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Two Wrongs make a Right?

I still think the Obama campaign made a mistake by not making more of a pretense of competing in West Virginia. It’s not like we’re talking about his having to ride a bicycle from Wheeling to Bluefield. Simply bookending his Monday appearances with a Thursday rally at UWV in Morgantown might have made a lot of difference from a perception standpoint. Obama lost a net of about 6 points in his overall margin based on voters who made up their minds in the last week, and while most of those folks would probably have gravitated toward Clinton in the end, Obama could perhaps have cut 10,000 votes or so off Clinton’s margin. There’s also the issue that looking as though you’re giving up on a state simply doesn’t look very presidential.

After seeing Clinton’s media coverage, however, I’m not so certain. Here’s a fairly fairly typical example from CQ Politics:

Hillary Rodham Clinton won a convincing but perhaps anticlimactic victory Tuesday in West Virginia’s presidential primary, which she hopes will revive her campaign’s faint prospects for overtaking Barack Obama .

With 81 percent of precincts reporting at 11:20 p.m. eastern time, Clinton led Obama by 67 percent to 26 percent in West Virginia, a state where the underlying demographics had pointed to a huge Clinton victory. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards , who withdrew from the race in January but appeared on the ballot, had 7 percent.

The only suspense about the race was the size of Clinton’s margin of victory, which pre-primary polls had pegged as larger than 30 percentage points. West Virginia is overwhelmingly white and rural, and it is older and poorer than most of the rest of the states. Clinton has been polling strongly among voters in these demographic groups. Obama, who has been doing better among upper-income white voters and in urban centers that have ample African-American voters, all but conceded West Virginia to Clinton.

Clinton was poised to win all of West Virginia’s 55 counties. She racked up her largest vote percentages in the state’s 3rd District, which includes hardscrabble coal country and is represented by Democrat Nick J. Rahall II , who endorsed Obama.

Clinton can only hope that she gets a boost from the West Virginia result disproportionate to the small state’s meager influence in the delegate math. Just 28 pledged Democratic delegates were at stake in West Virginia, and Clinton’s victory — perhaps by 19-9 — will made only a slight dent in Obama’s lead among that group. Obama last week passed Clinton in the votes of unpledged “superdelegates” and has expanded his lead since then. Clinton has been trying to convince superdelegates that she’s a stronger general election candidate against John McCain , the presumed GOP nominee.

Or, simply look at the first graf in the Associated Press wire story:

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Hillary Rodham Clinton coasted to a large but largely symbolic victory in working-class West Virginia on Tuesday, handing Barack Obama one of the worst defeats of the campaign yet scarcely slowing his march toward the Democratic presidential nomination.

It’s not like you can really call the boldfaced passages “spin”, as they have the advantage of being factual. But up until now, this is not how the mainstream media had by and large been framing the race. Yes, MSNBC and the blogs had been — but not the Associated Press. So perhaps the Obama campaign was not too quick to play the “inevitability card” after all, if it helped their preferred media narrative to sink in.

On the other hand, I suspect things may not have played out this way if not for a couple of significant mistakes that the Clinton campaign made. The first was Hillary Clinton’s “hard-working” commentary to USA Today, and the second was Bill Clinton’s proclamation that Clinton could win the primary by 60 points. What the former did was to take the sacred concept of the Democrats as the party of the working class and to make it profane, while the latter raised expectations so much as to be almost insulting. It was almost like Bill was saying: wait until the rest of the country gets a load of these rubes. By opening West Virginia’s kimono in this way, the Clintons made it more difficult for the media to continue to suspend their disbelief about the viability of their campaign.

p.s. Not all of Clinton’s press is bad. She got the kind of write-up she needed to in the Boston Globe, for instance.

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