By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Somebody, please make it stop.
It's primary night -- again. Barack Obama is on the verge of eliminating Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic presidential nomination -- again. And Clinton -- her campaign broke and written off by the pundits -- wins. Again.
This time it's Pennsylvania -- home of Punxsutawney Phil, the rodent made famous by the movie "Groundhog Day," in which Bill Murray is forced to relive the same day, over and over. So it is with the Democratic Party in this never-ending campaign season.
"Some counted me out and said to drop out," the victorious Clinton declared here Tuesday night, in the latest iteration of her comeback-kid speech. "But the American people don't quit. And they deserve a president who doesn't quit, either."
On other Tuesday nights through the winter and spring, Democrats waited to see whether Obama would finally put it away -- in New Hampshire, in California and the other Super Tuesday states, and then in Ohio and Texas. Each time, Clinton narrowly survived. This time, the candidates had nearly two months to persuade Pennsylvania voters to deliver a definitive result -- and again the race was left in limbo.
With history repeating itself as farce, the exhausted reporters covering the Democratic seesaw decided to take matters into their own hands. Instead of accepting a Clinton win, the media announced in advance that, to be declared the victor, she had to beat a point spread -- a point spread determined by, well, the media.
"If Clinton wins by more than 10 points," decreed CNN's Bill Schneider, "her campaign will have new momentum and she will soldier on."
"At least 10 percentage points," the Los Angeles Times concurred, citing unnamed superdelegates.
Even foreigners wanted in on the game. Britain's Guardian newspaper said Clinton "needs to win by a margin of 10 percent or more."
Dan Balz, The Post's magnanimous chief political writer, suggested alternatives. "Some say Clinton needs to win by 10 points," he wrote. "Others say eight points. "Some say . . . anything over five points would be a respectable victory."
Clearly, setting the spread is not a science -- but there is some justification for it. Before Tuesday, Clinton trailed Obama in the popular vote, in delegates won and in states won -- and it will be difficult for her to persuade the party's superdelegates to make her the Democratic nominee if she can't win one of those categories. Even the easiest of those hurdles, a deficit of 700,000 in the popular vote, can't be erased without lopsided wins here and in the remaining primary states.
The campaigns must have agreed with the logic of the spread game, for they began to play it themselves.
The Obama campaign began Tuesday morning with an e-mailed memo to "interested parties." It pointed out that, in polls, Clinton "led by as much as 25 points." And it quoted the Philadelphia Inquirer saying she needs to "take the state big, perhaps by double digits."
The Clinton campaign retaliated with its own memo, also to "interested parties," asking: "Shouldn't he be the one expected to win tonight?"
Late in the afternoon, the early round of exit polls came in: a four-point Clinton advantage. By any other standard, that would presage a win. But by the standard of the spread, it hinted at crushing defeat.
Urgent action was required. Campaign Chairman Terry McAuliffe and booster Lanny Davis left the Park Hyatt -- scene of the Clinton primary party -- and took their case to the Fox News camera near a bus stop on Broad Street. How big a win does Clinton need? "A win is a win," McAuliffe decreed. Another Clinton adviser, Ann Lewis, went to the camera risers in the ballroom. "A win is a win," she echoed.
Except when it's not.
In the Hyatt ballroom, the crowd gave an energetic cheer when the CNN screen showed the first returns: Clinton leading, 65 percent to 35 percent. "Yes, she can!" they cheered, perhaps not noticing that only 3,000 votes had been counted.
The journalists were unimpressed. "A minute 40 left," somebody called out. Until polls closed? No -- in the Philadelphia Flyers' hockey game.
At 9 p.m., word traveled that the Associated Press had called the race for Clinton. Minutes later, CNN flashed "Clinton Wins Penn. Primary" on the screen, and the crowd gave an extended cheer. Only those looking at the fine print noticed that the margin had shrunk to 52 to 48 -- not enough to beat the spread.
"A win is a win," McAuliffe repeated, on CNN. "We were outspent three to one," he pleaded.
The pundits disagreed.
"It's also so much about the margin of victory for Hillary Clinton," CNN host Campbell Brown reminded viewers.
"She needed a big victory," David Gergen agreed. "The numbers we're looking at so far suggest she did not. . . . For a blowout victory, it has to be above 10 points."
In the Hyatt ballroom, the Clinton campaign battled that view. "There'll be all this discussion about the margin, the over and under and all that stuff," Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter told the crowd, which responded with boos. "A win is a win."
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, taking the microphone next, challenged those "talking about our shrinking margin." Said Rendell: "It's 10:15 and our margin is growing." It was true -- Clinton's advantage had edged toward the magic 10-point spread ordained by the commentariat. The candidate, with her mother, husband and daughter, sounded many of the same underdog themes she uttered on earlier primary nights: "no wavering in the face of adversity," fighting for "everyone who's ever been counted out," and, of course, disproving the "pundits [who] questioned whether Pennsylvanians would trust me."
Mostly, however, she defied Obama. "He broke every spending record in this state trying to knock us out of this race," she declared. "Well, the people of Pennsylvania had other ideas tonight."
And now, Punxsutawney Hillary and the Democrats get to do the whole thing all over again, two weeks from now.