How Clinton’s Pa. Win Could Reshape the Race

It all boils down to what the definition of "win" is. After seven weeks of stumping, sniping and record-setting spending in Pennsylvania, Hillary Clinton took the stage Tuesday night under chandeliers and golden brocade curtains in the ballroom of a posh Philadelphia hotel to rally her cheering supporters. "Some people counted me out and said to drop out," she said. "But the American people don't quit—and they deserve a president who doesn't quit either." Meanwhile, rival Barack Obama was 800 miles away in Evansville, Ind., making the same "underdog" case to a raucous crowd of thousands at Roberts Memorial Stadium. "There were a lot of folks who didn't think we could make this a close race when it started," he said. "But we worked hard … and now, six weeks later, we closed the gap."  (Article continued below...)

Welcome to Spinsylvania (population: 2). The outcome of today's long-awaited Keystone State primary wasn't, in the end, decided at the ballot box—even though Clinton posted a gritty 55-45 victory over her rival from Illinois. Clinton wasn't expected to close the gap of 150 pledged delegates and 800,000 popular votes separating her from Obama—and she didn't. Obama wasn't expected to overcome Clinton's 20-point head start in the polls, or her inherent demographic advantages—and he didn't. So when the polls closed and the dust settled in Pennsylvania, it wasn't the tallies and totals that mattered most; the key numbers didn't change. But the battle over the narrative may have. No matter what happens in the remaining primaries, neither Clinton nor Obama can clinch the nomination on pledged delegates alone. Which means that the stories they tell to sway undecided superdelegates—the only voters with the power, at this point, to put one of the two Democratic candidates over the top—will largely shape the race in the coming weeks. And for both White House hopefuls, Pennsylvania will serve, in some sense, as Exhibit A.

Clinton's strategists have long portrayed the senator's strength among working-class whites in November's must-win states (Ohio, New Jersey, even Florida) as proof that she's better equipped to face John McCain in the fall. Now they're planning to put Pennsylvania—where Clinton won white, blue-collar men by 30 percentage points—at the top of the list. Obama outspent Clinton three to one in the Keystone State, they say—but he still couldn't seal the deal (especially with late deciders, who broke three to two for Clinton). The insinuation, of course, is that the controversies surrounding Obama's "bitter" remarks and his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. have fatally wounded him—and that the superdelegates would be wise to wait out the remaining primaries before betting on a shaky horse. "There's a lot of questions that are beginning to surface about [Obama]," Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee told reporters at tonight's celebration. "And every time [Clinton's] got her back up against the wall, she delivers." As a stage full of sign-wielding Clinton supporters swayed to the theme from "Rocky," Barbara Boxer, a 57-year-old volunteer from Miami (who is not connected to the senator of the same name), echoed Elleithee's talking point. "I'm very happy, because I think it shows she's winning big states," Boxer said.

Meanwhile, on a flight this evening from Philadelphia to Indiana, chief Obama strategist David Axelrod sported a T-shirt that summed up his candidate's narrative of choice: "Stop the Drama, Vote Obama." "There's a sense of urgency that we not savage each other to the benefit of Senator McCain," Axelrod told NEWSWEEK. "If [Clinton's] only strategy is to try to tear down Senator Obama, then I think that will make a lot of Democrats uncomfortable." Incidentally, that's exactly what he's hoping will happen. Tonight Obama spokesman Bill Burton sent reporters excerpts from a New York Times editorial titled "The Low Road to Victory." "The negativity, for which [Clinton] is mostly responsible, does nothing but harm to her, her opponent, her party and the 2008 election," it said, accusing the New York senator of squandering her early lead by "waving the bloody shirt of 9/11" in her edgy pre-primary "Kitchen" ad. An hour later Burton questioned Clinton's path to the nomination. "Tonight, Hillary Clinton lost her last, best chance to make significant inroads in the pledged delegate count," he wrote. "The bottom line is that the Pennsylvania outcome does not change the dynamic of this lengthy primary." The goal, of course, is to prove to superdelegates that Clinton's continued presence is not only pointless but perilous—and hopefully convince them to conclude the contest by flocking to Obama.
 
Both narratives are, in part, fiction. Obama won his fair share of white, working-class voters in Wisconsin and Virginia. He has consistently finished stronger on Clinton's turf (Pennsylvania) than Clinton has finished on his (South Carolina); in February she largely ignored (and lost) a series of 11 unfavorable states in a row. Pre-primary polls showed no real damage to Obama arising from "Bittergate" or Wright's incendiary remarks, and Obama did six points better among whites in Pennsylvania than in Ohio. Since Feb. 5 he's won 93 superdelegates, to Clinton's five. And no one ever counted Clinton out in the Keystone State, which was tailored to her strengths. That said, Obama was no angel in Pennsylvania. When Clinton's "Kitchen" ad asked voters, "Who do you think has what it takes?" Obama quickly launched a spot accusing her of "us[ing] fear and calculation to divide us"; when Clinton misrepresented Obama's health care plan, Obama misrepresented back. And while the delegate gap is still insurmountable, Clinton picked up about 200,000 popular votes in Pennsylvania—a gain that could put her past Obama if Florida and Michigan are ever factored in.
 
Regardless, the race goes on. By staving off elimination tonight, Clinton earned a rematch in another must-win state, Indiana, on May 6—and the cash necessary to compete. According to a spokesman, the campaign—which was effectively broke this morning—raised a whopping $2.5 million in the two hours after Clinton won. Incredibly, 80 percent of those contributions came from new donors. With the polls showing a tie in the Hoosier State, Clinton will need every cent she can get to keep up with Obama, who has $40 million in the bank. Tomorrow both candidates will crisscross Indiana; from there it's on to North Carolina, which also votes in two weeks. But neither campaign believes that the battle will end before June's final primaries. So the spin goes on.

Join the Discussion