My new piece (plugged three times on TAPPED, stardom will be mine!) on the main site points out that the campaign isn't going to be over any time soon, but it's worth examining the consequences of that argument in a bit more detail. Essentially, Clinton and Obama will enter February 5 with roughly the same number of delegates and, if Obama wins South Carolina, similar chances at winning most states (though I think Clinton will retain an advantage). But, no matter what happens, it seems likely that the two candidates will not differ in total delegates by more than 10 percent or so (see the article for more on why). That means that the leading candidate would need almost 80 percent of the remaining delegates to secure a victory without super delegates.
What does this mean? It means we'll have a lot more campaigning left after February 5. Neither candidate will be ready to concede and neither candidate will be clearly winning so the campaign will continue. Problem is, there are only about 500 more delegates assigned in February (compared with 1,688 on the 5th) and a further 500 in March. So the odds seem good the campaign will continue to be heated and angry for several more months. If it's neck and neck it could go all the way to the Puerto Rican primary on June 7th. This strikes me as very very bad because, while another week or two of angry deceptive and campaign spats is survivable, several months of them might not be.
I've taken a lot of heat in the comments on the Lightning Round for my concern over the outbreaks of name-calling, lies, and general nastiness between Clinton and Obama so I think it's worth explaining myself in a bit more detail. Defenders of the "it's no big deal" school of thought generally argue that we need to test our candidates in conditions as cruel and vicious as those they'll face running against Republicans. I don't disagree with this entirely, but I do think it's probably more trouble than its worth. Every smear Democrats use against each other instantly becomes acceptable in the eyes of the media when used by a Republican. Furthermore any attack will be recycled by Republicans in an "even liberal Hillary Clinton says Barack Obama is a flip-flopping France-lover" sort of way.
I'd feel differently if there was any actual substance to the criticisms but there isn't. To see why, think about whether either candidate really believes these attacks. Does Clinton really think Obama is a corrupt Chicago pol who secretly hates abortion and wants to cut social security and Medicare? No. Does Obama really think Clinton doesn't care about American workers or that her husband is secretly controlling her statements? No. But saying these kinds of things puts them in the public mind and once there it's impossible to get them out.
So far, of course, while the fighting has dominated political coverage, it hasn't fully penetrated to the general public and it may not before February 5. But, if the campaign continues after then as I think it is likely to do, it will become the dominant political news story until the convention and perhaps even after it. Democrats, who started the election cycle with every possible advantage, could emerge in the general election divided, bitter, broke, and angry. And that would be a lot worse than not fully battle-testing our nominees.
Of course, this may not happen. Clinton could emerge with a convincing lead (or Obama could, though this is less likely) which could be validated by larger wins in the next few states. The tone of the campaign could shift again. But, I worry, we haven't come to terms with just how different this primary campaign could be from the ones we've seen in the last two decades. Things could get much, much worse.