To anyone tracking delegates, it’s been clear for more than a month that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is in mortal danger. But as long as she was battling Barack Obama at the polls every week, she could hope to control the narrative of the Democratic race, even if she was losing individual contests. And so her campaign kept sprouting new raisons d’être: the wisdom of superdelegates, the enfranchisement of Florida and Michigan, her supposed ability to carry big states.
No more. We’re now halfway through the six weeks between Mississippi and Pennsylvania, and this long interlude has washed away Clinton’s spin. Now her campaign is not only over. It’s obviously over.
For all the drama of the Democratic campaign, both candidates bobbed around in a very narrow range of support for most of February and March. But that’s changing right now. In four of the past five days, Obama has gone over 50 percent in Gallup’s tracking poll and has opened a lead over Clinton averaging seven points. This is the first time either candidate has moved significantly beyond the fluctuations inherent in daily surveys, and it’s the longest stretch one of them has spent as the leader since late February. Obama is breaking out in a meaningful way.
Maybe Democrats liked what they heard in Obama’s speech about Jeremiah Wright. Perhaps all the talk about Hillary’s (not) quitting is cementing his status as front-runner. Bill Richardson and other superdelegates lining up for Obama could be having an impact. But one thing is clear: Clinton’s strategy of exploiting racial polarization among Democrats has failed miserably.
Wright cost Obama. From the first week in March (when the Wright controversy first broke) to the third, his positive rating held steady at a rather incredible 82 percent among black voters, but dropped from 47 percent to 42 percent among whites, according to NBC/Wall Street Journal polls. But Wright’s wake cut Clinton even worse: During that same period, she fell twelve points among African-Americans, from 63 percent to 51 percent, and dropped five points among white voters, too, from 39 percent to a Bush-like 34 percent. Clinton now performs particularly horribly across the upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest, where white Democrats trend progressive and like Obama. In Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin, she now trails John McCain while Obama leads him, and she is doing markedly poorer in Connecticut and Virginia, too.
As Clinton surrogates pop up once every few days to reinject race into the campaign, they’ve been trying to corral the last bloc where Hillary might run up her popular-vote totals, even more than ethnic Democrats in Pennsylvania: Scotch-Irish Appalachians in North Carolina, West Virginia, and Kentucky. The campaign thinks of this demographic as Fox News Democrats — which is why Hillary supporters such as Ed Rendell keep showing up on, and sucking up to, Fox — while social scientists would call them “low-information.” (Twenty-three percent of white Democrats who hold unfavorable views of Obama believe he is a Muslim.) It must have been tempting for the Clintons, formerly of Arkansas, to believe Hillary could win over these voters fairly painlessly. Instead, Clinton had farther to fall among blacks than she realized and is also cratering with whites nationwide.
Now look at the money. Clinton said she raised more than $35 million in February, and at the start of last month, she had $33 million in cash on hand. But it turns out that only $11 million of that was money she could spend during the remainder of the primary season; the rest was general-election contributions. Which means Hillary never really got beyond her base of wealthy donors, many of whom maxed out on contributions to the nominating race. Obama, in contrast, had $31 million to spend during the rest of the primaries.
Clinton also had a staggering $8.7 million in debts, not even including the $5 million she loaned her own campaign. Indeed, the Hillary machine has taken to stiffing various small vendors. One New Hampshire doctor rented a building he owns to Clinton; it took so long for the campaign to pay him that he decided to forward its $500 check to Obama. That kind of cash-stretching reeks of desperation: Not paying your bills on time is a signal you might not be able to pay them at all. It’s also the sort of thing that reporters find out about when they have downtime to go digging — like videos of 8-year-old girls on tarmacs in Bosnia.
Overall, Clinton was able to spend just $400,000 on TV ads last week, all in Pennsylvania. Obama spent $2 million, in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Indiana. And those proportions aren’t changing anytime soon.
Fifty-one percent negatives among white voters, no cash — and now a lead in Pennsylvania that has dwindled to five points: They don’t come any more stalwart than Hillary Clinton, but the next three weeks are going to be one long death march. —Peter Keating
For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.