Hillary Clinton has proved during the past few months that she is a fighter, that she is tenacious, and that she is in the race to win. There's just one problem. She's already lost.
No matter how you define victory, Barack Obama holds an insurmountable lead in the race to earn the Democratic nomination. He leads in the one metric that matters most: the pledged delegates chosen directly by Democratic voters. But he also leads in the popular vote,
the number of states won and money raised. Still, Obama's advantages aren't large enough to allow him an outright victory. He needs the 20 percent of party delegates who aren't bound to a candidate. It's with these superdelegates that Clinton has staked her ephemeral chances.
Clinton's near-lone chance of victory rests with a coup by superdelegate, persuading enough of them to overcome the primary voters' preference. Yet a coup by elite Democrats would be ill-received, to put it mildly. Obama's base spans the party's most loyal and engaged constituencies: African-Americans, professionals who generate hundreds of millions in small-dollar donations and a conventional-wisdom-defying outpouring of youth support.
If Obama lost at the polling booth, these supporters would accept the voters' verdict and carry on. Many, including those who backed Howard Dean's heartbreaking 2004 campaign, have been through such disappointment before. But if Beltway bigwigs steal a hard-won victory, it would amount to a declaration of civil war. Not only would the resolve of thousands of loyal foot soldiers and the party's new fund-raising base be irrevocably shaken, but it would torpedo the opportunity to build and strengthen a new generation of Democrats.
Clinton's best-case scenario for victory requires sundering her own party. It is an inherently divisive strategy, but she doesn't appear to care. For Clinton, all's fair in pursuit of victory—even destroying her party from within. Her campaign has adopted a bizarre "insult-40-states strategy," which has belittled states small, liberal and Red. Apparently, the only states that matter are the ones she coincidentally happens to win.
The Clinton campaign once justified efforts to foster a superdelegate insurrection by suggesting that she could regain the popular-vote lead in the remaining contests. But as her chances of pulling off that feat dwindle, even that argument is falling by the wayside. In an interview with TPM Election Central, top campaign adviser Harold Ickes said: "I think being ahead in the popular vote is an important factor. I don't think it's dispositive." But when the popular vote, delegates earned and states won aren't dispositive, no rationale remains for her destructive coup attempt. Clinton, unfortunately, is pretending not to notice. So at the moment, it's useless to demand she exit the race. If logic, math, appeals to party unity and the evaporation of undecided superdelegates won't sway her, nothing will.
Yet while the Beltway establishment frets about the alleged damage this drawn-out contest is doing to the Democratic Party, in reality, it's been an almost unalloyed good.
For one, the frenzied organizing around the country has proved a catalyst for dramatic party building in states that had been Democratically dormant. State after state has reported record turnout, and thousands of new Democrats are registering in advance of each contest. In upcoming Pennsylvania, Democrats have gained a net 200,000 registered voters over Republicans this year; that number is 105,000 in North Carolina.
The party can now take advantage of the infrastructure both campaigns leave behind. The unprecedented level of participation and organization not only reinforces Blue states, it improves Democratic odds in traditional swing states. In fact, the tide threatens to make GOP stalwarts like Texas up for grabs this fall.
The reverberations are being felt far beyond the race for the White House. Democrats are poised to make massive gains at the congressional and local levels for a second consecutive election cycle. They've already started: in a March 8 House special election, Obama volunteers helped Democrats capture the solidly conservative Illinois congressional seat formerly held by Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert.
Finally, there's no denying that the extra pressure has made Obama a better candidate. After living a charmed political life, with nary a serious general-election battle against a Republican on his résumé, he needed to prove his mettle in hand-to-hand political combat. His able handling of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright revelations didn't just prove his deft political skills to worried supporters like me and superdelegates. It allowed him to address a potentially explosive issue well before November (though it's a relationship the GOP is sure to exploit).
No one can persuade Clinton to get out of the primary race. But by any metric imaginable, Obama has already won. The superdelegates aren't self-destructive enough to change that, and the sooner they line up behind Obama, the sooner Democrats can focus their fire on the real target: John McCain. Clinton can stick around, but the rest of the party will move on without her.
Moulitsas, a NEWSWEEK contributor, is the publisher of Daily Kos, a progressive Web site.