What is her plan?

04Jun08

Obama has finally clinched it.

Over the past few weeks, commentators have been saying that the Democratic nomination is his. But it would have been foolish for him to announce himself as candidate then, when there were still delegates in play.

But today’s primary results (a win for Obama in Montana and Clinton in South Dakota) appear to have given him the momentum to secure the votes of enough “super-delegates” to push him over the total required.

Yet Clinton has not conceded. Why?

With two people still in the race, the nomination is not formally decided. That will happen at the Democratic Convention in August, over two months ago.

Obama has not secured enough pledged delegates – those mandated to vote a certain way by the states that they represent – to secure the nomination. If he had, Clinton would have conceded. So the result rests on the votes of the ‘super-delegates’ – important people in the Democratic primary, who have a free vote at the convention. And it seems that enough of them have now pledged to support Obama to give him the nomination.

Perhaps Clinton is hoping that some of them will change their minds – as they are free to do, as many times as they want.

What would cause them to do this? One argument is that she has won the popular vote. That is, if you discount the votes in Michigan (where Obama removed his name from the ballot, after agreeing not to campaign there), and ignore the states where the result was decided by caucuses. Some argue that if you include these states, and count Michigan’s “uncommitted” votes, Obama has a narrow lead. But since no figures have yet been released, it is impossible to decide. And in the absence of decisive evidence, it is hard to see waves of super-delegates switching sides.

The only other possibility that could lead Clinton to the nomination would be for something to emerge about Mr Obama that would completely, without a doubt, rule out any chance of him being elected. But at this stage of the contest, such a fact would have to be scandalous almost beyond belief. The controversy over remarks made by Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor, which were construed to be racist and unpatriotic, threatened to disrupt his campaign for a while, but has since almost vanished as Obama distanced himself from Wright. It seems unlikely that new skeletons will emerge from his closet.

So with an eventual Clinton nomination looking almost completely unlikely, why else might she not concede?

This race has been incredibly tight, perhaps the closest primary race ever. Clinton clearly has enormous support across the entire United States, and some of that support is fanatical. If Obama is to succeed in November’s presidential election, he needs those supporters to vote for him. So Clinton has enormous bargaining power for the next day or two. The question is, which position is she going for?

The most obvious target might be the number two position on the Democratic ticket, the vice-presidential nominee. It would be a powerful position for her, but is it too powerful for Obama? In the last few weeks, as more and more watchers called the nomination in Obama’s favour, Clinton’s tenacity and drive started to look more like stubbornness and a desperate grasp for power at the expense of party unity – the correct course, many argued, would be for her to withdraw gracefully and support Obama in the run-up to the November elections. But at that stage, it could still have gone either way. The momentum was with Obama, but it could so easily have turned.

The question is, has she damaged the unity of the Democratic Party? And if so, is it a bruise or a severe injury? Would having Clinton on the ticket bring enough voters to Obama to win the Presidency? Or would having a vice-presidential candidate who inspires such strong feelings – on both sides – damage Obama’s chances?

And more importantly for Clinton, does she want the VP position? She has run an impressive campaign, firmly establishing herself as not just a former First Lady but also a strong political candidate in her own right. But today’s result in a race that six months ago looked like it was hers for the asking can only come as a blow, albeit not a totally unexpected one. Will she submit to accepting the nomination for second on the ticket – if it is offered – or will she distance herself?

One last reason for staying in the race could be to put pressure on Obama. Not for the nomination for VP, but for some other position in his administration if he wins. That would allow her the power and ability to work on issues close to her heart, such as her much touted universal healthcare plan.

This route has the advantage that it will allow her to be seen to be mending some fences within the party. Obama offering her the VP nomination may look weak, a sign that he cannot carry the election without her. But if she makes it clear that she doesn’t want it, it will strengthen his position and likely increase the chance of an eventual Democratic victory. And if he wins, she will have the power to show voters that she can make good on some of this year’s campaign promises, which will stand her in good stead for an eventual challenge in 2016.

And if he loses, not having been on the ticket this year may distance her enough to make another attempt in 2012. But only if she concedes this race with gracefully, and throws the weight of her connections and her supporters behind Obama. The slightest hint that she is withholding anything on the basis that she could challenge a President McCain in 2012, and her political career in the Democratic Party will be finished.

My money is on this last option. Privately, behind the scenes, Obama’s and Clinton’s aides are negotiating. She will concede the nomination only when she is assured of a suitable position in the new administration, should he win. But for a day or two, she has negotiating power. A seasoned politician like Clinton will not give this up.

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