After the Non-Defeats of Super Tuesday, A Long Slog for the Democrats

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CHICAGO, IL — By the time that Super Tuesday finally arrived, the mystery was long gone. The day that had loomed for so long had lost its melodramatic make-or-break status for the Democrats. Hours before the vote-counting began, the top strategists for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were pitching the same line: the results would not be decisive and whoever ended up the winner would walk away with merely a small edge in delegates. And as the vote tallies started to come in, both campaigns declared non-defeat. That is, they each claimed to have done well. “Encouraging results,” Mark Penn, Clinton’s chief strategist said. “We’re having a very strong night,” said David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager. Both were right.

The two campaigns had plenty of data to spin as the results materialized. Clinton triumphed in California (by an overwhelming margin), Massachusetts (where a big turnout in women negated that Kennedy magic), Arizona, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Obama won in Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Delaware, Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, Utah, Idaho, and Missouri. Last-minute deciders, Penn said, went for Clinton. “Momentum is turning,” he insisted. Plouffe noted that Obama was competitive in regions across the nation, that he won the caucus states (showing the campaign’s organizational talent), and that he captured states that did not permit independents to vote (Delaware and Connecticut). Clinton was the Queen of California. Obama was the Master of Missouri.

But all that really mattered was the final delegate count (which was not easy to calculate in the hours after the polls shut down but was likely to be close)–and the fact that neither candidate was knocked out of the race. Despite the wipeout in California, Obama’s senior aides appeared pleased, as they spoke with reporters at his election night celebration in Chicago. Pre-election polls had shown him trailing in most Super Tuesday states, and their goal had been to survive the day. They did. “The nominating battle will continue well past today’s voting,” Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s communications director, told reporters. Only weeks ago, Clinton strategists were hoping this mega-primary day would end the race in their favor. Now they were talking about the coming slog, as if it had always been inevitable.

Super Tuesday did not live up to its do-or-die reputation because the Democratic field had been downsized to two strong contenders who push rather different memes. Clinton presents herself as the tried-and-tested hard-worker who can get stuff done. Obama offers himself as a transformative figure who can–due to his power to inspire–bring about change. It’s math versus music. And after seven years of George W. Bush–during which the music was awful and the math was bad–Democrats crave both proven competence and uplifting inspiration. For many voters, it’s a tough either/or. Super Tuesday demonstrated there is no consensus position within the party among its voters.

On election night, the candidates highlighted the contrast. Clinton delivered a speech, much like her standard stump fare, that was chockfull of policy wonkery. Obama went full throttle on the passion and inspiration. “Our time has come, our movement is real,” he declared. He noted that he–and his movement–could attract independents and Republicans far more so than Clinton and bring change to Washington. “We are the ones we have been waiting for,” he proclaimed. “We are the change that we seek.” (That was a new line.)

So the head/heart, prose/poetry–choose your own metaphor–conflict will continue. The rules that govern the Democratic nomination process make it difficult for the party to sort this out, for they benefit a strong second-place finisher. Delegates are awarded proportionally. Consequently, if there is a close two-person race in a state, the loser can pocket almost as many delegates as the victor. It’s not easy for a candidate to open up a significant lead in a competitive campaign. (See here for a fuller explanation.)

Now that Super Tuesday has ended with a whimper, no bang, the Democratic contest will turn into an even longer ordeal. The rest of the primary calendar is spread out over the next four months. There are key dates and key states ahead: Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia on February 12; Ohio and Texas on March 4; Pennsylvania on April 22. But the race will have a much more traditional pace, with candidates spending days, if not weeks, courting the voters of delegate-rich states. There is a six-week break between the Mississippi primary on March 11 and the Keystone State contest.

The conventional take is that this schedule is advantageous for Obama. He remains less known than Clinton. He needs time to connect with voters. The more he campaigns in a state, the better he usually does. “We’ve always benefited when voters have focused on the decision,” Plouffe said. And, Plouffe maintained, Clinton “has ceiling issues.” Given that Democratic voters are quite familiar with Clinton, she has had plenty of opportunity to close the deal. For those Democratic voters who do not already fancy her, how much more can she do to win them over at this point?

Clinton aides say there is much she can do–that many Democrats still have not seen the real Hillary Clinton in action. Before the vote-counting began on Tuesday, the Clinton campaign declared that it wanted at least one debate a week with Obama. It noted it had already accepted invitations from CNN, ABC News, MSNBC and Fox News (yes, Fox News). In a conference call with reporters, Penn and Wolfson essentially called on major news outlets to invite Clinton and Obama to debate, signaling, we’ll say yes to anything.

Clinton tends to do well in debates, where she can put on display her command of policy details. A long series of debates would build into the schedule potential firebreaks for her–opportunities for her to go after Obama directly should he pull ahead in the delegate count. The debates could also help Clinton keep up with Obama in obtaining face-time with the public. Obama raised $32 million to Clinton’s $13 million in January. With all that money, Obama can buy a ton of television ads. High-profile debates would help Clinton deal with any ad gap that develops. And if Clinton can rope Obama into a string of debates, he would have less time for on-the-ground campaigning–meaning less time for those pumped-up mega-rallies that have served him so well.

Plouffe moved quickly not to be drawn into Clinton debate trap. “We’ve done 18 debates,” he said. “Our schedule will not be dictated by the Clinton campaign.” Obama would participate in additional debates, he added, but he refused to say how many, calling the Clinton campaign ploy “a tactic out of the second-tier congressional campaign playbook.”

What’s left to be debated? Penn identified one issue–and merely one: health care. The Clinton campaign intends to keep pounding Obama for proposing a health care plan that does not mandate coverage for adults. “We’re happy to debate the mandate issue,” Plouffe responded, adding that the Clinton camp was “trying to suggest that Barack Obama is running with a secret plan not to have universal health care.” And what issue would Obama like to debate? I asked Plouffe. “The debate is about who can best bring about change,” he answered. Note he did not refer to a specific policy. The contours of the race are not changing: Clinton wants to out-policy Obama, and Obama wants to convince Democratic voters he’s the better person.

Now each candidate will have weeks, if not months, to make his or her case. “We’re both preparing for a long drawn-out scenario,” Plouffe said, noting that eventually one of the two will gain the “upper hand” in the delegate count. How do you define “upper hand”? a reporter asked him. He replied, “We’ll know it when we see it.”


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