Pundit watch: They said everything, they said nothing

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton
REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton celebrates her victory in Ohio at a rally in Columbus last night.

The pundit watch during last night’s primary returns seemed particularly painful, bordering on vacuous.

In case you had already gone to bed, it was shortly before midnight when Fox News, MSNBC and CNN all declared (within a few minutes of one another) that Hillary Rodham Clinton had won the Texas Democratic primary (they had all declared Ohio for Clinton much earlier, and, of course, they had noted John McCain’s final victory in the Republican race quite early in the evening).

Shortly before I stopped watching at 12:30 this morning, I heard Chuck Todd of MSNBC say that, despite losing the popular vote in the Texas primary, the weird rules there meant that Barack Obama would almost certainly win more delegates from Texas, possibly enough to offset the seven or so net delegates that Clinton would gain from her convincing Ohio win. Late this morning, Todd’s surmise had not yet been confirmed. The Real Clear Politics delegate tracker, for example, had Clinton leading among Texas delegates by 78-70, with 45 Texas delegates still to be determined (and that’s not counting any superdelegates).

RCP showed Clinton also winning the Ohio delegate count by 72-60 with nine Ohio (non-super) delegates still to be determined. Clinton’s solid win in little Rhode Island and Obama’s even solider win in even littler Vermont netted out to a plus-one delegate for Clinton. So, at the moment, it appears that Clinton may have gained as many as 21 delegates from last night, with a good likelihood that that number will shrink from late results of the Texas caucus process. That leaves Obama still with an overall lead of 1,340-1,206 in pledged delegates, and a lead of 1,542-1,447 in total delegates counting the supers.

In other words, on what used to be the all-important delegate scoreboard, the formerly-advertised-as-decisive second-Super-Tuesday decided nothing. Bob Beckel, a Democratic analyst on Fox, was almost the only pundit I heard say that this meant the night was virtually a win for Obama. (CNN has an actual Obama advocate on their panel who made the same argument, but we can’t really count his opinion, can we?)

Clinton talking point
The rest of the deep thinkers agreed that Clinton had won big last night. They often cited a Clinton campaign talking point that she could justify keeping the race going if she got Obama’s  overall delegate lead under 100 (according to the numbers above, it’s 95 at the moment).

The punditocracy was unanimous that the race goes on — at least to Pennsylvania on April 22 — although they did generally acknowledge that there was no credible scenario under which Clinton would overtake Obama in the race for pledged (that means non-super) delegates no matter what happens in the remaining primaries.

Todd said she would have to win roughly 65 percent of the total vote in the remaining states. And since several of the states (Wyoming, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oregon, Montana, South Dakota) are considered strong for Obama, Clinton would really have to win 70-75 percent of the vote in her remaining strong states (Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, maybe Puerto Rico) to catch Obama in the pledged delegate category.

Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter put out a widely-circulated analysis of “Hillary’s Math Problem” Tuesday morning, but by Tuesday evening, the TV talkmeisters had abandoned the nutty-bolty delegate count for their old favorite, momentum. The consensus on that chimerical commodity was that Clinton had certainly stopped Obama’s momentum but we’d have to wait to see whether she had started her own.

Despite a virtual guarantee that Obama will win the race for pledged delegates, he won’t be able to win the nomination without more superdelegates than he has now. And Gloria Borger on CNN ruled that the recent rush of superdelegates to Obama would be over for a while, now that Clinton had broken Obama’s winning streak so decisively.

The pundit consensus seemed to be that the uncommitted superdelegates would continue to keep their powder dry awaiting more data on whom Democrats really want as their nominee, and such data will be in short supply until Pennsylvania, which is an amazing seven long weeks away.

Karl Rove weighs in
There was a lot of back-and-forthing on the question of whether the extension of the Dem race was a boon to the Repubs.  (Didn’t it used to be conventional wisdom that this was so?) Fox analyst Karl Rove (yes, that Karl Rove, is a Fox regular now) opined that it would keep the Dems on the front page while McCain would be relegated to short stories inside the paper.)

Many of the pundits cited the Clinton team’s talking point that she has won almost all of the big states (with the addition of Texas and Florida) that anyone Democrat has to have to hope to win the election (California, New York, New Jersey, the tainted wins in Florida and Michigan and the predicted win in Pennsylvania). Fox anchor Britt Hume was the only one I heard point out the speciousness of this reasoning. The fact that Clinton beat Obama in New York and California hardly means that McCain would carry these Dem strongholds against Obama; the fact that Clinton edged Obama in Texas (a state no Dem has carried since 1976) hardly means that she could beat McCain there, any more than Obama’s sizeable wins in several small red states like Idaho and Utah means those states would be in play if Obama is the nominee.

