Skip to main content
ABC News
Clinton is blowing the popular vote argument

Several weeks ago I argued that the Clinton campaign was doing something intelligent with their messaging on the popular vote count:

Why invest so much effort, as the Clinton campaign is already doing, in arguing that you’re ahead in the version of the popular vote that includes the uncontested primary in Michigan, an argument that neither pundits nor superdelegates will find persuasive? Because then you look much more reasonable when you suggest later on that just Florida should be included.

Before Indiana and North Carolina, Clinton looked to have a fairly decent chance of winning the +Florida popular vote count. She still has an outside chance to win that count now. She’ll probably pick up 50,000 votes tomorrow, give or take, and I don’t think anybody knows what’s going to happen in Puerto Rico. Clinton could win by 500,000 votes there or Obama could win by 30,000.

However, rather than a brief dalliance with Michigan to set up a subsequent negotiating position, the Clinton campaign has now embraced a position that is not only hard to defend, but is so ridiculous on its face that it has made the entire popular vote meta-narrative unwinnable. Namely, they are now claiming (quietly through their website, more loudly through surrogates and bloggers) a lead in the popular vote. However, the only version that they lead is one that not only includes Michigan, but excludes Iowa, Nevada, Maine and Washington.

Let’s revisit the Overton window:

  • Unthinkable
  • Radical
  • Acceptable
  • Sensible
  • Popular
  • Policy

Arguing that the popular vote is a valid metric? Sensible, though this is one case where the Obama campaign might have pushed back a little harder while the ink was still drying on Michael Barone’s pen.

Arguing that Florida should be included? Probably acceptable by a reasonable man standard. Puerto Rico? Also probably acceptable in the end, although I think that might actually be a tougher sell than Florida.

Arguing that Michigan should be included — with no allocation made to Barack Obama? Radical. But at least self-consistent, depending on how the argument is framed. The argument that Michigan should be included is not offensive. It’s not where you’re going to end up, but it’s also not an argument that would cause other side to stand up and leave the table.

But arguing that on top of all that, Iowa, Nevada, Maine and Washington should not be included? Unthinkable. There is no possible parallel universe in which it is acceptable to include Florida but not Iowa, Michigan but not Maine, or Puerto Rico but not Minnesota.

The thing about the Overton window is that it isn’t a short-term strategy. Instead, it’s something that takes years and years of disciplined messaging to establish. The Clinton campaign does not have that kind of time, nor has their messaging been disciplined. And as a result, if they do succeed in winning the +Florida popular vote count, they’ll find themselves without a leg to stand on.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.