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Now It Matters

There’s an old customer service adage that 20 percent of your customers create 80 percent of your problems. That needs to be remembered when contemplating the Clinton protesters who were chanting “Denver! Denver!” at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel yesterday, or hanging out with Larry Sinclair outside of it. These people do not represent the way that the majority of Clinton’s supporters feel. They should probably not even be thought of as swing voters. Most of them are either extremely loyal to Clinton, which means that they’ll support Obama once Clinton endorses him, or extremely anti-Obama, which means that as much as they might threaten not to vote for Obama unless he does so-and-so, most of them were never going to vote for him in the first place.

But what about the other 80 percent of Clinton’s supporters? I have long held the opinion that the length of the Democratic primary campaign alone was not damaging to the Democrats. In fact, I think it has probably been helpful. Obama’s campaign team will have gone through the equivalent of eight or nine fire drills for the general election, corresponding to the big dates of voting on the Democratic calendar. That’s highly useful experience, particularly against an opponent in John McCain who had an extremely abbreviated primary season, essentially going from underdog to presumptive nominee in the span of about three weeks.

But I do think that the way that the Democratic campaign ends matters. Obama is going to have a rough go of things if a perception sets in amongst the silent majority of Clinton supporters that he stole the nomination from their girl. Clinton is categorically not going to win the Democratic nomination. It is too late for her campaign to do or say anything that might change that equation. But the tone of her campaign from this point forward could have a significant impact on Obama’s chances in November. In particular, argumentation that Obama is an illegitimate nominee could be hard to walk back later.

It is interesting to consider this in light of yesterday’s decision on Michigan. Chuck Todd writes that Obama actually had the votes on the Rules & Bylaws Committee to earn an even delegate split out of Michigan. But instead, he deferred to Carl Levin’s 69-59 plan. How come? Because the delegate margin isn’t close enough to matter, and giving Clinton some kind of a “win” in Michigan will help to undercut the perception that delegate shenanigans caused the nomination to be stolen from her.

It might be asked: why not instead sign off Clinton the 73-55 delegate split that her campaign desired? It’s only a difference of a few delegates.

Well, if you did that, you’d be reflecting the Clinton/uncommitted preference from the unsanctioned primary. Which means that you’d be tending to legitimate the results of that primary. Which means that Clinton would have had a stronger claim for including Michigan in her popular vote count. And the popular vote count is different way that Clinton has tended to imply that Obama’s nomination is not legitimate. If Clinton hadn’t pushed the popular vote meme so noisily, in other words, Obama would probably have given her those four extra delegates.

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