The Clinton Campaign's New Math

| Mon Mar. 24, 2008 5:35 PM EDT

clinton.jpg Unless something truly monumental produces lopsided victories for Hillary Clinton in the upcoming primaries, her chances for the Democratic nomination rely on superdelegates overturning the will of Democratic voters. Knowing this, her campaign has regularly identified criteria upon which the superdelegates might choose Clinton over Obama, some of which directly reflect the voters' intent (pledged delegate count, popular vote) and some of which are essentially judgment calls (electability, readiness). The campaign's problem is that the former criteria currently favor Obama and the latter don't lend themselves to a slam dunk consensus. In fact, they have so far been rejected by the majority of Democratic voters, who think electability and readiness are either better found in Obama or are trumped by Obama's ability to usher in change. If superdelegates were to cite Clinton's electability and readiness in order to coronate a nominee, it could drive voters out of the party.

But the Clinton campaign has found a new angle: imaginary electoral college votes. It is sending surrogates out to push the idea that superdelegates should vote for the candidate who would have come out ahead if the primaries were awarding electoral college votes instead of delegates.

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This has a veneer of legitimacy because the campaign can say, "In the fall, the president is chosen through the electoral college. If you want to know who would make the best nominee, look at the electoral vote math." In fact, Clinton communications guru Howard Wolfson said almost exactly this to the New York Times.

Now, is this spin? Of course it is. The Clinton campaign will and has spit out any criteria it can think of that shifts the media narrative in its direction. It is losing the pledged delegate count, it is losing the popular vote, and it has lost more states. But it is in front when it comes to this notion of electoral college votes because it has won more big states. "It is our belief that at the end of the day, superdelegates will need to take into account a variety of factors," said spokesman Phil Singer on a conference call on Monday. "And that includes which candidate is going to be best able to accumulate the requisite 270 electoral votes."

The problem here is that these fictitious electoral college results have little, if any, connection to the electoral college results in the fall. Clinton won California in the primary, giving her bucketloads of these imaginary electoral college votes. (Because of how the Democratic Party awards delegates, the delegate results were relatively even in California. Electoral college votes are winner-take-all.) The same happened in New York. But Obama will win California and New York in the fall if he is the nominee. He's a Democrat. Winning California and New York in presidential elections is what Democrats do.

And then there's the fact that the winner of a state's Democratic primary is not necessarily the best Democrat to win that state in the fall. Clinton won the Democratic primary in New Mexico, where Kerry lost to Bush by one percent in 2004. The Democrats may need Obama's ability to appeal to independents and Republicans to turn New Mexico blue in the fall.

The question is, how will the media cover the Clinton campaign's latest ploy? In a Politico article recently, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen made the point that a hard look at the delegate count shows that Clinton has "virtually no chance of winning" the nomination. But the media has a couple reasons for pretending like it does:

One reason is fear of embarrassment. In its zeal to avoid predictive reporting of the sort that embarrassed journalists in New Hampshire, the media — including Politico — have tended to avoid zeroing in on the tough math Clinton faces...

One important, if subliminal, reason is self-interest. Reporters and editors love a close race — it's more fun and it's good for business.

The media are also enamored of the almost mystical ability of the Clintons to work their way out of tight jams, as they have done for 16 years at the national level. That explains why some reporters are inclined to believe the Clinton campaign when it talks about how she's going to win on the third ballot at the Democratic National Convention in August.

I would add another reason: many in the media hold to a twisted form of objectivity. Instead of taking a hard look at the facts and stating them plainly, it gives equal space to both sides' arguments and spin. I'm guilty of some of this myself.

So the media can either: (1) ignore the Clinton campaign's new math; (2) report the campaign's new math, but explain the fallacy behind it; or (3) report the campaign's new math and pretend like its just part of the back-and-forth of a dogfight campaign that either candidate can win. The first two are clearly superior to the third, but it is the third that keeps Clinton viable. The fact that her campaign has realized that content-hungry 24-hour news outlets will report most of their spin as long as they keep producing it demonstrates that though they might not win this nomination fight, they'll never be beat on the media management front.