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It’s not all about Obama

Whenever there is a shift of some kind or another in the polling numbers, there are fundamentally two headlines that can be written about it:

“Candidate X loses support!”


“Candidate Y gains support!”

At some point in late February or early March — when it became apparent that he was the favorite for the Democratic nomination — Barack Obama became the central figure in the psychodrama of the 2008 campaign. Thus, when the polling numbers show a shift toward Obama, the interpretation is usually “Obama gaining support!”. And when the opposite is true — as it has been in recent days — the narrative is invariably “Obama support collapsing!”.

If there were only two candidates in the known universe, it would be hard to distinguish an intrinsic increase in the support for one candidate versus an intrinsic decrease in the support for another. Fortunately, we have another benchmark we can look at: the performance of each Democrat against John McCain, whose campaign has now been largely newsless for several months.

And the present numbers do not show a collapse in Obama’s support against John McCain. If anything, in fact, Obama’s numbers have been improving. The Clinton campaign was understandably giddy about the results of the new Quinnipiac polls — but those polls also contained good news for Obama. He gained 5 points in Pennsylvania versus Quinnipiac’s previous poll of that state, and 8 points in Florida. True, he lost 2 points in Ohio. But the balance of polling data has been pretty good for Obama. He’s at his highest point in our win percentage tracker since March. We don’t look much at the national polling data here, but does, and they show Obama’s numbers against McCain trending upward rather than downward:

Now, what is also true is that Clinton’s numbers against McCain are moving upward. And in fact, they’re moving upward faster than Obama’s are moving upward:

And why shouldn’t Clinton’s numbers be moving upward? She has had a pretty good month:

1. Clinton, under Geoff Garin’s leadership, has finally focused on one message — Hillary as the champion of the working class — and that message seems to be resonating.

2. Clinton won a major victory in the Pennsylvania primary.

3. Clinton received a major surge in fundraising following her victory in the Pennsylvania primary.

4. Clinton has avoided major gaffes since the Tuzla incident.

5. Clinton’s campaign has belatedly recognized that an obsession with the electoral process does not play flatteringly for her among ordinary voters, and there is no longer the sense that the Clinton Spin Machine is constantly working in overdrive.

6. Clinton routinely nails her national media appearances.

7. Clinton seems to have a bit more stamina than Obama — an advantage over a campaign season as prolonged as this one.

8. Clinton’s morale — and the morale of her staff and supporters — has improved as a result of all the things I’ve just finished describing.

9. Yes, Clinton has tended to benefit from the fact that the media has focused mostly on Obama.

10. Yes, Clinton has tended to benefit from the fact that McCain has focused mostly on Obama.

11. Yes, Clinton has tended to benefit from the fact that David Axelrod has run a fairly risk-averse campaign, and that the Obama campaign has generally (though not universally) demurred on making attacks that might undermine Clinton.

Some of these things would be real advantages in a general election matchup against John McCain, while others are more circumstantial and transient. But the point is — the Obama campaign has generally received too much blame, and the Clinton campaign too little credit.

The irony, of course, is that it’s very much in Clinton’s interest to spin the “Obama is melting!” storyline rather than the “Clinton is surging!” storyline. Because, for all of these things — Obama remains roughly tied or slightly ahead of Clinton in national polls of Democrats, and it’s going to be very, very difficult for her campaign to argue that the superdelegates should overturn the pledged delegate count so long as that is the case.

I tend to be guilty, as most analysts do, of speaking of the superdelegates as some sort of high council that make their decisions in unison, but instead they are hundreds of individual decision-makers. By far the most likely outcome is that the primary season ends not with a bang but a whimper, and that at some point in early June Obama receives enough superdelegate endorsements to clinch the nomination. Obama’s pledged delegate advantage is worth something — a lead of about 125 pledged delegates (which is where he’s likely to end up after all states have voted) means that he would only need to win the support of 42% of all superdelegates to win the nomination. Even more importantly, it means that he’ll only need to win the support of 35% of all superdelegates who have not already committed to a candidate — and the threshold is even lower when you consider that many of the remaining uncommitted superdelegates are add-ons, whose support for one candidate or another is essentially already in the bag.

For Clinton to win the nomination — what she needs is for panic to set in. She needs a run on the Obama bank. That would probably require at least a couple of high-profile Obama superdelegates to switch their support from Obama to Clinton — at which point the floodgates might open.

The trigger for that would be a truly shocking result in one of the remaining primaries — such as a Clinton win in North Carolina or maybe Oregon or maybe a very close result in North Carolina coupled with a double-digit win in Indiana. Obama does benefit a tiny bit here from lowered expectations: I would guess that most pundits deep down expect Clinton to win Indiana by a Pennsylvania-type margin, and that Obama will have a fairly easy time of spinning away his loss as the same old story, provided that he has a solid victory to show for himself in North Carolina. Or, a new gaffe/scandal/inconvenience for Obama of at least Wright/bittergate magnitude (but not merely of Ayers/flag-pin magnitude). Those things remain unlikely, although the possibility of the former has somewhat increased. But there certainly hasn’t been a run on Bank Obama yet, nor really even the beginnings of one — instead, there has merely been some refreshed enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.