Handicapping Indiana and North Carolina

May 6 is Super Tuesday III. For voters in Indiana and North Carolina, they will have a chance to either definitively end this race, grant Hillary Clinton one more stay of political execution, or cause voters everywhere to rethink Obama's strength.

Indiana is a lot like Ohio and Pennsylvania, both of which Clinton won. They are largely rural White states with large blue-collar populations and a handful of major industrial centers. And North Carolina is a lot more like Virginia than South Carolina, both of which Obama won. Like Virginia, North Carolina is a young, ethnically diverse state with a lot of well-educated professionals and university students.

In short, Obama has far more to lose than Clinton does simply because Clinton is already running as if she has nothing left to lose. Her stock is rising and she is much better at managing expectations. Obama is still reeling from his own controversies and missteps and is having to fend off renewed doubts about his electibility. So it appears that Obama is a bit stalled while Clinton has a little bit of momentum. That will all change after the polls close, however, as pundits and political junkies everywhere will have fresh election data to pore over and new storylines to pursue.

Here are the four possible outcomes:

1. Clinton wins Indiana, Obama wins North Carolina. This seems to be the most likely outcome, and both candidates could spin this as a victory. Obama would cite the lack of remaining pledged delegates and winning a state post-Jeremiah Wright as a win while Clinton would claim another victory in a largely rural state, thus reinforcing her argument that she is more in touch with Reagan Democrats. As an added benefit for Clinton, the two electoral contests that follow are Kentucky and West Virginia, states that should be even easier for her to win. So she could possibly build momentum even with a tie in North Carolina and Indiana.

2. Clinton wins both states or Clinton does significantly better in North Carolina than Obama does in Indiana. This is the Obama nightmare scenario. Yes, the delegate math would still favor Obama, but voters and superdelegates don't care about delegate math if the person winning it is seen as a walking political zombie. It would be much harder for Obama to claim victory (the nomination) because of abstract concepts like "delegate math." If Obama loses both states, the perception would be that Clinton is hot while he is fading. Superdelegates would begin to seriously question the wisdom of throwing their weight behind him because he would have lost three major contests in a row (including Pennsylvania). On top of this, the next two contests coming down the pike are in Kentucky and West Virginia--states Clinton should win easily. That would mean five losses in a row for the "delegate math" leader and favorable press for the self-described Comeback Kid. If this happens, here's the case that Clinton will make to superdelegates: "Obama may have won the first half of the game, but I've won the second half. I know how to fight and claw back even when the chips are down. Can you trust Obama to do the same?"

3. Obama wins both states, regardless of his margins of victory. It would be very, very difficult for Clinton to continue her campaign because Obama would have won on "her" turf. For superdelegates and pundits who desperately want this race to be over, Obama clinching Indiana would effectively end this race in their minds. They would then pressure Clinton to "reassess" her campaign.

4. Obama wins Indiana, Clinton wins North Carolina. Should both candidates lose the states they were expected to win, all pundits would probably just call it a day, resign from analyzing politics altogether, and place their money on Mike Gravel winning the White House.

Here are the voting blocs worth watching:

Young voters. Early May is normally the time when university students are either in the middle of final exams or are enjoying the week between final exams and graduation. This provides a double whammy for Obama in particular because these voters form such a large part of his base. If it's exam time, 18-25 year olds might be too busy to come out and vote because they're cramming for their classes. If it's downtime, these voters might be more likely to be out of state (or at least out of their voting precincts) because they're enjoying their last week of freedom before graduating, summer school, or starting their new full-time jobs. North Carolina is chock full of large universities: The University of North Carolina and its satellite campuses, Duke University (my alma mater), North Carolina State, Wake Forest, North Carolina A&T;, Appalachian State, and North Carolina Central University are home to tens of thousands of students. If they don't turn out, Clinton would have to feel pretty good about her chances.

Black voters. North Carolina represents the first state with a sizable Black population to head to the polls since Jeremiah Wright exploded in Obama's face. Black voters were originally reluctant to support Obama (remember those ridiculous "Is Obama Black enough" questions?) because they feared Whites would not support him, but his victory in overwhelmingly White Iowa and his near victory in equally overwhelmingly White New Hampshire confirmed to these voters that he is indeed able to garner significant cross-racial support. Obama acquitted himself in the minds of these voters, and Clinton helped push these voters to him with the racialized tone of her South Carolina campaign. So Blacks got excited and flocked to his campaign. However, Wright has clearly injured Obama and now doubts are creeping back in again about his electibility. Will Blacks come out to the polls? And if so, will Obama win 85-90% of their votes? Should Clinton overperform among Blacks in North Carolina, she will be able to use that as a potent talking point: "I'm working hard for everyone's votes. I know I have some fence-mending to do, but I'm doing it and North Carolina has proved it. Give me a chance." And could Obama really make the South competitive in a general election if Blacks are not completely on board?

