Game Changers and Tie Breakers:

Is the winner from Tuesday’s pair of primaries Barack Obama, with his narrow defeat in Indiana and powerful showing in North Carolina? Or are the real winners the Denver waiters, valets, taxi drivers, doormen and hotel maids who look forward to seeing two entrenched delegations come to town, fighting for every vote with more tips to spread around?

If you looked at the headlines written that morning, penned desperately by exhausted reporters and pundits and suggesting that Indiana and North Carolina could provide actual closure to the Democratic race to the White House, you might have been fooled into thinking that politics is a) rational and b) predictable.

Of course a sweep by Barack Obama would vault him onto the nomination pedestal. Of course an improbable double-upset would thrust Hillary Clinton back into the minds of undecided superdelegates. But true to form, the Great Campaign of 2008 proved once again that very, very little separates these two candidates, and that May still comes before November.

The Game Changer

In the days leading up to the North Carolina primary, with most polls showing Obama’s once double-digit lead slashed to eight points or less in the wake of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s disastrous and ill-timed media re-emergence, Clinton’s campaign was all too eager to refer to a win in N.C. as a “game-changer.” The talk was legitimate, if far-fetched. If Clinton could close such a large gap in such a short amount of time, winning over demographics that had heavily favored Obama, she could considerably bolster her pronouncement to undecided and decided superdelegates that she had now claimed the upper hand in a race that had shifted to the question of electability in November. With Bill working the backroads of the state, as he had done successfully in Pennsylvania, and Hillary banking on the late endorsement of Governor Mike Easley, the stars seemed aligned for a close finish.

But in the future, it’s probably best to leave the sports analogies to the Obama folks. After Obama sprinted up and down the court with the University of North Carolina Tar Heels and chatted with coach Roy Williams, the karmic wheel had to be spinning his way when any talk of changing games came around. Instead of a close Obama win or even a Clinton upset, the night became a blowout -- if not a March Madness #1 seed shellacking a #16 bid from some mid-Yukon conference, at least a solid #3 vs. #14 beat-down.

Obama’s 200,000+ vote win, 56-42 percent, not only recouped much of his popular vote losses sustained in Pennsylvania but also served as a game-changer of its own, causing Clinton’s expectations to backfire. A result that would have been expected and brushed aside a few weeks ago was now a big defeat for a Clinton camp that failed to substantively downplay polls twhich suggested the New York senator was moving back into the picture. What Clinton learned from her rotten February -- a string of ten straight big-margin losses to Obama in states that he was expected to carry -- was that she cannot write off any contests in a race this close. But such thinking hurt her in North Carolina, where she devoted significant resources in an effort to make the state playable, only to see it swing strongly against her.

Obama carried women (55-43), the youngest voters (74-25), those with no college education (57-39), those who made less than $50,000 a year (60-37), and those whose primary issue was the economy (53-45). Despite his comments at a San Francisco fundraiser about Middle America clinging to guns and religion, he won most religious classifications and was barely edged by Clinton, 47-51, in households that owned a gun.

His only noticeable weakness was with white Democrats and independents, who went to Clinton almost 2-1, and older voters, whom Clinton carried 57-41. This suggests Obama’s overwhelming popularity with African American voters (in excess of 90 percent), who in North Carolina make up a third of the electorate, likely bolstered his numbers across other measured categories.

The Tie-Breaker

Clinton’s campaign, sensing victory, was fond of bringing up Obama’s quote in April when he suggested that should Clinton win Pennsylvania and he win North Carolina as expected, Indiana might serve as a tie-breaker between the two. This suggestion was supported by pundits who noted that neither candidate had an inherent built-in advantage in the state, with the Hoosiers boxed geographically and demographically between Obama’s Illinois and Clinton’s bulwark of Ohio.

What Clinton’s campaign did not expect was for her comfortable four-point margin to slowly shrink as the election eve counting went on, with her margin at one point narrowed to less than 15,000 ballots out of 1.2 million cast with 95 percent of precincts reporting results. Suddenly, her triumphant victory speech, delivered two hours earlier, seemed a bit hasty when her rhetoric jumped from Indiana and the remaining primaries to the as-yet undelegated votes of Michigan and Florida. But should she lose Indiana, this tie-breaker, what then? This night would be known as not only a double-defeat, but as a profound double-miscalculation of expectations, resting the resiliency of her campaign on a self-aggrandized tie-breaker she might lose.

