Give credit where it's due: Hillary Clinton has shown grit and determination in finishing out the race. She has proved herself a strong campaigner. And in the week since West Virginia, she has stopped the cheap shots that had marred her campaign this year.
But Clinton has continued with one claim that could have a pernicious effect on the Democrats' chances in November. While she knows that the nomination is determined by delegates, Hillary insists on saying at every opportunity that she is winning the popular vote. And she has now taken to touting the new HBO movie "Recount," which chronicles the Florida fiasco of eight years ago. Everyone can agree that the primary calendar needs reform. But popular-vote pandering is poison for Democrats. For a party scarred by the experience of 2000, when Al Gore received 500,000 more popular votes than George W. Bush but lost the presidency, this argument is sure to make it harder to unite and put bitter feelings aside.
Oh, and it's not true.
Let me go through the numbers without making your head spin.
After Kentucky and Oregon, Obama has an official popular vote lead of 449,486.
This does not include Iowa (where Obama first broke from the pack), Nevada (where Hillary won the popular vote narrowly), Maine (where Obama won easily) or Washington state (another strong Obama state). Why? Because these caucus states don't officially report their popular votes. But if we're going to truly count all the votes, official and nonofficial, as Hillary advocates, you can't very well not include caucus states.
Adding in the unofficial tally from caucus states, as estimated by realclearpolitics.com based on official caucus turnout and the number of local delegates selected at the precinct level, that gives Obama a lead of 559,708.
Now we come to Florida and Michigan, whose popular votes Hillary says should be counted. The argument for counting them is no better than for counting the caucus states (and maybe worse, considering that these states violated party rules by moving their primaries up on the calendar, and no one campaigned there). But for the sake of argument let's count 'em. That gives Hillary a lead of 63,373.
HILLARY WINS POPULAR VOTE!
Not so fast. If the Democratic National Committee completes its expected settlement on May 31, Florida and Michigan will each get half of their votes counted. Translated to popular votes, that would subtract about 325,000 votes from Hillary, putting Obama back into the lead.
Beyond not being official numbers, there's another problem with counting Michigan in these totals. Obama wasn't on the ballot there. You can say this was his own choice, but that doesn't change the fact that had he been on the Michigan ballot he would have received a lot of popular votes. How many?
Try 238,168. That's the number of Michiganders who voted for "uncommitted." Were they possibly genuinely abstaining? Maybe a few hundred of them at most. The rest were clearly Obama supporters who launched a grass-roots campaign. Everyone in Michigan knew on January 15 that a vote for "uncommitted" was a vote for Obama.
That means that by a generous definition of popular votes (and remember, Clinton wants to enfranchise as many people as possible in her count), Obama leads by about 166,000 votes.
With a big win in Puerto Rico, Clinton could possibly erase that margin (plus several thousand more that Obama is expected to net in Montana and South Dakota). She could then proclaim that with the help of Puerto Rican voters who cannot vote in a general election, she is the popular vote winner.
The shorthand many Clinton supporters are already taking into the summer is that she won the popular vote but had the nomination "taken away" (as Joy Behar said on "The View") by a man.
What a helpful message for uniting the Democratic Party.
If the Obama people have any sense, they will demand in their negotiations with the Clintonites that Hillary cease and desist in her specious claim to have won the most popular votes.
Given that more than 35 million voters took part in the Democratic primaries and caucuses, the math games on both sides look awfully silly. Everyone should agree to call it a tie.