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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ladies and gentlemen, the spinners

“How many delegates are in the state of denial?” Newsweek’s Howard Fineman asked that last week, discussing another aspect of the campaign, but he could well have been talking the events of Super Tuesday. For those in the media who may have watched the Obama campaign Tuesday with unspoken expectations of the beginning of the end, Tuesday’s results can’t be spun any other way: the challenger is in it to the very end.

Despite the candidate's own understandable reluctance to use the phrase in reference to himself, Obama is nothing other than The Frontrunner — in delegate count, in the number of states he won Tuesday, in the geographic breadth of his victory, in cash available to continue his campaign, and in the increasingly higher expectations he faces from now until the convention in August.

No one, of course, realistically expected Obama's campaign to fall apart after Super Tuesday, but there were nagging questions as to how viable Obama could be without some sizable wins outside states with large minority populations.

Those fears were soundly routed Tuesday. From Alaska to Georgia, Colorado to Connecticut, citizens backed the Obama campaign, convincingly establishing Obama as a viable contender and the beneficiary of what New York Times columnist Bob Herbert called “a huge shift in American culture, a tectonic shift that goes far beyond a presidential race.”

The macro story on the Democratic side of Super Tuesday may well have been buried in the slow trickle of returns from one state, the night’s biggest delegate prize, California.

The state was called early in the evening — about an hour or so after the polls closed — as a victory for the Clinton campaign. Hillary’s mob went to bed secure in that win, a victory by a margin of 22 percentage points. They no doubt expected some contraction but ... no worries.

But that vast double-digit margin didn’t hold up. By 6 am today eastern time, Clinton’s 22-point spread had gone on a serious diet. With 97 percent of the votes tallied, Clinton’s lead had dwindled to just 10 percentage points, one number shy of it being a single-digit win. This in a state where her organization had been laying groundwork for months. This in a state she was expected to win by an overwhelming margin.

Even in the dead of night, with no campaign activity underway at all, with nothing more at work than the rote trickle-in of votes cast hours earlier, the insurgent bid of Barack Obama exhibited the power of momentum, the evidence of an irresistible force that continues to catch polwatchers by surprise.

That momentum has been a trademark of the Obama campaign all season long, and was, not surprisingly, the watchword for much of today’s news coverage. But there are some underreported stories that lend weight to the idea that the Obama campaign story deserves, to some degree, to drive the narrative of this campaign.

(1) The media fascination with Clinton winning the “bigger” states — bigger purely on the basis of population — overlooks the more important survey of what matters: the raw delegate count.

Look at the delegate harvest for each candidate in several of the Super Tuesday states:

Idaho: Obama garners 15 delegates, Clinton only 3 (a ratio of 5:1)
Illinois: Obama gains 87, Clinton gets 44 (almost 2:1)
Kansas: Obama scores 23, Clinton gains 9 (2.5:1)
Minnesota: Obama 48, Clinton 24 (2:1)
South Carolina: Obama 25, Clinton 12 (better than 2:1)
Colorado: Obama 13, Clinton 6 (better than 2:1)

Obama gained well in Utah, Georgia and other states — all of which leads to the delegate total for the day: Obama 838 delegates, Clinton 834. (That's at this writing; those numbers are certain to change, and the tally for New Mexico still isn't in!) The media focus on Clinton winning the bigger states begs the question of what they think was at stake on Super Tuesday. It wasn't the popular vote — that happens in November. It was the delegate tally. By that measure, the night’s big winner, California notwithstanding, was Barack Obama.

(2) The other still vastly-underreported story is a bottom-line issue: the money that each campaign needs to survive, and the likelihood of getting it.

For months now, with pages from the Howard Dean online playbook firmly in hand, Obama’s campaign has been growing money like a virus in a Petri dish and doing it in a highly effective, undeniably populist way, tapping via the Internet the hearts and wallets of everyday people, donors able to pony up $25, $50 or $100 — amounts small enough, at the individual level, not to be painful, but in numbers of contributors large enough to make a huge difference in Obama’s drive to forge a truly national campaign.

Contrast that with Hillary Clinton’s requests of big-money donors, those people who contributed the $2,300 maximum for individual contributions — those people who, facing down the bills from Christmas, likely can’t afford writing any more big checks on her behalf. Her bid for small-dollar donations and her campaign's embrace of the Internet came late, compared to Obama's operation, and remains woefully behind Obama’s grassroots fundraising. Result: Hardly broke, Clinton’s campaign is a lot less liquid than it could be, should be, right now. You wouldn't lend your own campaign $5 million of your own money if that weren't true.

Obama has adopted a fundraising strategy a lot like the pugilistic strategy of Muhammad Ali, whose legendary rope-a-dope approach — conserve energy, be opportunistic, keep the powder dry for the big battles to come — helped him beat a number of opponents in the ring, fighters who didn’t see what was coming until it was over.

All of which has led to what’s happening today: the art of spinning the results. The media's been spinning Tuesday's events, in the interest of furthering the horse-race drama they've been after since the campaign started. Obama himself today refused to define himself as the underdog, and said it for perfectly justifiable reasons: When you’re out in front, you’re the biggest target. Obama figures he doesn’t need the heat. And the Clinton campaign has satisfied itself with the impact of the California win, making much of the inroads in the Hispanic vote at Obama’s expense, downplaying the number of states Obama won, and making more of her victories than a comparative state-by-state count would seem to justify.

Somewhere between the two states of denial lies the truth: Super Tuesday’s results show it’s a whole new race, a dead heat that suggests another one in the fall. Who’s got the stamina to finish strong?
Image credits: Videos: MSNBC. California: Jim Irwin, Wikipedia project, reproduced under GNU Free Documentation License. Muhammad Ali: Public domain

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