By Jay Cost
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May 09, 2008
Not Quite Yet
Elite opinion on the Democratic race has congealed around the idea that it is over. Clinton has no chance whatsoever to win the nomination now. There is a minority of analysts out there - maybe 5%, maybe even less - who see her path to the nomination as much narrower than it was four days ago, but who still see a path.
I'm with the minority on this one. I think she is nearly finished, but not quite yet.
As those who know me in personal life can attest, I am a contrarian. For better or worse, when I see everybody looking right, the first thought in my head is, "What's over there on the left?" So, the following might just be a product of my contrarian instincts, but I have to say that I just can't get to where most everybody is on this race.
Two things are holding me back: West Virginia and Kentucky.
The conventional wisdom has it that Clinton did herself major damage Tuesday night by getting blown out in North Carolina. I completely agree. This hurt her with the pledged delegate count. Much more important, I think, is that it hurt her with the popular vote count, which she must win to press an argument with the superdelegates.
However, it is possible that she could counter Tuesday's blowout with two big blowouts of her own in the next two weeks. This could undo most of the damage done by her big loss in North Carolina, and put her back on track.
West Virginia is 95% white, and one of the poorest states in the nation. Demographically, Pennsylvania's twelfth congressional district is a decent proxy of it. Clinton won Pennsylvania's twelfth by 46 points. A recent Rasmussen survey put her up 29 points in the Mountaineer State, with 17% undecided. Another poll had her up 40 points, with Obama under 25%.
Kentucky is not as poor or as white as West Virginia, but it is nearly so. Demographically, Kentucky falls somewhere between Ohio's sixth congressional district, which went for Clinton by 45 points, and the seventeenth, which went for her by 28 points. A recent Survey USA poll of the Bluegrass State had her up 34 points - with a staggering 72 point lead in the east, where Obama was winning less than 20% of the vote. Rasmussen recently had her up 25 points with 13% undecided.
Courtesy of the perspicacious Sean Oxendine, here's a graphical representation of how Appalachia has performed. The deepest blue represents countywide Clinton victories of 30+.
As Oxendine says in his analysis of Indiana and North Carolina: "Appalachia didn't budge [on Tuesday]. She is going to absolutely blow him out of the water in West VA and KY."
So, here's my question. What happens to "It's Over" if Clinton pulls a 40-point victory in West Virginia on Tuesday, then follows it up a week later with a 30-point victory in Kentucky? If these states turn out in the same margins that states since March 4th have averaged, that would imply a net of about 290,000 votes for Clinton. That puts her within striking distance of a reasonable popular vote victory. "Over" will be over as we turn our attention to Puerto Rico.
There are good reasons not to take Puerto Rico lightly, even though the press has continued to do exactly that. I would note: (a) Puerto Ricans vote in large numbers (2 million in the last gubernatorial election); (b) Puerto Ricans have never had this important a role in United States presidential politics; (c) Puerto Rico's politics is focused at least partially on how (if at all) to adjust its relationship with the United States; (d) Puerto Rico's is an open primary, and the residents of the Commonwealth, who are United States citizens, do not see themselves as Republicans or Democrats.
The inference I draw is that Puerto Ricans could turn out in huge numbers. If they do, and they swing for Clinton in a sizeable way, the popular vote lead could swing, too. Add 290,000 votes from West Virginia and Kentucky to 250,000 votes from Puerto Rico, account for expected losses in Oregon, Montana, and South Dakota, and you get Clinton leading in many popular vote counts, some of which are really quite valid. If she has one of those leads when the final votes are counted on June 3rd, the race will go on to the convention.
Am I predicting that all of this will happen? No. That would be quite presumptuous. The problem is not that any of these incidents is individually unlikely. It is not unlikely that Clinton will get a huge victory in Kentucky, West Virginia, or Puerto Rico. Theoretically, I would wager at least one of the three will happen. The problem is that she has to do all three. What's more, she has to keep it competitive in Oregon (just how competitive depends on her margins in the other states). That's a tall order - four big things to do with no margin for error. I'd never predict that she could do all four. I may be a contrarian, but I am not an idiot!
Her biggest impediment might be the development (finally!) of some momentum. With the crush of stories touting the end of the race, will her vote be depressed in Kentucky and West Virginia? I doubt her voters would actually go for Obama - but they might stay home, thus diminishing both her overall margin of victory and/or her net vote score. Incidentally, I did find some good news for Clinton: finals week at WVU ends on Saturday.
My point is that those in the media who are declaring this race to be over are necessarily predicting that she can't do all of this. That's a conclusion I can't go along with. It's quite unlikely, but it is still possible - and it is more possible than the "Obama might have a meltdown" scenario.
Minimally, I will predict that West Virginia will be either her best or her second best finish, behind only Arkansas. Kentucky should come in right behind the two. This alone should be enough to induce some caution. I think it is too hasty to declare her finished just days before two of her three best states.
Am I on to something here, or is this merely my contrarian streak running amok? I'll let you decide. In fact, I'll help you make an informed decision! I have updated my vote spreadsheet to include all contests through Tuesday. I encourage you to play around with the numbers yourself. Follow this link to Predict the Race for Yourself, Version 2.0.
At the time of its initial publication, I had not put much thought into Clinton's vote margins in Kentucky and West Virginia. I merely used the results from Tennessee as a rough baseline. I think this was a bit naïve, given what we now know about the white vote in Appalachia. So, those numbers have been updated. I also updated the turnout projections, based on new data. Once again, you can adjust these figures however you like.