Southern Republicans Have Gifted Hillary the Candidacy

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Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton holds a campaign rally at the Old City Council Chambers in Atlanta City Hall in Georgia February 26. Reuters

"Luck be a lady tonight." So it was for Hillary Clinton in South Carolina -- and so it promises to be in this week's Super Tuesday contests dominated by other Southern states where Democratic primaries have big African-American constituencies that are big for Hillary.

Luck matters in politics. Ask Al Gore about the butterfly ballot that in 2000 mis-recorded thousands of Gore votes for the anti-Israel Pat Buchanan in heavily Jewish Palm Beach county, opening the way for the Supreme Court to morph into a ward committee and install Bush II in the White House by judicial fiat.

Or think of Gerald Ford rhetorically freeing Poland-- "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe"-- that blunted his comeback and let Jimmy Carter eke out a victory in 1976.

Or in terms of primaries, recall how John McCain slipped by Mitt Romney with marginal pluralities in South Carolina and Florida eight years ago because a stubborn Mike Huckabee stuck around and split the anti-McCain vote.

This year, Clinton is not only weak among younger voters, apparently including younger women, she also seems to have lost her hold on the white blue collar Democrats who sustained her long resistance to Barack Obama the last time she ran but are now attracted by Bernie Sanders' economic call to arms. For example, in 2008 she carried West Virginia 67 percent to 26 percent after Obama in effect already had the nomination in hand; in a mid-February poll in the state, she now lags Sanders 57 percent to 29 percent.

But the primary schedule mitigates her vulnerabilities and maximizes her advantage with African-Americans, who obviously identify less with Sanders's civil rights activism stretching back to the 1960s than with Hillary and Bill Clinton, who was famously hailed as "the first black President" before there actually was one.

Audio that surfaces her as a "Goldwater Girl" in 1964 just doesn't move the needle in a campaign four decades later, as she powerfully speaks the names of victims of police shootings and pledges to undo criminal law changes that have scarred the African-American community. Her husband signed the law, but she disclaims it.

Now comes Super Tuesday. Given the demographic reality, Sanders has targeted states with 288 delegates, while Clinton is competing everywhere but Vermont and is favored in contests that award 571 delegates. With proportional representation, Sanders will win some delegates even where she wins. But if he improbably sweeps his targets-- and those races look close -- Clinton will still amass a daunting delegate lead.

How was this firewall created? It didn't exist in 2008, when Super Tuesday consisted of 25 primaries or caucuses that weren't skewed South and encompassed delegate-rich states like California, New Jersey and Illinois. (Clinton, with a different electoral coalition, did very well then, just not well enough.) Illinois is now later in the process and California and New Jersey have moved to the end of the line in June.

That's part of it, but not the key. More than anyone else, Republicans built the Clinton firewall. After 2012, when the influence of Southern states was fragmented and diluted in the GOP presidential race, Republican legislatures co-ordinated the creation of the so-called SEC primary. That also shifted the timing of the Democratic face-off to places where the party is heavily African- American.

Perhaps Clinton should send Southern Republicans a thank you note. Of course, Sanders could push the campaign to the end of the primaries or even the convention if he does gets past Super Tuesday with a showing that reaches or exceeds his potential -- and especially if he scores a later big state upset.

Yet Clinton has won -- and been gifted -- a lead that can become insurmountable as proportional representation makes it all but mathematically impossible to catch up.

There's one more piece of priceless luck in the offing. It turns out that Super Tuesday is also fertile hunting ground for Trump among Republicans--which is anything but what its architects intended. Except in Texas, the Donald seems set to romp, bringing him to the point where success in Marco Rubio's Florida March 15 -- and there too Trump's far ahead in the polls -- will lead on to his nomination.

So Republicans have blessed their Democratic nemesis not only with ideal terrain in the primaries, but with the ideal opponent for her to crush in November.

Yes, message matters. And so does organization. But for Hillary Clinton, luck was a lady Saturday night -- and maybe, likely, for all of 2016.

Robert M. Shrum is the Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw chair in practical politics and professor of the practice of political science at the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, University of Southern California.