will not now support Obama should he be the nominee.

The negative campaigning worked, but arguably will help Republicans more in November than it helped Hillary Clinton last Tuesday. If Senator Clinton’s goal was to "hard-foul" and deliver a wounded Obama and battle-tested tactics to use against him to the Republicans, she succeeded.

A side note: an additional cost to be calculated in all of this has been the price paid by Senator Clinton’s husband, the former president. Once revered by many Democrats, despite the series of scandals and "triangulations" that characterized his administration, Bill Clinton today appears reduced to a campaign heavy and hatchet man. It is not at all becoming, and more than a little sad.