Barack Obama's favorite new subject is mathematics. And after his impressive performance Tuesday night—with a blowout win over Hillary Clinton in North Carolina and a squeaker of a loss in Indiana—Obama may have mastered the calculations needed to finally triumph in the Democratic race.
Speaking to his supporters in Raleigh, Obama was magnanimous in victory, congratulating Clinton on what seemed an apparent win in Indiana early in the evening even before most networks had called the state and lauding her as a "formidable" candidate. But then he reminded her of the impossible arithmetic she faces. With the Illinois senator's 14-point win in North Carolina, he has now all but ensured that Clinton cannot catch him in pledged delegates in the six remaining primary races, even if the disputed Florida and Michigan results are thrown in. That increases the likelihood that within a matter of days or weeks, the 250 or so undecided superdelegates who have been waiting for one of the two Democratic candidates to reach an insurmountable majority will begin breaking his way. "Tonight we stand less than 200 delegates away from securing the nomination," he said to cheers in North Carolina.
Shortly before Obama spoke, communications director Robert Gibbs and chief strategist David Axelrod gathered a small group of reporters on a terrace overlooking the parking lot and did what they did best: spin. As they see it, each contest that doesn't slash Obama's insurmountable lead in the pledged-delegate count or his near-insurmountable edge in the popular vote—or expands his leads, as Tuesday night's results probably will—puts them, in Gibbs's words, one step "closer to the finish line." For Obama, he implied, the less the game changes, the better.
Asked whether he thought the race was over, Axelrod avoided answering—but made it clear that he's not exactly perched on the edge of his seat. "The math is the math," he said. Gibbs chimed in: "The fact is, there are fewer delegates left to win in the primaries than superdelegates still up for grabs," he said. "From this point on, Sen. Clinton would have to win 70 percent of all the remaining delegates, both superdelegates and pledged delegates, to reach a majority. And as far as superdelegates go, just looked at what we've rolled out since Feb. 5. That's a tall order."
Indeed. Over at Clinton headquarters in Indianapolis, as the returns rolled into the Murat Centre, a crowd of supporters chanted "Madame President!" while Hillary's essential anthem played in the background: the Journey song "Don't Stop Believing." Hillary, by all appearances, has never stopped. But with her disappointing split decision, the woman who had been confidently comparing herself to a never-say-die fighter in recent weeks is sounding desperate once again. True, in her victory speech, Clinton brazenly declared that "it's full speed onto the White House." But she also pleaded for more funds against "a candidate who spends massively."
And now, even more than money, Hillary badly needs a new campaign narrative, a new way to persuade undecided superdelegates to back her. Utterly gone with the wind—blown somewhere off the coast of North Carolina—was the hopeful Clinton scenario heard in recent weeks. This was the idea put forward by the Hillary camp that Obama was fatally damaged by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy and other campaign mishaps: that he had become all but unelectable against John McCain.
Obama's decisive win Tuesday in North Carolina—all the sweeter for his supporters coming after Bill Clinton campaigned doggedly in small N.C. towns—destroyed that Clinton conceit. Despite exit polling that suggested Obama had been seriously damaged by the unpopular remarks of his former pastor—even after his sharp remarks last week distancing himself from Wright—the Illinois senator appears to have contained the crisis and resumed his march to the nomination.
In fact Obama probably emerges from Tuesday night even further ahead in the delegate count than he was when the voting began. Now the Obama camp is arguing that he can secure the nomination, perhaps as early as May 20, the day of the Oregon and Kentucky primaries. They hope that by that date Obama will finally have an insurmountable majority of pledged delegates from the primaries and caucuses, and that this will trigger a stampede of undecided superdelegates in his direction, giving him the 2,025 total delegates needed for nomination.
In response, the Clinton campaign has been once again, changing the parameters. In recent days they have newly emphasized the number of delegates they believe are needed for nomination: 2,209. This includes the currently barred Florida and Michigan vote totals (as her supporters chanted during her Indiana speech, "count the votes! Count the votes!"). But with the National Democratic Committee rules committee in charge of the decision whether to sanction those primaries, which were disqualified because they held their votes in violation of party rules, it's questionable whether that argument will persuade undecided superdelegates.
The Clintonites could take the battle to the convention floor by appealing to the DNC credentials committee, which gets named eight weeks or so before the convention. Clinton's team could ask the credentials committee to take up the issue of the Florida and Michigan delegates and make a recommendation to the convention floor. If she is close enough to Obama after all the contests end that Florida and Michigan votes could make a difference, she could choose to take her fight all the way to the convention floor.
Now the Clintonites are simply begging the superdelegates not to "short circuit" the process, as strategist Harold Ickes puts it. And they continue to make the argument that Obama is still so unknown and untested that, just as the controversial comments of Wright haunted him late in the primary season, new unsavory facts could come out if he runs against McCain in the fall. "We don't need an October surprise," Ickes said. "We know a great deal about Hillary. There is no October surprise with her and the last five or six weeks speak for themselves not only through momentum, but a number of other issues have arisen."
Yet even as Obama contemplates his long-awaited victory, he must question whether it will prove to be Pyrrhic. One disturbing result out of Tuesday's election was how divided the traditional Democratic base has become after three months of negative campaigning since Super Tuesday. In North Carolina, a stunning 92 percent of African-Americans went for Obama, while white non-college-educated workers went decisively for Clinton. Either candidate will need the full support of the other part of the base to win in November. The question is whether feelings have become so bitter that either candidate can rouse them.
Obama, in his victory speech, insisted that would not happen despite the "bruised feelings" on both sides. "This fall we intend to march forward as one Democratic Party," he said, because "we can't afford to give John McCain a chance to serve out George Bush's third term." It was, perhaps, the beginning of his general election campaign. And it was appropriate, perhaps, that at Hillary's rally a broken confetti machine failed to spew shredded paper and instead just sputtered smoke, which quickly disappeared.