Nastiness Gains Momentum in Pennsylvania

At 8:45 pm — only 45 minutes after the polls closed — Fox News called the Pennsylvania primary for Hillary Clinton. But at 11 pm — more than two hours later — it was clear that Clinton won 55-45%. Clinton achieved the pundit-set goal of a 10% win.  But neither Clinton nor Obama came out of Pennsylvania with real momentum. The increasing negativity of their campaigns gained the momentum neither candidate has.

In the hottest, most negative primary campaign so far, neither Clinton nor Obama seemed able to move many voters in the final days before the vote. According to exit polls, about 60% of the Pennsylvania voters decided at least a month ago, and 80% more than a week ago. But the negativity — up to the last minute in battling ads aired for the first time yesterday — momentum was created. Not for Obama, not for Clinton, but for the fight.

The first ad, by Clinton, was another attack on Obama’s readiness to be commander-in-chief. Images of Pearl Harbor, the 1929 stock market crash, the 1970s oil embargo and a picture of Usama bin Laden were paraded on the screen while a voice-over spoke about how a president has to be ready to deal with anything, any time.

Obama’s ad, played a few hours later, was weak. It repeated his theme of opposing the Iraq war from the beginning, saying that was his principal qualification.

While neither Clinton nor Obama came out of Pennsylvania with electoral momentum, the atmosphere of this campaign did. Negativity will rule from here on, and will build the bitterness between the camps. The hotter the campaign rhetoric gets, the longer it continues, the less chance the Democrats have to unite around whomever the superdelegates eventually crown as the nominee.   

As the final returns came in, Clinton failed to win big: her margin was only about 8%, smaller than the 10+% she needed to show real strength and gain momentum going into the Indiana and North Carolina primaries on May 6.  

At this point, Hillary is at the same crossroads that Mitt Romney faced in early February. She has no clear path to the nomination and is probably out of the race.

The news wasn’t all bad for Clinton. She held her core constituencies by larger margins than she had in previous races. This is very bad news for Obama, because his wins were – largely – because he had been able to cut into Clinton’s base.

Yesterday, senior citizens (about 25% of Pennsylvania Dems are over 65 years old) went for Clinton by 60-39%. Among union households (about one-third of Pennsylvania voters) Clinton won by 57-42%, roughly 300% of the margin she held in that group in earlier contests. And among those without college degrees, Clinton again increased her margins to 57-43% yesterday.

ABC’s exit polls showed that 67% of Pennsylvania voters thought Clinton attacked Obama unfairly. Despite the supposed unfairness, the attacks were effective. Among the relatively small percentage who decided in the last few days, the undecideds went for Clinton by 57-42%.

But the effect of Clinton’s gains among key constituencies paled in comparison to the gain she made in the total popular vote. Going into Pennsylvania, Obama led by about 827,000 voters (according to RealClearPolitics estimates). Coming out — with 85% of the precincts reporting — Clinton reduced that margin by about 185,000 votes.  

In total, Obama has gained at least 640,000 votes more than Clinton has. That margin is too large for the superdelegates — or for the candidates — to ignore. The fight will go on. It will get nastier and more expensive because the attacks work.

Last week, Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean bemoaned the loss of campaign time and “healing” time for his party. The healing hasn’t begun: the wounds are getting deeper. Clinton is now almost certain to carry the fight into the August convention. If she wins, black voters will feel alienated.  If she loses, her supporters aren’t going to flock to Obama.  

Howard Dean did most to create this to-the-death cage match between the two Democratic frontrunners by cementing the Dems’ proportional delegate election system.  Now, neither he nor any of the other Democrats’ “senior statesmen” — Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy and such — can put their Humpty Dumpty party together again unless Clinton and Obama join forces.  

And that won’t happen. Take this to the bank: there will be no Clinton-Obama or Obama-Clinton ticket. They dislike each other immensely, and there is no electoral compulsion or party leadership to compel either to compromise with the other.  

The only thing that can save the Dems this year is the Republicans limitless capacity to lose. George W. Bush, according to a Gallup poll released yesterday, has the highest negative ratings — 69% — that any president has had since the poll was established.  

If John McCain can make a clean break with Bush, as Nicolas Sarkozy did with Jacques Chirac in France, he may be able to pull an upset win in November. If he does not, the Democrats can take the White House despite this seemingly endless and increasingly nasty primary fight.