As the curtain draws on the Mississippi primary, this topsy-turvy election season hits the snooze button. The next contest is six weeks away, and the Democratic combatants will dig in for the April 22 showdown in Pennsylvania.
Whether they're digging trenches or the party's own grave in the general election is uncertain. But this much we know: Barack Obama has the math on his side. The question is: Will he put it to good use?
After Pennsylvania, there are only seven states -- plus Puerto Rico and Guam -- left to vote. Leaving out Guam and its puny lot of 4 delegates aside, it will probably be played to a draw. Obama should be favored to win North Carolina, Oregon, Montana and South Dakota and pick up around 200 delegates. Hillary Clinton will win Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia and Puerto Rico and around 200 delegates.
With that in mind, here are the crucial strategic choices that Obama must make to keep math on his side, and Clinton's thinly veiled attempt to steal the nomination at bay.
1. Minimize his losses in Pennsylvania -- This election has proved that momentum means nothing and demographics mean everything. The Keystone State is not going to be Obama's friend. It has a fairly polarized electorate and lots of downscale white voters. Gov. Ed Rendell will stop at nothing -- cheating if necessary -- to help the Clintons. Michael Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia, the only Pennsylvania city with a significant black population, also endorses Clinton.
Obama needs to borrow a page out of the Clinton playbook, which sustained her during an 11-game losing streak. He must keep expectations way down, to the media and publicly. Send out surrogates to paint a bleak picture of a lost cause and act shocked when he loses by only 10 points and somehow spin it as a "victory." Go ahead, it's not that hard to do. Hillary has made a whole campaign season out of it.
2. Keep presence and pressure in North Carolina -- On the other hand, Obama must win North Carolina, and maybe win big. The Tar Heel State comes two weeks after Pennsylvania and really is the last significant race in the nominating contest. It is delegate-rich; and a convincing win here will firmly entrench him as the frontrunner with mostly friendly terrain left on the campaign trail.
He should act like Pennsylvania and North Carolina are a combo deal and work on an appearance of a split. Invest most of his resources in North Carolina and find ways to dissuade Republicans from flooding the polling places to vote for Hillary.
3. Make a decision on Michigan and Florida -- This is a toughie, but the reality is, no matter what happens in these two states, no vote, re-vote, mail-in vote, it will make surprisingly little difference in the delegate math.
Assuming the delegates will be seated and that Hillary carries both states by 55-45 margins, she will still lose the race for pledged delegates by about 100. If the delegates from Michigan and Florida are banned, then Obama needs about 150 additional super delegates (beyond the current 200 already committed to him) to make the magic number. If those rogue states are seated, he still only needs about 170, not a big jump.
It actually makes a lot more sense for Obama to allow the previous votes to stand and the delegates to be seated -- as long as he can lay claim to all the "uncommitted" votes in Michigan -- and here's why: a) It denies Hillary two much-needed victories late in the campaign; b) Obama will appear to be magnanimous and fighting for the voters even though it's to his disadvantage; c) It keeps the cost to him contained because he could easily lose by bigger margins in the event of a re-vote.
4. Stay away from the popular vote myth -- Obama brought this debate into the game and now he needs to mute it. There is no benefit to him to make this argument. The argument should be all about delegates and the popular vote is meaningless.
This is the reasons why Obama should steer clear of this bogus talking point: It's not a true popular vote contest anyway. He gets punished severely in caucus states (where he's dominated) because the popular vote counts are severely skewed. For example, he won the Colorado caucuses by 35 points, yet picked up only a 40,000 popular vote lead. In Louisiana, with similar number of delegates at stake, he won by 20 points in the primary, and gained an 80,000 popular vote edge.
At the moment, he has a lead of 700,000 in popular vote. But that will be wiped out if Michigan and Florida are put in the mix and Pennsylvania goes to Clinton as expected. He does not want Hillary to use the popular vote as a smoke-screen to steal the nomination. Giving in on Michigan and Florida actually will help his cause because that just makes the popular vote argument even more illegitimate since he wasn't even on the ballot in Michigan.
5. Push hard toward the magic number (whichever) -- Slowly but surely, he's eating into Hillary's lead in the super delegates. What once was a lead of about 100 for Hillary has shrunk to about 30. If he can pick up another 100 or so supers in the coming three months, that will create enormous pressure on others to bring him across the finish line.
If the magic number stays at 2,025, and he's at about 1,990 when Montana and South Dakota are done on June 3, then it shouldn't be all that difficult to shake down another 35 or so supers to fall in line for the good of the party. Even if Michigan and Florida are added back in the mix and the magic number moves up to 2,182, he'll have to convince about 50 of the over 300 yet-to-commit supers at that point.
The reality is that Obama has an insurmountable lead in pledged delegates. By winning Mississippi, he also guaranteed that he'll have won more states no matter what happens the rest of the way. His job is now helping the voters (and the media) to filter out all the noise that should be inconsequential to winning the nomination.
Whether he's equal to this simple task will determine whether he's fit for the highest office in the land.