By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton routed Sen. Barack Obama in the West Virginia primary yesterday, scoring one of her most lopsided victories of the long campaign even as she continued to battle overwhelming odds in her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Clinton's resounding victory in a state that has slipped away from Democrats in the past two elections added fresh ammunition to her claim that she is better positioned than Obama to capture critical swing states in November. But the primary win may have come too late to have a significant impact on the trajectory of a nomination battle in which Obama has an almost insurmountable lead in delegates.
Clinton advisers hoped the size of Clinton's victory and signs of dissatisfaction with Obama among West Virginia voters would reopen a conversation about who is the stronger Democrat to take on Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, in the general election. They also hoped the results would tamp down talk that Clinton should consider dropping out of the nomination contest before the primaries end on June 3 to speed the process of uniting Democrats.
Clinton was winning with a margin of better than 2 to 1 in the popular vote in West Virginia. With 28 pledged delegates at stake, that margin would produce a net gain for Clinton of an estimated 12 delegates. That would only partially cut into the gains Obama has made in superdelegates since he easily won North Carolina and narrowly lost Indiana a week ago.
Former Democratic Party general chairman Roy Romer, who was handpicked for that job by former president Bill Clinton, announced his support for Obama yesterday.
Hillary Clinton claimed victory shortly after the polls closed last night.
Saying the nomination battle "isn't over yet," she told cheering supporters in Charleston that, as a result of her victory, "I am more determined than ever to carry on this campaign until everyone has had a chance to make their voices heard."
Clinton argued that, by winning in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, New Hampshire and now West Virginia, she has demonstrated strength where it counts. "The White House is won in the swing states, and I am winning the swing states," she said.
Clinton also renewed her call to seat the delegations from Florida and Michigan and to include those delegates in the overall count for the nomination. "Under the rules of our party," she said, "when you include all 50 states, the number of delegates needed to win is 2,209, and neither of us has reached that threshold yet."
Obama did not appear publicly after the polls closed, but he pointedly looked past his expected defeat by holding a campaign event in the general-election battleground state of Missouri, saying it was a place "where we will compete to win when I am the Democratic nominee for president."
Campaigning in Cape Girardeau, Obama called this election "a chance to build a new majority of Democrats, independents and Republicans." He delivered pointed criticisms of McCain's record on taxes, Social Security and the Iraq war, asserting that the Republican's election would create four more years of "the Bush-McCain program."
Obama's campaign has said in the past that he has a greater ability than Clinton to expand the electoral map in November. But the results in West Virginia, coupled with exit polls that showed Democratic primary voters there with significant reservations about him, suggest that he could have a difficult time winning the Mountain State in the fall.
McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds responded by saying that, while preaching change, Obama is pursuing old-style partisan politics. "Senator Obama offers nothing more than the soaring rhetoric of an old-style, partisan politician, and his lack of experience suggests that's all he'll be able to deliver," he said in a statement.
Heading into yesterday's primary, the Associated Press delegate count had Obama at 1,875 to Clinton's 1,697, a lead of 178 delegates. The winner will need 2,025 delegates to capture the nomination unless a deal is struck to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida, although it is not likely that such a resolution would give Clinton enough extra delegates to affect the nomination race.
Five primaries remain: Oregon and Kentucky next Tuesday, Puerto Rico on June 1, and Montana and South Dakota on June 3. Together, those five contests will award 189 delegates.
Before last night's results, Obama led not only in pledged delegates but also in states won and in the popular vote. Clinton looked to West Virginia to give her a big margin in the popular vote with the hope of overtaking Obama in that measurement by the end of the primaries.
Clinton once had hoped to narrow Obama's pledged-delegate lead to below 100 by the end of the primaries and then looked to capture enough of the uncommitted superdelegates to emerge with the nomination. That seems out of reach at this point.
Even if Clinton were to win the remaining five contests with 65 percent of the vote, she would still trail by roughly 100 pledged delegates. She is favored to win Kentucky and Puerto Rico, and Obama is favored in Oregon, Montana and South Dakota.
Instead, Obama is prepared to claim a majority of the pledged delegates after next week's voting. While that falls short of a majority of all delegates, many superdelegates appear unwilling to go against the will of the pledged delegates, a point Obama and his advisers have stressed repeatedly.
Clinton was heavily favored in West Virginia because of the demographics of the state. The population is older, overwhelmingly white, heavily rural, and less affluent and less educated than in some other states.
Clinton has done well in states with similar makeups in most earlier primaries, and exit polls showed that she carried them overwhelmingly yesterday. She outpaced Obama by more than 40 percentage points among those voters without a college degree, for example, but Obama ran more competitively among those with more education.
Broadly these demographic divisions have been evident in other primaries, but the West Virginia exit poll had other, potentially more troubling results for Obama if he hopes to compete in the state in the fall.
Only a narrow majority of Democratic primary voters said they would support Obama in the general election if he were to get the party's nod. Fewer than half called the senator from Illinois honest and trustworthy, and a similarly low number said he is in sync with their values.
The controversy continuing to swirl around Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., appeared to play a role. About half of West Virginia voters said they think Obama shares at least some of Wright's views, and those voters went for Clinton by a margin of nearly 7 to 1.
"This victory ought to give pause to those who are itching to declare the nomination over and done," said Clinton strategist Geoff Garin. "This strengthens the point that we've seen in other states, that Senator Clinton is the best candidate to win tough states and groups of voters who otherwise may be very difficult for Democrats to keep in our column."
Garin said Clinton advisers hope that yesterday's primary will undo some of the impact of North Carolina and Indiana, which dramatically cemented a perception that the Democratic race is nearly over.
"It's our strong view that Senator Clinton did not get enough credit for achieving a come-from-behind victory in Indiana, where Senator Obama had a ton of advantages," he said. "But now the West Virginia victory brings the question of electability back to where it was in the wake of Pennsylvania."
Earlier in the day, Obama and Clinton spent about an hour in the Senate, a rare joint appearance that was far more relaxed than previous sessions in this primary season. At one point, Obama made a beeline for Clinton, tapping her on the shoulder while she was talking to Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.). The two exchanged a few words before Obama returned to mingling with colleagues, cocktail-party style, while Clinton received well-wishers in her corner.
Staff writers Eli Saslow, traveling with Clinton, Peter Slevin, traveling with Obama, and Shailagh Murray in Washington; polling director Jon Cohen; polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta; and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.