Hillary Clinton may be on track to win the Pennsylvania primary on April 22, but along the way to that contest she is losing something essential: the willingness of Democrats, political journalists, and opinion leaders to continue suspending their disbelief about the possibilities of her campaign.
More and more people are saying the obvious: It takes a kind of departure from reality usually reserved for movie theaters in order to imagine that this adventure really ends with Clinton winning the Democratic nomination.
She is behind in fundraising. She is behind in the popular vote. She is behind in the delegate count. She would need an extraordinarily large—and therefore extraordinarily unlikely—margin of victory in Pennsylvania in order to make any significant progress in closing any of those gaps.
The math is simply not on her side, and winning the Democratic nomination is not about a series of those now-familiar "Clinton comeback" moments interspersed with repeated stretches of Clinton defeat. It is, in the end, about math: adding up enough delegates to win.
Which Obama is in the process of doing. Not Clinton.
Hence a slew of articles, opinion pieces, and posts on liberal blogs in recent days that have called Clinton's continued viability a "myth" (The Politico, March 21) and declared the nomination fight not just over, but "played out" (OpenLeft.com, March 24). An anonymous Democratic official, speaking to ABC News on March 25, suggested Clinton had only "the Tonya Harding option" left. The same day, David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, offered Clinton a very backhanded compliment and posed a harsh but fundamental question.
"When you step back and think about it, she is amazing," Brooks wrote. "She possesses the audacity of hopelessness. Why does she go on like this?"
It's impossible to know. Theories range from raging narcissism to a sincere belief that things will turn around for her campaign. But while Clinton plays out her next moves over the next few weeks (or, even more worrisome to Democrats, the next few months), this primary fight's resistance to resolution is causing Democrats to fret that the only person being helped is John McCain.
Karina Putnam-Kaminsky, a manager at a downtown Seattle restaurant, is fed up. She was elected as a Clinton delegate at the Washington State caucuses on February 9 but says she's become so frustrated with Clinton's win-at-all-costs-and-despite-all-odds approach that she's going to switch her support to Obama when the Legislative District caucuses take place on April 5.
"It's highly unlikely that Clinton will get the nomination," Putnam-Kaminsky said. She went on to criticize the "wild, crazy, incendiary claims" that have been coming from the Clinton camp in recent weeks and said the "final straw" was Clinton's push to get the results of Florida and Michigan's rule-violating primaries to be counted. "It seemed kind of desperate," Putnam-Kaminsky said.
Her switch, and her opinion, represents just one precinct delegate vote—and just one more low-level Obama delegate added to Obama's already-winning delegate hand here. Outside of canvassing all of Democratic precinct delegates in the state, it's impossible to determine how many people in Washington share Putnam-Kaminsky's views. But set in the context of the general sense of fatigue with Clinton's strategy, it becomes yet another fatigued voice to add to the list—and could be a harbinger.
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Predictably, local Clinton supporters don't think so. Linda Mitchell, president of the National Women's Political Caucus of Washington and a member of Clinton's local campaign committee, told me that Clinton has about 10 paid staffers on the ground here in Washington who are working hard to hold—and perhaps grow—the number of Clinton delegates in Washington as the Democratic delegate apportionment process grinds on from precinct to legislative district to, ultimately, the state convention.
"The Clinton delegates walked through a wall of fire to get to be delegates," Mitchell told me. "They're pretty locked in. There's a lot of passion."
No doubt. However, Clinton's post-caucus attempts at boosting her local delegate totals aside, the question remains: Should Clinton even continue her run given the bleak national picture and the long odds of victory?
"Absolutely," Mitchell told me. "I think that there are states that we have not heard from. I disagree with those who say she can't win this. I think the longer this goes on, the more we learn about both sides, and that's good for the discussion. It's not over until it's over."
The question, of course, is who decides when it's over. Most likely it will be the superdelegates. They're the only people with enough power to fundamentally reverse (or end) Clinton's electoral fortunes. Another bad sign for Clinton came from one of them on March 25 when Washington Senator Maria Cantwell, a prominent Clinton backer, announced that she won't be backing Clinton at the convention if Obama arrives there as he is now—in the lead.