The Democratic contest has been a 50-50 proposition for months now--more precisely, a 51-49 percent endeavor or maybe a 52-48-percent face-off in Barack Obama's favor, according to the pledged delegate count and the popular vote. Hillary Clinton's 9-point win in the Keystone State (which apparently did not net her a significant pickup in pledged delegates) does not change this. In fact, her Pennsylvania triumph does not change the fundamentals of the race. Obama is still on track to end the primaries with a slight edge in pledged delegates. And Clinton is still in the race, clinging tightly to her candidacy and reiterating rationales to stay in the hunt: I have more experience; I'm better prepared to be commander-in-chief; I've withstood the worst of the GOP attack machine; I've won the big states.
Bottom line: It's not over, and the contest is not likely to end anytime soon. At HRC HQ in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, Terry McAuliffe, Clinton's campaign manager, ebulliently declared, "She is taking this all the way to Denver." But many Democratic superdelegates and insiders are hardly enthusiastic about a bitterly fought campaign that trudges through the next nine primaries (which conclude in early June) and then continues, as a media-driven contest of Democrat-on-Democrat sniping, for three months until the convention in Denver at the end of August. The question is, will these Democrats be able to do anything about it?
If Clinton is committed to going the distance, she cannot be stopped. No one--not even those mighty superdelegates--can literally force her out. She cannot win the final primaries by margins large enough to erase Obama's lead in voter-determined delegates. Everyone knows that. But she can keep on challenging Obama, doing well enough--winning some contests or placing a strong second--to justify, at least to herself and her supporters, her continued presence in the race. During that time, she can hope something happens that does alter the landscape (look, evidence that Obama is indeed a secret Muslim!), and she can also lay the groundwork for a post-primaries effort to persuade superdelegates to overturn Obama's narrow victory among pledged delegates. Yet that project can only succeed with successful assaults on Obama. Her path to the nomination depends on one fuel: fierce attacks. She can win the nomination only by tearing down Obama after the voting is done and by threatening party unity.
Clinton is obviously fine with that--at this stage. But how far is she willing to go? Her shots at Obama may have helped her win in Pennsylvania. But they were not cost-free. According to the exit polls, 42 percent of the Pennsylvania Democratic voters consider Clinton untrustworthy. (Thirty percent said the same about Obama.) Sixty-seven percent said they believed she had attacked Obama unfairly. Only 49 percent said Obama had thrown low-blows. And Clinton did not redefine her standing among Democrats. Two-thirds of Pennsylvania's Democratic voters said Clinton was "in touch with people" like them. Yet two-thirds had the same assessment of Obama. Despite all the fuss about Obama's "bitter" remark, Clinton had no edge in the candidate-of-the-people category. And 51 percent of the voters said the candidate quality they consider most important was the ability to implement change. Among these voters, Obama attracted 70 percent.
With her Pennsylvania win, Clinton can raise funds--her campaign claimed millions of dollars poured in on Tuesday night--and she can proceed to Indiana and North Carolina (which hold primaries on May 6), staying alive because she insists she is alive. Remember the Monty Python "dead parrot" bit? As long as Clinton refuses to concede she cannot win, she remains a contender--or at least a force Obama and the Democratic Party must contend with. After all, the party has no official coroner who can pronounce her gone. And--no small matter--Democratic voters do keep turning out for her. In her victory speech in Philadelphia, she depicted herself as a politician who fights damn hard on the campaign trail for you and who will fight damn hard in the White House for you. Clearly, she was trying to turn what some superdelegates might perceive as an irritant or problem--her stubborn determination--into a reason why superdelegates ought to dump Obama for her.
During the Monica Lewinsky scandal--when many pundits and Clinton foes predicted Bill Clinton's demise--the Clintons learned a valuable lesson: sometimes you just have to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving ahead, paying no heed to those who say you have no choice but to quit. They had their party--most of it--behind them during those days. And now Hillary Clinton, with significant voter support, is plodding ahead, stuck with a strategy that at this point leaves her only the nuclear option of nullifying Obama's primary and caucus victories. But, she can reason, if I am not dead, then I'm still alive--and still have a chance. Politically speaking, she is somewhere between dead and alive. The undead? The next primaries may nudge her closer to one of those poles. And, once again, they may not be decisive. But as of now, amid the glow of her Pennsylvania victory, it's up to Hillary Clinton to decide at what point might rest the bitter end.
(Photo of Senator Clinton by flickr user alexanderwrege used under a Creative Commons license.)