I hate expectations games. I also think they are silly: it's votes that win elections, and delegates who decide nominations, and expectations are relevant only if they can help one candidate secure enough votes or delegates to actually win. Therefore, in anticipation of today's primaries, I thought I'd ask the simple question: what would Hillary Clinton have to do in order to finish the primary season with a lead in pledged delegates? (Why pledged delegates? Because I do not think that the superdelegates are going to want to go against the results of actual primaries and caucusses.)
Here, courtesy of TPM Election Central, are some current pledged delegate counts:
CNN: Obama 1,184, Clinton 1,031
NBC: Obama 1,194, Clinton 1,037
Associated Press: Obama 1,187, Clinton 1,035
New York Times: Obama 1,155, Clinton 1,021.5"
Average: Obama 1180, Clinton 1031.125. Difference between the two: 148.875 delegates.
There are 981 pledged delegates yet to be assigned. Of these, by my count, Clinton must win 565, or just under 58%, in order to be tied in the pledged delegate count coming into the convention.
-- While writing this, I found that Jonathan Chait had not only already done this math (which I left in so that you could check for yourselves), but also said what I had planned to say next, namely:
"For Clinton to pull ahead, she will need to win 57% of the remaining pledged delegates. To keep that number from rising even higher, they of course need to win 57% of the delegates on Tuesday, which would mean getting at least 213 delegates to Obama's 161 -- a 52 delegate advantage. If they net anything below 52 delegates, they fall even further behind. This is the key number to keep in mind when watching the election returns.
And, of course, even netting 52 delegates is hardly a big win. The Clinton campaign picked Texas and Ohio as its battleground because those states are particularly Clinton-friendly. The remaining primary states include several -- like Mississippi, Oregon, and North Carolina -- where Obama is likely to rack up major wins. That means that Clinton needs to gain well over 57% of the delegates in the states that are better for her. The only way she could possibly do this would be to utterly destroy Obama's reputation, make him a radioactive figure, like Al Sharpton. This also seems like an extreme longshot, though the Clinton campaign appears to be attempting to pull it off with its flurry of attacks.
Now, in Clinton's favor, she doesn't necessarily need to win pledged delegates. I think if she comes close, and has the momentum, she could possibly win it with superdelegates without too much blood on the convention floor. But Clinton needs to dramatically reduce Obama's lead in pledged delegates. If she only wins narrowly Tuesday, even the goal of getting close in pledged delegates will become more remote, and her continuing candidacy will be impossibe to justify for anybody who has the Democratic Party's interests at heart."
Either candidate might pick up an edge if he or she seemed likely to win states that seemed likely to be close in the general election. Here is a list of states where the margin of victory was 10% or less in either the 2000 or 2004 Presidential election: Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawai'i, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin.
Of these, Obama has won Colorado, Delaware, Hawai'i, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin, for 91 electoral votes. Clinton has won Arkansas, Arizona, California, New Hampshire, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Tennessee, for 111 electoral votes. These lists should probably be tweaked slightly. Arizona (10 electoral votes) is McCain's home state and will probably go for him in the general election. California (55 electoral votes) is included on this list solely in virtue of having gone for Kerry by a mere 9.95 points in 2004, and seems unlikely to go Republican in the general. (No other state makes it onto the list so narrowly; the closest is Hawai'i, which is included solely on the basis of having gone for Kerry in 2004 by a mere 8.75%. So let's subtract Hawai'i's 4 electoral votes too.) New Mexico (5 votes) and Missouri (11 votes) were, essentially, ties. Subtracting these four states leaves Obama with states worth 76 electoral votes and Clinton with states worth 41. This means that unless the superdelegates really do count California as a close state, they are unlikely to switch to Clinton on these grounds.
What all this means is that I don't see how Clinton can manage to win the nomination absent either truly astonishing wins in the delegate counts, or some sort of massive Obama flameout. That being the case, I think that while Clinton obviously has the right to stay in the race as long as she wants, if she doesn't pick up over, say, 40 delegates tonight, she should consider withdrawing. 40 delegates would still raise, not lower, the percentage of the remaining pledged delegates that she needs in order to tie Obama before the convention. Anything less would leave the odds of her winning the nomination very, very small.
I agree with publius' view that contested primaries are often good for the candidates and for the party. But there is a point where diminishing returns set in. Arguably, we reached that point in Wisconsin; unless Clinton wins by the kinds of margins I've been talking about tonight, we will certainly have reached it by tomorrow morning.