Clinton's Pennsylvania victory gives campaign new life

A convincing win spurs the fight forward, but does little to close the gap in delegate count with Obama.

Elise Amendola/AP
Pennsylvania: Presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton celebrates an important win in the Democratic race with Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.

With a solid win in the Pennsylvania primary, Hillary Rodham Clinton has breathed new life into her presidential campaign – and in all likelihood will battle all the way through to the end of primary season in June.

Her 10-point victory margin, 55 percent to 45 percent, over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination met the expectations of pundits who believed she needed to match her 10-point victory in Ohio – a state similar to Pennsylvania – seven weeks ago. And she beat her six-point average lead in the final polls of Pennsylvania Democrats before Tuesday's vote.

Perhaps most important, Senator Clinton's decisive victory gives fresh impetus to her fundraising, as reports of campaign debts and dwindling coffers have raised questions about her ability to compete effectively in the next contests in two weeks. Just a few hours after the news media called Pennsylvania for Clinton, her campaign says, nearly $2.5 million in donations came in – 80 percent of it from new donors.

"This was not just a win, it was a solid win in an important state," says Michael Hagen, a political scientist at Temple University in Philadelphia.

One of the charges that Clinton has lodged regularly against Senator Obama is that he can't win the big states. Now she can add Pennsylvania to that list, a swing state that will be crucial to a Democratic victory in November.

The next big battleground will be Indiana, which votes on May 6. North Carolina also votes then, but it is widely expected to go for Obama, because of its large African-American population.

In Indiana, the polls are close, and, because it has a demographic and economic profile similar to Pennsylvania's and Ohio's, Clinton is under pressure to win there.

Still, merely winning most of the remaining contests would do little to close the deficit in her delegate count against Obama. To do so, she needs to win by extraordinary margins, because Democrats allocate delegates proportionately. As of Wednesday, with 99 percent of Pennsylvania's precincts reporting, Obama led 1,705 to 1,575, out of a total 2,025 delegates needed to win the nomination.

So the underlying math remains the same: Obama is almost certain to finish the primaries with the most "pledged" delegates – those won through primaries and caucuses. Clinton still leads among superdelegates, elected officials and party leaders who can support whomever they choose, but in recent weeks he has closed the gap significantly. By winning Pennsylvania convincingly, Clinton has given the some 300 uncommitted superdelegates reason to hang on and remain undeclared.

Despite her nearly impossible mathematical odds in the pledged delegate count – and an average 10-point deficit against Obama in national polls of Democrats – she has stayed in the race in an apparent effort to convince superdelegates that she is more electable than Obama. Gaffes by Obama in the seven-week gap between Ohio and Pennsylvania seemed to point up his relative inexperience in tough campaigns, and in the end, may have widened his deficit in the final vote count in the Keystone State. Most memorable was Obama's private comment during a San Francisco fundraiser that rural Pennsylvania voters are "bitter" about their economic situation and "cling" to their guns and religion.

Clinton hit Obama hard for days over the comment, and appeared to boost her own negatives in the process. She also faced a rough patch when she was caught embellishing a story about a trip to Bosnia as first lady in the 1990s.

But in the end, Clinton held onto her base in a state whose demographic profile seemed tailor-made for her – older voters, lower-income voters, Roman Catholics, and women. Obama held his base, the African-American vote, young people, and upper-income voters. The white male vote ended up breaking for Clinton, 56 percent to 44 percent, according to exit polls. One demographic that went against the usual pattern was white voters ages 18 to 29, who make up 8 percent of the Pennsylvania Democratic electorate. Clinton won them 51 percent to 49 percent.

In order for Obama to have beaten Clinton in Pennsylvania, he would have had to do extremely well in Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs. He did win the city handily, but not by enough. And in the state's three key battleground regions – the Philadelphia suburbs, the Lehigh Valley, and south-central Pennsylvania – he underperformed.

Terry Madonna, head of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll in Lancaster, Penn., points to two factors that explain Obama's defeat. "No. 1, on issues that mattered to voters, especially the economy, she scored better," he says. "And also, in the end, the business of 'Bittergate' did have an effect."

Before his "bitter" comment, Obama had been steadily closing his gap with Clinton, but afterward, her lead stabilized and eventually grew in the final days of the race.

For Republicans, who weeks ago settled on Sen. John McCain of Arizona as their presumptive nominee, the drawn-out Democratic nomination battle has provided fodder for the general election campaign. With Clinton, the Bosnia gaffe revives questions about her truthfulness. With Obama, the "bitter" comment opens the door to charges that he is elitist.

"Obama started out walking on water, but now he's swimming with the rest of them," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

On the plus side for the Democrats, the extended primary battle has engaged voters in states that usually don't have a say in the nomination. In Pennsylvania alone, the party registered 326,000 new voters, some of them first-time voters and others switching their registration from independent or Republican. If the party can unite in the fall and get over the bruised feelings from the primaries, the Democrats could be hard to beat.

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