The Democrats' Struggle to Maintain Unity

After Sen. Barack Obama's win in Saturday's primary in Wyoming, Democratic voters in the 11 remaining contests, from Mississippi to Puerto Rico, will decide how to dole out a total of 599 delegates between Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton. And, since there is no way in which those outcomes could decide the nomination, the decision will the fall to the now-infamous super-delegates. The long, messy fight for the Democratic presidential nomination will only get longer and messier.

I would set aside the big worry among Democrats that the Obama-Clinton Long War will hurt the eventual nominee and elect John McCain to a third Bush term in November. The Democratic Party has bigger problems. At its core, the ongoing fight between Obama and Clinton reveals how much the excitement and energy of this campaign season is built on revulsion of George W. Bush.

As much as Democrats love their two candidates, the really animating issue is getting rid of Bush, and they are completely open on how, and evenly divided on with whom. Without Bush-loathing as the organizing principle of their unity, Democrats could find themselves on shaky ground: the party's old personality disorders may begin to resurface. The old identity crises have already begun to show themselves.

The fight over NAFTA is one such schism. Is this the progressive party that embraces the reality of globalization, or the neo-protectionist party that seeks to shelter American workers from the ravages of the global economy? The Prospect's Robert Kuttner and former Clinton administration adviser Robert Rubin disagree for a reason. Then there's the foreign policy debate over if and when and where to meet with dastardly foreign leaders. In essence, it's an argument about the party's insecurity over its ability to match the GOP in the arena of national security. Same deal with how quickly we get out of Iraq.

So despite the fact that both Clinton and Obama campaigns have benefited from this very long march to the nomination, and will be better for it when it comes time to face McCain in the fall, there the is the larger worry about whether the party can keep its neuroses in check.

In the next few weeks, Democrats are going to find themselves awaiting election returns from places like X-Prairie, Miss. and Nanty Glo, Penn., and at the end nothing will have been resolved. (Unless Obama runs the table and wins about 95 percent of the remaining delegates.) In effect, this final run of primaries is simply a closing argument to the super-delegate jury. We've already heard the basic outline of Clinton's pitch; that to win the presidency, Democrat must elect the person who can win the big states like she has done -- California, New York, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas and, especially, Ohio.

Exhaling, (or maybe it was inhaling) after her big wins in Texas and Ohio last week, Clinton told her cheering supporters, "You know, they call Ohio a bellwether state. It's a battleground state. It's a state that knows how to pick a president. And no candidate in recent history, Democrat or Republican, has won the White House without winning the Ohio primary."

Obama's case for super-delegate support is stronger at the moment, largely because it's based on the numbers. He has won more delegates and in more places than Clinton, and you can't lose by winning. If he's ahead in the pledged delegate column and in the popular vote, what possible rationale could party leader construct for denying him the nomination?

On the worst night of his campaign so far -- after losses in Rhode Island, Texas and Ohio -- Obama was able to say, "No matter what happens tonight, we have nearly the same delegate lead as we did this morning, and we are on our way to winning this nomination."

Before that, however, they are on their way to Pennsylvania, the biggest remaining prize, where 158 delegates are up for grabs. A loss in Pennsylvania would essentially end the Clinton campaign (we've heard this before), but she has reason to be hopeful, in that Pennsylvania, with its big blue-collar, post-industrial heart, looks an awful lot like Ohio. For what it's worth, it also borders her "home state" of New York.

In addition, she has the firm support of the Pennsylvania Democratic establishment, mostly in the form of Gov. Ed Rendell, who recently sketched Clinton's path to victory by noting that some white voters in his state will not vote for a black candidate. "You've got conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate," he told a newspaper editorial board last month.

As evidence, Rendell offered his own re-election campaign in 2006 in which he beat his black GOP challenger, former Steeler wide receiver Lynn Swann, by a margin of 60.4 percent to 39.6 percent. It is hard to judge the effect of race on the Rendell win, especially when you consider the general beating that Republicans took all across the country in 2006.

But it may be more than just coincidence that his big margin was almost identical to that posted by the new Democratic governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland (60.5 percent) in beat his black GOP challenger, former Secretary of State Ken Blackwell (39.5 percent) in 2006. Rendell's theory may offer some hope to Clinton, and the state demographics do track with her success so far. Apart from Florida, it is the oldest state in the nation. It is full of white, ethnic, Catholic neighborhoods, and non-college educated Democrats earning under $50,000 a year.

Still, Clinton shouldn't be overly optimistic. Obama does have a few things going for him in the Keystone State, which, it should be noted, is decidedly different from Ohio. Pennsylvania is a more Democratic state, and the core of that Democratic base is the black voters of Philadelphia. While Ohio is a legitimate swing state that has voted Republican in the last two general elections, Pennsylvania has been an increasingly reliable part of the Democratic map, voting for the Democratic nominee in the last four presidential cycles.

And for Obama, the key to his win is to leverage the numbers in and around Philadelphia. Al Gore won Pennsylvania in 2000 by less than 205,000 votes, but carried Philadelphia County by 348,000 votes. Again in 2004, Bush had to put Pennsylvania in the loss column; this time by 144,000. John Kerry's win margin in Philadelphia was a whopping 412,000 votes.

These voters know how to turn out, and while some of them are white, a sizable portion of voters in Northeast Philadelphia, South Philly, and Southwest Philadelphia will be black, and they will be for Obama. A big enough turnout in Philly, along with the college-educated swing vote in the Philadelphia suburbs, may be enough for Obama to hold off Clinton's win in the rest of the state.

Still, there is a pretty good chance that after Pennsylvania we'll be talking about how the final outcome may be determined by what happens with the 187 delegates in North Carolina and Indiana on May 6. Or the 28 in West Virginia on May 13, or the 103 in Oregon and Kentucky on May 20. Each time we declare this race at an end, it keeps going. The key question is whether the party can hold together for the whole ride.

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