Hillary Clinton's strength among core Democratic constituencies -- women, Latinos and working class whites -- pushed her to victory in the mega-state primaries of California, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts on Tuesday, slowing, at least for the moment, the momentum that had been building behind Barack Obama's bid for the nomination.
Clinton's solid majorities among women, who make up from 55 to 59 percent of voters in Democratic primaries, remains her most reliable source of support, although her backing among Latino voters not only helped her win California, but should work to her advantage in the potentially crucial March 4 Texas primary.
Over the past two weeks, support for Obama had been growing in both national and individual state surveys. Obama did well on Tuesday, by any standard, but he did not achieve the kind of decisive victory that his top aides had been privately hoping for, if not counting on.
"Obama thought that if he could win one of the big ones, he could end it tonight," said Sandy Maisel, Colby political scientist. "He's shown he is viable, but I don't think he has proven he can knock her off yet."
Obama on Tuesday won 13 states - Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, North Dakota and Utah - to Clinton's 8 - Arizona, Arkansas, California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
But Clinton won the biggest states, and six of Obama's 13 wins were in caucus states. A caucus state victory is generally considered less significant than taking first place in a primary, although there is no difference between caucuses and primaries in terms of the number of delegates to be won.
"I was beginning to feel optimistic," said Notre Dame political scientist Darren Davis. "I bought into the fascination with Obama as the primary season went on." Obama's success winning support from blacks, independents, the college educated and young voters is "all well and good, but not significant enough to counteract the traditional Democratic base."
David Leege, a colleague of Davis' at Notre Dame, contended that "Obama remains viable." Obama's campaign aides "set their sites a little too high, but they can still spin the number and location of the states they have carried. Clinton, of course, stopped his momentum again. Chesapeake [the February 12 primaries in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia] is promising for Obama. Ohio and Texas [on March 4] will be tough, especially the latter, because the same folks [Latinos] who are the difference for Clinton in California are in abundance in Texas."
Of those interviewed for this article, only the American Enterprise Institute's Norman Ornstein and Vanderbilt's Marc Hetherington remained firmly optimistic about Obama's long range prospects.
"I think Obama is pretty well positioned, although he did not get the real hits on Clinton that he wanted, like NJ or CA," said Ornstein. "He now enters a stretch for three weeks where he will do well and she will not -- he could win all of the contests before March 4. And in Texas, an open primary may help him. Add to that his substantial money advantage and the momentum he brought into tonight, and he is very, very viable."
"It seems clear to me that Obama is viable. His appeal is broad and national in scope," said Hetherington. While Clinton won California, importantly, the exit poll showed that Obama barely lost among white voters in California, 42-45.
MIT's Charles Stewart did a study of how well Obama and Clinton did among African Americans, Hispanics, women and whites. Obama, as the campaign progressed, secured the backing of a decisive majority of black voters, but the other three groups backed Clinton -- often by large margins -- far more often than they cast majorities for Obama.
In the 19 primary states for which detailed exit poll data is available, Stewart found that whites and women in 15 states backed Clinton over Obama. Latinos in six of the nine states with Hispanic populations large enough to show up in exit poll data backed Clinton, Obama in two states and tied in one state.
In the nine states with large enough Latino populations to estimate how they voted, "Hillary Clinton has got a political base of women, seniors, and Hispanics that has been quite stable. He has African Americans and the [Bill] Bradley-[Paul] Tsongas Democrats. Her coalition is just slightly bigger in the Democratic primaries," said Republican strategist-pollster Bill McInturff.
While McInturff said the odds now favor Clinton, he pointed out that if victorious, she would face a severe dilemma in deciding whether to pick Obama as a running mate. On the one hand, the Democrats would "be asking Americans to elected a woman and an African American at the same time," he said. On the other hand, rejecting Obama would be denying the ticket to a truly "unique" politician. "It's really a bad choice to have to make."
Ornstein warned that John McCain has now won the nomination and may soon have it fully in his grasp. For Democrats, he said, "very possibly we will end up with McCain able to spend months resting and consolidating support while the Democrats have a sustained cage match."
A contest between John McCain and Obama would be very different from a battle between McCain and Clinton -- and those differences would likely determine not only the character of politics through November, but also the style and content of governance for the next four years.
If the general election is between Obama and McCain, both candidates will be under pressure to lessen partisan tensions in order to keep the support they have among independents and voters of the opposite party. The battle would likely be for the center, or swing, electorate, making the polarizing strategies that characterized the 2004 election more dangerous, because such maneuvers could alienate moderates.
Conversely, McCain and Clinton would both see more advantage in pursuing intensely partisan tactics designed to build turnout and enthusiasm among core loyalists. Polling data show that Republicans in a Clinton-McCain contest are much less willing to consider voting Democratic than they are if the race pits Obama against McCain.
While McCain is now the near-certain Republican nominee, the fight for the Democratic nomination is unlikely to be settled tonight, and most expect it to continue well into February, and perhaps all the way to the August Democratic National Convention in Denver.
The rough outlines of a Clinton-McCain and an Obama-McCain general election emerge from some of the data testing the outcome of each choice. Overall, there is very little difference in the vote totals as shown in poll data.
RealClearPolitics published the results of eight of the most recent surveys, and McCain had just a 1.8 percentage point lead, 46.3 percent to 44.5 percent, over Clinton, well within the margin of error. The same polls gave Obama a tiny, 0.7 percentage point lead over McCain, 44.4 percent to 45.1 percent. At this stage in the election, the differences between Clinton and Obama's competitive positions against McCain have almost no predictive validity.
Within those numbers, however, there are distinctions that could prove to be highly significant.
The Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll of 855 registered voters conducted January 31 to February 2 found that Obama ran significantly better than Clinton among independent and Republican voters in a contest with McCain, while in a Clinton-McCain matchup, Hillary did better than Obama among Democratic voters. The same pattern emerged in a FOX News survey of 900 registered voters on January 30 and 31.
The Cook/RT Strategies findings show the following:
All Voters Democrats Republicans Independents
Clinton 41 75 10 38
McCain 45 17 83 42
Obama 45 71 14 50
McCain 43 17 79 35
On the surface, the differences between Clinton and Obama -- ranging from 4 to 12 percentage points -- may not appear significant, but in practice elections are won and lost at these and even much smaller margins. Obama runs 4 points behind Clinton among Democrats, 75 to 71, in match-ups with McCain, but he runs 4 points (14-10) and 12 points (50-38) better than Clinton among Republicans and independents.
The patterns in survey testing hypothetical general election contests are consistently reflected in the partisan character of the primary vote. In Missouri's Tuesday election, for example, Clinton won regular Democrats by a solid 8 points, 51-43; but she lost independents voting in the Democratic primary to Obama by 28 points, 31-59, and the small fraction of Republicans casting votes in the Democratic primary by 50 points, 21-71.
Similarly in New Jersey on Tuesday, Democratic voters backed Clinton 51-47 while independents went with Obama 53-40.
Even in Clinton's home state, New York, Obama won independents 56-38, while Clinton won Democrats, 60-38.
"Hillary emerges as the frontrunner based on her lead in the overall delegate count and winning the big prize tonight, California, by apparently a pretty good margin," said Emory's Alan Abramowitz. "But it's far from over. Obama won more states, and now the race shifts into a mode that may favor him more by allowing him to concentrate on one or a few states at a time. He will be able to use his campaign skills and fundraising prowess to advantage.... The race clearly will go on for a while."
A Democratic operative with extensive experience in presidential contests agreed. "This is a competitive race," he said. "At some point this becomes mathematics not spin."