Hit with phone attack ads, scrambling to explain mysterious NAFTA meetings with Canadians, and pelted by a suddenly awakened press corps, Barack Obama is on the defensive for the first time since the days after the New Hampshire primary. Polls show Hillary Clinton widening her lead in Ohio and reclaiming enough lost territory to make Texas a dead heat. But this late in the ball game, math is at least as important as momentum. And the latest delegate numbers show Obama, despite all the recent headlines, heading for a tipping point in securing the Democratic nomination.
In attempting to counter Obama’s lead in popular votes and states won, the Clinton campaign has argued that superdelegates should be free to exercise their own judgment in deciding where to cast their lots, however pledged delegates are allocated. Problem is, superdelegates have been drifting away from Clinton ever since Super Tuesday. Every week, Obama has picked up a clutch of them, while Clinton has lured hardly any. Clinton’s superdelegate lead over Obama, nearly 100 on February 10, has shrunk to just 46, according to Democratic Convention Watch, which maintains handy lists of exactly which superdelegates are supporting which candidates.
The Clinton camp has also been holding in reserve the results from Michigan and Florida, where Hillary’s name was on the ballot despite DNC sanctions against those states for holding their primaries too early. But between Obama’s string of victories and his gains among superdelegates, his lead over Clinton is almost enough to survive even if Michigan and Florida are counted.
Consider this best-case scenario for Hillary: Freeze the superdelegates where they are and add all of them, plus all the committed delegates from Michigan and Florida, to the pledged delegates. Pretend Michigan’s 55 uncommitted delegates (which resulted from anti-Clinton votes) don’t exist and forget John Edwards’s 25 delegates, too. Do all that, and Clinton leads Obama, but by just 1,468 to 1,453.
Sometime soon — maybe not Tuesday night, but perhaps after Mississippi on the 11th or when another handful of superdelegates reading swing-state polls declare for Obama — that fifteen-delegate lead is going to vanish. And then Clinton will be out of trumps.
Hillary will have to significantly outgain Obama in pledged delegates in April and May for any of her side arguments about superdelegates and excluded delegations to even matter. Just something to keep in mind, whatever narrative emerges after tonight. —Peter Keating