Obama's Tipping Point? Not Yet.

New Supporter: Obama with Lewis. Photo: John Amis/AP.

On Wednesday I wrote that "depending how March 4 shakes out, [the Potomac Primary] results--and the likely Obama wins in Wisconsin and Hawaii--may help determine the Democratic nominee by the ides of March." My thinking went like this: After eight (and maybe 10 straight wins), the Illinois senator will lead at that point by more than 100 pledged delegates--but it won't be enough to reach magic number (2,025) by the end of primary season in June. Looking ahead, the 400 uncommitted Democratic superdelegates--the only people with the power to put either Clinton or Obama over the top--will have a choice: 1) prolong the contest through the convention, ensuring a messy, divisive battle involving Florida, Michigan and back room wheeling and dealing or 2) move en masse to the "people's choice" and get busy uniting the party for November.

But is Obama's tipping point coming sooner than even I expected? Yesterday afternoon, the New York Times (among others) reported that Rep. John Lewis, an elder statesman from the civil rights era and one of Hillary Clinton’s most prominent black supporters, is suddenly planning to cast his vote as a superdelegate for Obama in" hopes of preventing a fight at the Democratic convention." “In recent days, there is a sense of movement and a sense of spirit,” said Lewis. “Something is happening in America, and people are prepared and ready to make that great leap.” Hungry for news on a slow day, the media responded with typical breathlessness. "Floodgates could open," wrote Time's Mark Halperin, a reliable peddler of Beltway CW. "If Lewis breaks away, take whatever you thought Clinton’s chances of winning the nomination before and divide that number by as much as two — those would be the odds of her winning now."

Whoa, nelly. Not so fast. Sure, Lewis's "defection" is significant--but in a limited sense. For one thing, it's not really a defection; instead, Lewis is still endorsing Clinton (for the time being) but promising to cast his superdelegate vote at the convention with his Atlanta-area district, which voted three-to-one for Obama--if it comes to that. Lewis's confusing stance symbolizes a very specific political challenge facing black elected superdelegates--and black elected superdelegates only. If Obama maintains his lead among pledged delegates, members of the Congressional Black Caucus who have endorsed Clinton will face enormous pressure to switch sides. Like Lewis, many represent districts where Obama earned 85 to 90 percent support among black voters--meaning to defy their constituents and cast a vote that lots of people would see as stealing the election from the first black president would be tantamount to political suicide.

Over the past few weeks, there's been a slow drift of superdelegate support from Clinton to Obama. Not counting Lewis, Obama has gained 12 superdelegates since Feb. 5, while Clinton has lost a net of three. But until we start seeing a greater number of pols making the leap to Obama without such political pressure, I think it's a bit early to say the floodgates have opened. It may happen; it may not. But any potential tipping point is still a ways away.