Fox cut away from Obama’s sort-of concession speech a couple of minutes before it ended (CNN stayed with it to the end). Fox justified the decision as an act of balance. Clinton’s sort-of victory speech (Texas hadn’t been called yet) had been given first, and Fox had her on a stopwatch, so the network cut off Obama when he had consumed precisely the same number of seconds Clinton had.

McCain’s big moment got buried a bit, because it was so expected, although both McCain and Mike Huckabee got to give their full speeches on the cable networks. Huckabee, as you know by now, made a gracious withdrawal. But I would note that the speech occurred just a few minutes after Fox’s Huckabee reporter reported that the Huckabee spokesters had informed her that under no circumstances would Huckabee be making a statement about the future of his campaign last night or even today.

One thing we should bear in mind, from that little incident — and even moreso from the sudden disappearance of John Edwards from the race in February after he had assured 97 reporters that he was staying until the convention no matter what – is that it is almost pointless to ask these people about their plans for dropping out. Until they are actually ready to do it, they have no incentive to acknowledge that they are even thinking about it.

Eric Black writes about national and state politics, foreign affairs and other topics. He can be reached at eblack [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Rich Crose on 03/06/2008 - 09:58 am.

    Pedor, so what you are saying is that the primaries are just an expensive exercise to give the voting public the illusion that we live in a democracy? The major parties will select the candidates no matter what the people say? That the American voter has been marginalized and we have become servile slaves of a system created to serve us?

    You might be right.

  2. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 03/06/2008 - 12:22 pm.

    Rich, I’m not sure why you’re inferring that from my posts. Both parties nominees are chosen by the people, large numbers of individual voters. For example, if the GOP establishment was just selecting a nominee this year it almost certainly wouldn’t have been McCain.
    The Dem side is a little trickier because of the whole superdelegate thing. (The cynical view is that they don’t trust the voters to get it right but that’s beside the point.) In most years, they have a clear nominee and the supers simply add their votes at the convention. This year is an odd one with no clear winner. Even still, they’ve gotten here through democracy in action. Voters all around the country have shown no clear preference between Obama and Clinton.
    “…the American voter has been marginalized and we have become servile slaves of a system created to serve us.” Not sure what you mean by this but I probably disagree. This year, tens of millions of ordinary everyday Americans are going to go out and vote for who they think will be the best for this country. Roughly half of them will be disappointed at the end but that’s life.

  3. Submitted by John Olson on 03/05/2008 - 11:15 am.

    I’m really failing to see the point of this discussion. The essential elements here are (in no particular order):

    – Clinton ended the losing skid
    – McCain became the presumptive nominee for the GOP
    – Huckabee threw in the towel

    The hockey games provided more stimulation than the political banter.

  4. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 03/05/2008 - 12:13 pm.

    Doesn’t the math suggest that neither of them can win outright before the convention? If it all comes down to the superdelegates, then the path to Clinton is pretty clear. She has to show them that she is clearly the most electable of the two.
    We’ve seen some of the shine come off of Obama in the last week or so. He’s made a couple of missteps regarding foreign policy (obviously the seriousness of them is debatable). The Rezko trial is coming up and there is certainly the potential for embarassment there. Most importantly for her, Obama’s air of invincibility has been broken. Settle in, this thing looks to go on a while longer.
    Does it help the Reps? Rove’s point is a good one, in that more attention on the Dem race might make people feel more invested in it’s conclusion. Some kind of ‘American Idol’ dynamic could come into play.
    Of course if either Hillary or Obama feel that they have to kill their rival, then it’s bad for the Dems. Same thing is true if at some point in the process it feels like one side has ‘stolen’ the election. If those two things are avoided, I’d say it’s probably a positive.

  5. Submitted by Rich Crose on 03/05/2008 - 01:03 pm.

    Why is no one, and I mean no one, talking about the vote count? Everything is percentages.

    If anyone has noticed, Obama came in second to Clinton in Ohio but nearly doubled the number of votes McCain garnered. The total votes for the Democrats nearly tripled the votes for Republicans in Texas.

    Is no one talking about this because they don’t want McCain to become irrelevant? It must be highly profitable for the pundits to have a race come November.

  6. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 03/05/2008 - 03:23 pm.

    Rich, number of votes cast in primaries aren’t really a good indicator of how the general election will go. IIRC, the Dems crushed the Reps numerically in the ’88 primaries but that didn’t help Dukakis. There’s also the little matter that the Dem nomination is still contested while the GOP has decided on theirs.
    BTW, I’d like to retract the last part of my earlier post. A prolonged contest on the Dem side will hurt their nominee because the Clintons can’t help but try to draw blood. It’s just in their nature.

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