'Margin': On the Border Of Being Over the Edge

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Hooray for the yap-o-sphere, which has once again served up a word we can use and overuse till it has lost all meaning.

In discussions of Iraq, we witnessed a bacchanalia of terms like "benchmark" and "road map." "Comeback" made a comeback and was applied with such wanton indiscretion that everyone was a little embarrassed for it.

Now we have "margin," which has been so abused in the six-week-long run-up to the Pennsylvania primary that it began suffering from diminishing marginal returns.

Last night, Hillary Clinton's "margin" was at the center of every discussion. After the TV people knew Clinton had won, but before they knew by how much, all they could do was what they'd been doing for- ev-er -- sit around and speculate about Clinton's margins. (Which sounds kind of inappropriate.)


"The margin is" the "essential issue," said Keith Olbermann, before turning to Tom Brokaw.

"A lot of her issues will depend, of course, on her margin," said Brokaw, before turning to Andrea Mitchell.

"Now they've got to prove the margin because they are out of money," said Mitchell.

At one point, an alert appeared: "NOW AWAITING FINAL MARGIN OF VICTORY."

How does this work? How do certain words acquire such synergy? (We imagine the producers whispering "margin, margin," into the ear buds of the on-air talent, competing to see who will say it the most.)

In sewing, the margin is a precise measure. Make the seam three-eighths of an inch from the edge of the fabric. There's no space in the sartorial margin to negotiate.

There's no such precision in political chatter. Leading up to yesterday's Pennsylvania primary, nearly everyone agreed that Hillary Clinton needed to win the state by a certain margin to continue -- but no one could agree on the size of that margin. Her winning margin might need to be five points, or it might need to be 20. Meanwhile, before the polls closed, Clinton hedged her bets.

"I don't think the margin matters," she told an interviewer. "I think a win is a win."

Right. If only it were so easy. In this, the Democratic race that's gone on and on and on -- testing the nation's margin of endurance -- the word "margin" has become yet another tool in the game of expectations-setting.

She "will need a huge margin in Pennsylvania," a Barack Obama campaign memo declared yesterday, without specifying just what a "huge margin" might mean.

What's in a margin? The Oxford English Dictionary has a surprisingly long entry on the word in its cramped pages (lots of text, comparatively narrow margins), with one instance going all the way back to 1391. That reference is to phrase from Chaucer: "The names of the steeres ben writen in the Margyn of the riet," which could have modern-day political implications for those of us fluent in Middle English. But the upshot is that a "margin" is often defined as a zone alongside the outer boundary of a surface. It can serve as a buffer of sorts, which is precisely what Clinton was looking for.

It can also serve as a buffer in the other direction. Recently, an Obama supporter who serves as a county commissioner in the Scranton area -- where Clinton is immensely popular -- suggested that Obama would be doing well as long as he lost the area by no more than a certain margin. A loss of under 30 points would be a "big victory," the supporter predicted.

The truth, according to the talking heads, is that a win is not really a win -- not without the proper margin. (Maybe the word "win" is also losing its meaning.) Winning by a few extra points in Pennsylvania would be of marginal utility to Clinton in terms of gaining delegates, but could mean everything in terms of winning over superdelegates. Little wonder pundits have spent nearly two months feverishly trying to predict Clinton's margin, like venture capitalists trying to calculate the potential profit margin on a newfangled invention that might or might not be worth the investment.

The polls had been of little help. Back in March, Clinton was as much as 20 points ahead, but at that point Obama had made little investment in the state. More recently, Clinton's lead had narrowed to as little as three or six points, but when you're talking such small numbers, you have to worry about the margin of error.

As the night went on, the folks on CNN used the word "margin" five times in two minutes. The talking heads also embraced the phrase "close the deal," as in, How come Obama couldn't?

Over on Fox, Chris Wallace had on one of those all-important uncommitted superdelegates, Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.). Miller explained that the night's events hadn't helped him make a decision. (Oy vey, come on people!) He wasn't so interested in how Pennsylvanians voted, he said; he was waiting for guidance from North Carolinians, whose primary is May 6.

"Looking at the margin victory that Senator Clinton will have tonight . . . you don't really care?" Wallace asked.

Nope. Not much.

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