Clinton’s huge West Virginia win changes little

The delegate math still favors Obama despite her better than 2-to-1 victory Tuesday.

Jeff Gentner/AP
Sen. Hillary Clinton recognizes supporters after her win at her West Virginia Primary in Charleston.

Hillary Clinton scored a decisive primary victory in West Virginia Tuesday night, beating Barack Obama by a better than 2-to-1 margin. But the expected win - in a state whose demographics were almost perfectly aligned with Senator Clinton’s strengths - does little to change the dynamics of the nominating contest.

Despite an upbeat victory speech, in which Clinton promised supporters that she is “more determined than ever to carry on this campaign until everyone has had a chance to make their voices heard,” the numbers overwhelmingly favor Senator Obama to be the Democratic Party’s nominee. Her margin of 67 percent of the votes to Obama’s 26 percent gave her 20 of West Virginia’s 28 delegates at stake.

"There just aren’t enough delegates left in the remaining primaries or among uncommitted superdelegates to really change things," says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist from Emory University in Atlanta. Her victory in West Virginia, he adds, "doesn’t fundamentally change the race."

Still, Clinton’s victory by such a wide margin underscores one of the challenges that Obama, if he becomes the nominee, would have in a general election: how to win the support of white working-class voters.

It’s an issue that has dogged him in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. In West Virginia, where 95 percent of the population is white, 70 percent lack a college degree, and 55 percent report a family income of less than $50,000, Clinton’s edge among these voters was even clearer.

Exit polls showing that approximately one-third of Clinton supporters would vote for John McCain, the presumed GOP presidential nominee, over Obama in a general election are also a troubling sign for the Democrat.

“This puts an exclamation point on the message from earlier primaries, that Obama needs to expand his base of support to have a firm grasp on the electorate in the fall,” says John Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “None of this means that [Senator] McCain is suddenly the favorite. It’s a Democratic year. But the results in Indiana and West Virginia suggest that McCain at least has an opening.”

Others say that such exit polling may not be a reliable indicator of how voters will actually cast their ballots in November, when feelings are less heated than they are now. They note that despite the exit polls showing that neither Obama supporters nor Clinton supporters want to vote for their candidate’s opponent in a general election, both Democratic candidates still beat McCain in head-to-head matchups.

“That tells you something about the underlying mood of the electorate,” says Professor Abramowitz. “I don’t think the fact that Obama is not doing well with white working class voters or in states like West Virginia and Kentucky means he can’t win the election.”

In her victory speech in Charleston, W.Va., Clinton highlighted the coming election in November, again trying to make the case that she is the stronger nominee in a battle against McCain. “The bottom line is this: The White House is won in the swing states, and I am winning the swing states,” she told a cheering crowd, after noting that no Democrat has won the presidency without winning West Virginia since 1916.

But she also took a conciliatory tone toward Obama, praising him as a strong candidate, and noting that “I will work my heart out for the nominee of the Democratic Party, to make sure we have a Democratic president.”

Despite Clinton’s claim that she is the stronger nominee, the math looks insurmountable. She trails Obama by 159 pledged delegates - a fact that her greater portion of West Virginia’s 28 delegates will do little to change. And this week she fell behind him in the number of committed superdelegates as well.

She has hoped that she could claim a majority of the popular vote. But even if Florida were counted and she were to win Kentucky next week with 65 percent of the vote, Obama would still be ahead in the popular vote by 150,000 as long as he wins the remaining states in which he is leading by slim margins, says Gerald Pomper, a retired political science professor at Rutgers University. “Even if she were to win Oregon, which she’s not trying to do, I don’t think she’d have a chance at the nomination.”

Still, he and others expect Clinton to remain in the race at least through the final primary vote on June 3. She has repeatedly said that she believes every Democratic vote needs to be counted, and there is little for her to gain by dropping out now, analysts say.
“I would expect her to stay in the race if only because she may still hold out hope that the unexpected will happen,” says Professor Pitney. “And the lives of the Clintons have been full of the unexpected.”

In another widely watched election Tuesday night, Travis Childers, the Democratic chancery clerk in Mississippi’s first congressional district, beat Republican Greg Davis, the mayor of Southaven, in a special runoff election, taking a seat Republicans have held since 1994.
The win was the third US House seat in a row that Democrats have taken from Republicans in special elections. It not only added to the Democrats’ majority in the House but also gives them new momentum heading into November as they make gains in traditionally GOP territory.
“[Childers’s] victory has sent a political thunderbolt across America tonight,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen in a statement. “It is yet another rejection of the House Republican agenda, the Bush Administration’s misguided policies, and John McCain’s campaign for a third Bush term.”

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