Heilemann: Hillary's Bleak Outlook

Hillary
Hey! Remember me? Photo: Getty Images

If you happened to be watching TV last night at, oh, around ten o’clock, you may have witnessed the moment when, symbolically, the presidential primaries ended — and the general election began. Out in Madison, Wisconsin, in the speech celebrating his clean and decisive sweep of the Potomac primary, Barack Obama ignored his current opponent and trained his fire instead on the man who may stand as his future rival, John McCain, arguing that “his priorities … are bound to the failed policies of the past.” A few minutes later, from a stage in Alexandria, Virginia, McCain belittled Obama as blatantly as possible without ever mentioning him by name: “To encourage a country with only rhetoric rather than sound and proven ideas that trust in the strength and courage of free people is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude.”

And where in all this, you might well wonder, was Hillary Clinton? In El Paso, Texas, imploring, in effect, “Hey! Remember me?”

The impact of Obama’s Maryland-Virginia-D.C. trifecta could hardly have been more damaging or deflating for Clinton and her team. For two weeks, the Clinton people had been laboring feverishly to lower expectations, telling any reporter in earshot that they expected to win none of the primaries that took place last night. But no amount of pre-spinning could soften the blow of losing a trio of contests by 23, 29, and 51 points (in Maryland, Virginia, and D.C., respectively) — especially coming on the back of a weekend in which Obama had soundly thrashed Clinton in four states plus the U.S. Virgin Islands. Even more distressing for Clinton's side were the signs that Obama had eaten into her bedrock of support. That he’d beaten her among white voters and folks earning less than $50,000 a year in Virginia. That he’d done the same among union households and white Catholics in Maryland.

By now, of course, you’re savvy enough to understand that what really matters is the delegate count. And you know that, because of the principle of proportionality that governs the Democratic race, it’s hard for either side to pull away — except, that is, in the case of an absolute shellacking. But a shellacking is precisely what Obama administered to Clinton on Tuesday and in the elections over the weekend. Indeed, for the first time since Iowa, BHO is ahead of HRC in terms of committed delegates. He’s even ahead, by most counts, after superdelegates are factored in. According to Chuck Todd, the political director at NBC, for Clinton to regain her lead will require her to win more than 55 percent of the delegates up for grabs in the nineteen states that still remain to vote, which means carrying the states where she has a shot with roughly 60 percent of the vote.

That would be a tall order to fill under any circumstances — tall, but not impossible, in theory. The trouble is that the next two states on the calendar are Hawaii and Wisconsin on February 19. Hawaii is both a caucus state and Obama’s birthplace, so forget about that one. Wisconsin, by contrast, offers demographics that would seem to offer Clinton a chance: a big chunk of white working-class voters, a small population of African-Americans. Yet the Clinton squad appears, at the moment, to be writing off Wisconsin. While Obama is in the Badger State now, laying down his juju, HRC’s schedule for the next three days has her exclusively in Texas and Ohio, which vote on March 4.

The argument against the Clinton plan is easy enough to grasp: that with two more routs in Hawaii and Wisconsin, Obama’s already thunderous momentum may simply be unstoppable. The counterargument is that Texas and Ohio amount to the whole ball of wax: Unless Clinton wins both by substantial margins, she is toast. As a matter of fact, more than one Clinton campaign official said exactly this to me on the phone yesterday. My first reaction was, holy cow, talk about a bleak outlook — too bleak, I thought. But that was before the results rolled in from Maryland and Virginia. By the end of the night, staring hard at the delegate totals and working my slide rule, I realized the Clinton people weren’t being excessively grim. They were, for the first and maybe the last time, being completely realistic. —John Heilemann

Related: Is Clinton Really Sunk? The Pundits Weigh In

For a complete guide to presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.