Rural White voters. If Obama is unable to improve his standing among rural Whites in either state compared to Pennsylvania, Democratic superdelegates will have a major cause for concern. These voters, who likely would have voted for John Edwards, would potentially be lost to John McCain in a general election because of "bitterness," "elitism," and the perception that Obama is out of touch. Obama's latest charm offensive of playing basketball and downing beers in local bars may help redefine him as more down-to-earth, but if Obama's coalition is independents, Blacks, and well-educated liberals, is that really broad enough to win a general election?

Northwest Indiana voters. This corner of the state is a part of the Chicago media market. While the national media are slowly moving on from Jeremiah Wright, the local news stations are probably eating, drinking, and breathing him. Remember, Chicago is essentially Obama's hometown. Are they sick of hearing about the issue? Do they view Obama as damaged goods? If Clinton is able to hold down Obama's margin of victory in the Chicago suburbs, she could be on her way to a healthy victory in the Hoosier State. Questions about Obama's strength among suburban voters may also linger.

Final predictions

Indiana: Clinton 54%, Obama 44%
North Carolina: Obama 50%, Clinton 46%, Edwards 3%

6 comment(s):

Brett said...

Ouch - your final prediction doesn't leave much for Obama; he gets slaughtered in Indiana and squeaks by with 4% in North Carolina. That would definitely be a Clinton coup; Obama would be reeling and desperate after that.

A loss for Obama would be more than simply doubt-striking for the super-delegates; it would mess with his own composure. You would probably see him start taking more risky political manuevers in order to regain the advantage, which is potentially painful when you are the "unity" candidate.

I seriously hope Clinton doesn't pull a coup victory out of this. She has managed in the past week to
completely piss me off, with her preposterously panderful gas tax, and (to make matters worse) her outright slander of economists on Stephanopoulos's program, including Paul Krugman, who has been nothing if not supportive of Clinton. So much for "competence" . . . and I'm less than impressed by "toughness"; the Democrats tried to pick a "tough guy" in John Kerry so that Bush couldn't call him a wimp, and look what happened.

Thomas said...

Hi, Anthony. I wonder if you caught the story about Mildred Loving, the plaintiff from Loving v. Virginia, dying.

I wrote about her death:


Brett said...

Looks like you were a little too pessimistic about Obama's chances. He's nipping at the tail of Clinton very closely in Indiana as of now (with something like 92% of the vote in), and utterly dominating her in North Carolina.

He needs to finish the blow, though - and if he can get it tied, or within one point, or even (hopefully) pull barely ahead, then Clinton is finished. With a narrow loss in Indiana, and a brutal loss in North Carolina, there will be pressure on her to drop out from people in power in the national party - even Dean might get off his butt.

DB said...

Whoa, that race was a lot closer than I think anyone would have predicted in Indiana! Clinton's speech almost sounded like a quasi-uncommitted concession speech. She hinted at "working together with Obama" among other things that I am surprised the media didn't pick up on. It sounded very cautious as if she were trying to mend the relationship. It went beyond a congratulatory speech. I am curious to see how these results play out in the next few days. The uncommitted super-delegates (and committed) have to be awfully nervous about now.

Anthony Palmer said...

Wow. It looks like Indiana and NC went the way of New Hampshire in terms of punditry. Polls were showing Clinton slowly pulling away in Indiana and narrowing the gap in North Carolina. But it looks like either she underperformed or Obama overperformed. Clinton probably won't drop out right away, but unless some incriminating tape or video of Obama emerges, this race is over.

Reginald Harrison Williams said...

I agree whole-heartedly, Anthony.

Think about these typical Clinton arguments to continue:

"I won the big states like California and New York," but she should realize that any Democrat would win those states anyway. Any Democrat will make Pennsylvania and Ohio and Flordia competitive...but not every Democrat will make Montana, Nebraska, and Kansas competitive. I think Obama may surprise in those states in the general election.

"I won Florida and Michigan," but even with those states calculated in delegate-wise and population wise, I think she still falls short.

"I am more vetted out," but Obama has weathered probably the toughest week yet in his campaign...and he did well.

I don't know. I think Clinton should take McGovern's advice.