Yet, as is only to be expected from the Survivor, Clinton did hold on to her margin, however slight, and looks forward, for the first time in months, to a much friendlier road ahead. After weeks of staring down Obamarama caucuses in the West, Mid-Atlantic and South amidst her “big state” must-wins, Clinton now sees West Virginia and Kentucky on the horizon, states that play to her healthiest demographics and should provide convincing wins. She will use Indiana’s margin, however slight, to continue her message to superdelegates that she is most able to win groups that are traditionally vital in a general election. After all, she won most religious categories, particularly continuing her success with Catholics (averaging a nearly 20 point margin), non-college graduates (who here make up roughly 65 percent of the electorate), rural voters and the over-60 crowd. And she won white voters overall, who in Indiana account for nearly 80 percent of the population, by 20 points.

Yet did she still come up short? The war of attrition may finally be taking its toll on a Clinton campaign that has so often pulled out a sizeable win when it needed one. In edging Indiana, Clinton halved many of her core constituencies with Obama: voters who make under $50,000, voters who considered the economy their primary issue and said they had been affected by the recession, registered Democrats and with union households. Unlike many of the other close races in which Obama and Clinton found balance by stacking margins in their equally matched bases, here they waited out a nail-biter by splitting many demographics right down the middle. This is an outcome that benefits Obama enormously, illustrating that even if he doesn’t have Clinton’s intransigent appeal to the working class, he could make a good enough showing so as not to cripple himself against McCain. And most frightening to Clinton’s chances, how much of Obama’s support now comes from Democrats who want more than anything for the race to be over?

Looking Forward

It’s worth noting that despite the remarkable display of hand-wringing on the part of Democratic Party elders and political junkies about the collapse of any and all chance at reclaiming 1600 Pennsylvania, Democrats before Tuesday’s primaries were actually quite happy for the race to continue. A Tuesday Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Democrats were keen to see this brawl straight to the end (though only 49 percent of self-ascribed Obama supporters thought so). This percentage will be scrutinized moving forward -- will Clinton’s showing in Indiana and North Carolina change the perception that the race should play out at its leisure?

Nervous Democrats must ask the true cost of a continued primary season. What is healthier for the party in the long term, a nominee chosen too soon that unduly angers voters, or an electorate allowed to fracture on its own in a bitter back-and-forth? Though the prolonged race has added millions of new voters to registrations and produced record fundraising, can the party count on the influx of voters and money to continue once a nominee is chosen? This year, public financing will allocate approximately $84 million to each party’s nominee to use from convention time to Election Day. Obama the money-magnet has suggested he may not accept public financing and will ride the pocketbooks of eager contributors while McCain, whose best monthly fundraising total to date rates one-third of Obama’s top number, has hinted he will take the public option. If George W. Bush’s success with his vast donor system has taught the Democrats any lessons, it’s that a fat bank account does more for a candidate than anyone is willing to admit.

Clinton’s campaign now has more to worry about than electoral support, demographics or superdelegates. Her campaign is consistently mired in financial woes, and as odd as it is to say about someone whose family worth is over $100 million, she simply may not have the money to compete with Obama or McCain in the long term. In the latter days of this season, she relished the role of the fighter and has been willing to put her own money where her mouth is ($6.4 million over the last month), doing quite a lot with very little. But the rallying cry for Democrats this year is to combine the traditional passion they feel for a candidate with the pragmatic campaign realities so meticulously cornered by Republicans. Obama’s financial apparatus, built on the internet-savvy Howard Dean model pioneered in 2004, encourages his army of small donors to remain a part of the campaign, contributing early and often. The prospect of an Obama presidential campaign armed with the confluence of financial might and fervent support must be an enticing prospect for party leaders.

So it is Obama, by playing off-season basketball with the Tar Heels, who may have unwittingly put his finger on the truest pulse of his party and its partisans. Everyone knows that no team wins championships early in the season, just as no president gets elected in May. But it is entirely possible to lose before you’ve even had a chance to compete. The key for the Democrats now is to not actively lose an election they should, by natural force of angsty gravity and anti-Bush mania, carry to the ends of the earth.

While everyone has been waiting for the big game-changer or tie-breaker, it may be good, old-fashioned inertia that slides Obama into Denver, exhausted but battle-tested, ready to drop some balloons from the Pepsi Center ceiling in August and a ballot avalanche on McCain come November. -- Joe Horton