Impossible Odds for Clinton

Four days after the twentieth and final scheduled debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and with four days remaining until decisive primaries in Ohio and Texas, what was unthinkable one month ago and still improbable two weeks ago is rapidly hardening into conventional wisdom on the campaign trail: Hillary Clinton will very likely be forced from the race for the Democratic presidential nomination within a fortnight.

Conventional wisdom, usually tipping more towards "convention" than "wisdom," is often wrong. But in this case, it is bolstered by mathematical evidence derived from disciplines as varied as exotic physics on the one hand and simple arithmetic on the other.

Let's get the physics part out of the way first: the issue here is critical mass, and at what point either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama might achieve it. Critical mass is, by nature, a zero-sum phenomenon: at the point of its occurrence, it cannot be reversed nor can its properties be transferred beyond its origin. That is, in political terms, once one candidate achieves critical mass, another candidate cannot also hope to achieve it for themselves. It's game over; there is no going back. In the quantum nightmare of proportional delegate allocation that is this year's Democratic primary campaign, critical mass will not be observable in a single, blinding flash of clarity; rather, it will come about in the mundane accretion of popular votes, pledged delegates and unpledged super delegates, all of which, like quirky little subatomic particles, zip along their indeterminate paths, influencing each other as they mingle, until their individual trajectories unite in a single direction and they are collectively propelled toward the point of greatest attraction. The outcome becomes clear through a series of discreet impacts, of accumulated drops in one bucket or another that ultimately combine to over flow.

And mercifully, here's where simple arithmetic comes in. The results of the Democratic nominating contests held to date are as follows:

Contests Won

Hillary Clinton: 13

Barack Obama: 24

Popular Votes Won

Hillary Clinton: 9,379,822

Barack Obama: 10,305,403

Average Margin of Victory

Hillary Clinton: 10.8%

Barack Obama: 31.2%

Clinton or Obama will secure the nomination once they accumulate a total of 2,025 delegates. Definitive delegate counts are maddeningly elusive, but as of this writing all projections show Barack Obama with the upper hand. The Associated Press estimates published in the Washington Post show Obama leading Clinton by 1343-1240, the New York Times gives Obama a 1303.5-1222 advantage, and Real Clear Politics shows Obama up by 1377-1279.

What this adds up to is a very tough climb for Hillary Clinton, rapidly veering toward insurmountable. Given Clinton's shortfall in pledged delegates at the moment, and the fact that her margin of victory in the states she has won so far is roughly one third that of Barack Obama's average margin, it is nearly impossible to envision Hillary stringing together a consecutive series of wins on a scale sufficient to put her back in the lead of pledged delegate counts.

Even so, Clinton might still prevail should she rally a large majority of the 795 super delegates to her corner. The role of the super delegate in the nominating process is a hotly debated topic at the moment: should they bow to the popular voice of the plurality of voters in the nominating contests, or should they vote however they please, even if that means disregarding the decision of the party rank and file?

Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, himself a super delegate, addressed this topic back on February 19. According to the Honolulu Star Bulletin, when "asked if he thought the super delegates should follow the lead of the popular presidential vote, Inouye said no."

"If that is the case," Inouye retorted, "they shouldn't have super delegates. Why should they give us the vote if we are not given the right to exercise it?"

Which sounds to me like sufficient cause to resolve the question by doing away with super delegates altogether, but let me side against myself and concede the point to Senator Inouye. In that event, another question arises: if super delegates are to be inherently free to decide the nominee without regard to votes cast in caucuses and primaries, why bother holding caucuses and primaries? Wrestle with that at your leisure.

But here we get back to critical mass. Would a majority of super delegates likely be persuaded that the nomination is rightfully Hillary Clinton's, even though she will probably end up decisively the loser to Barack Obama in the tally of popular votes and pledged delegates? Undoubtedly some super delegates will ultimately come to that conclusion. But would enough of their fellow super delegates join them to put Hillary over the top? Again, given the sheer tonnage of events flowing in Obama's direction, this seems extremely unlikely. The notion of swimming upstream against the current of popular decision in order to hand the nomination to an establishment candidate against an insurgent outsider will, I think, strike most super delegates as a bit too counterintuitive to carry the day.

The weight of all these considerations leads to the inescapable conclusion that Hillary Clinton now has no clear path to winning the Democratic nomination. Lacking a clear path, would Hillary Clinton continue her campaign regardless? I doubt it. Despite a tenacious history of never giving up during the many public battles she has waged, and the overabundant zeal of stalwart Clinton partisans like Mark Penn and Howard Wolfson who would argue that she should fight on right through to the convention, Hillary Clinton is, at the end of the day, a realist. She understands that in politics, ultimately somebody wins and somebody loses. Running for president is a tough business, and often complicated, but it's not rocket science.

Dave Musgrove is a Democratic voter and blogger. Dave's own political blog can be found at http://ipol-2008.blogspot.com.