Yogi Berra, meet the Clintons. "It ain't over till it's over" neatly defines their current philosophy on the presidential race. Forget the brilliant Berra ambiguity of the word "over." How about "it"? What is the game they're now playing? The math is clear: Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee for president unless he's caught on tape taking cash from Tony Rezko or vacationing in Hawaii with Louis Farrakhan. But the only thing dependable about the Clintons is that they never quit. Hillary has more than enough delegates to hassle Obama with the threat that she'll go all the way to the Denver convention or otherwise jeopardize party unity if he doesn't seat Florida and Michigan exactly as she wants. And she may rally her millions of supporters to demand that Obama offer her the No. 2 slot. Don't put it past her.
Before getting to Hillary's game, let me introduce a new ace in the hole for Obama. For all the talk of numbers, there's one that will be most important for superdelegates: 1.5 million. That reflects the 1.5 million names of donors that the Obama campaign has on file. Because no contribution below $200 is publicly reported, the vast majority of those names are in Obama's exclusive possession, to be shared as he wishes. As Graham Richard, the longtime mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., explained it to me last week, it's all about the Benjamins. Local officials (that's who most superdelegates are) need the tens of thousands of Democratic donors on that list who come from their states. Their re-election depends on successful fund-raising. No Obama at the top of the ticket, no list. No list, and you may be back selling insurance after November.
Another hidden factor pushing superdelegates away from Hillary is "Florigan" or "Michida"—or whatever we should call these scofflaw states that moved up their primaries in defiance of party rules. Out of desperation, Hillary is putting all her chips on the injustice done to Floridians and Michiganders, even though she said early in the process that their votes "shouldn't count." Never mind the hypocrisy here. Never mind that Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe was the one who first insisted the rules be enforced. (When Michigan Sen. Carl Levin wanted to move up that state's primary in 2004, McAuliffe, then party chairman, screamed at him: "If I allow you to do that, the whole system collapses! The rules are the rules." This is from McAuliffe's own memoirs.) The problem for Hillary is that party officials in the other 48 states don't give a rat's patootie about seating Florida and Michigan. In fact, they're angry at those states for jumping the line, then whining about it. The whole imbroglio, says Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network, has been "instrumental" in driving superdelegates to Obama.
To keep that trickle of superdelegate commitments from turning into a flood, Hillary will likely continue the delightful and uplifting argument that she made to USA Today that she has a large and expanding base among "hardworking Americans, white Americans." This is code for "America isn't ready for a black man," but it's also unsubstantiated. Her share of white, working-class voters actually diminished considerably from Ohio and Pennsylvania to North Carolina and Indiana, largely because the more recent primary states are younger. It's "the granny gap," stupid. For all her claims of a broad coalition, Hillary's only reliable base is older white women with no college education. She obviously doesn't crush Obama among white voters more generally or she would already be the nominee.
With big wins in West Virginia and Kentucky, Hillary will likely hang on for at least a month. She can keep campaigning with a bare-bones, McCain '07-style operation and, despite some legal impediments, pay off debts with huge fund-raisers after the election. One key moment will come at the May 31 meeting of the rules committee of the Democratic Party, which is packed with Clintonites. She could likely manipulate the committee to push the Florigan question to the floor of the Denver convention in late August. That doesn't guarantee a floor fight, but the threat of one gives Hillary a weapon to use both in private and in public.
In private, negotiations will open between the Clinton and Obama forces. Even if Obama has reached the magic number of 2,025 delegates needed to nominate (Clinton is now claiming the real number is higher), the Clintonites will have plenty to talk about that relates to the management of the convention. And Hillary has the wily and heedless Harold Ickes on her side. In the past, Ickes has caused big problems for the eventual nominee, and in those days he held fewer cards than he does this year. In 1980, Jimmy Carter led Ted Kennedy by more than 700 delegates at the end of the primaries—but Ickes, representing Kennedy, created a series of procedural obstacles that turned that year's convention into a sour mess and helped doom Carter in the fall. In 1988, Michael Dukakis had sewn up the nomination but needed to deal with the complex question of what Jesse Jackson wanted. Ickes, representing Jackson, made Dukakis look weak, which softened him up for George H.W. Bush in the fall. Obama has said he would negotiate with Ahmadinejad, but he'd be smart not to extend the same courtesy to Ickes.
Publicly, Hillary may hint that she is interested in the vice presidency. This is what I've picked up from some of her friends in recent days. Even if she decides against it, keeping the option alive gives her political leverage through the spring and summer. Her legions of backers will clamor for Obama to name her, and he'll look bad if he excludes her from his shortlist. This could force him to name a running mate sooner than he would like. He could even get caught in a jam like John F. Kennedy's in 1960. That year, JFK offered the vice presidency to Lyndon Johnson, who was the powerful Senate majority leader. Bobby Kennedy thought LBJ would say no, but he didn't. JFK and LBJ were forced into a shotgun marriage that left neither of them happy. Is something similar in store for 2008? It all depends, as Bill Clinton once testified, "on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."