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Whose coalition is bigger?

The contest between Clinton and Obama now looks like a boxing match — a 15-round fight that will be decided only on points.
/ Source: National Journal

After a month of dizzying ebbs and flows, the Democratic presidential race hit stasis this week. The epic contest between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama now looks like a boxing match in which each combatant threw haymakers early (Iowa and South Carolina for Obama, New Hampshire and Nevada for Clinton) in the hope of a quick knockout -- but is now adjusting to the likelihood of a 15-round fight that will be decided only on points.

Pushing themselves to exhaustion, marshaling campaign organizations of unprecedented breadth, and spending unmatched sums of money, Clinton and Obama fought to an emphatic draw in Super Tuesday's continent-sized matchup.

Obama won more states, but the two candidates split the 1,678 available delegates almost evenly. Clinton won the most big states (California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York), but Obama won enough large places (Georgia, Illinois, and Missouri) to deny Clinton a clear victory in the Behemoth Bowl. Obama won more red states (such as Colorado, Idaho, and Missouri), but Clinton carried enough of them (Arizona, Oklahoma, and Tennessee) to prevent him from decisively claiming that he can better expand the party's map in November.

Most important, Obama and Clinton each reaffirmed his or her hold on a distinct slice of the Democratic electorate. Obama almost everywhere carried young people, independents, well-educated voters, men, and African-Americans. In most places, Clinton carried seniors, partisan Democrats, voters without college educations, women, and Latinos.

These trends occasionally wavered: Clinton carried young people in California and Obama won women (albeit narrowly) in Delaware, Missouri, and Utah. But mostly, Tuesday's results followed the demographic grooves apparent not only in their January contests but also in polling stretching well back into 2007.

Given that stability, it is reasonable to assume that the patterns of support for Obama and Clinton may not change much going forward. If so, it raises an obvious question: If each candidate holds roughly his or her existing coalition, whose side of the party is bigger?

The answer isn't so obvious. No previous Democratic presidential candidate has joined well-off whites to African-Americans as Obama is doing: It is as if he is melding the constituencies of Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson from 1984. Clinton's lunch-bucket coalition of core Democrats motivated by material needs is more familiar -- Walter Mondale, who ran against Hart and Jackson in 1984, would surely recognize it -- but she adds to that familiar picture a new gender twist and a dominant position among Latinos.

Adding to the complexity, both contenders are demonstrating the rare ability to reshape the electorate. Obama is increasing the share of the vote cast by young people and the affluent, and women are turning out in huge numbers for Clinton. (So did Latinos in California.) "The bottom line is, these coalitions are of similar size, which is why the race is so close," says veteran Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.

Before Tuesday, the emerging conventional wisdom was that a war of attrition would benefit Obama. That might be right. Obama's huge donor base should allow him to outspend Clinton, who has already been forced to lend her campaign money.

Since the voting began, he has also attracted far more high-profile endorsements than Clinton -- from centrist red-staters such as Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to liberal lions like Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. And even the Clinton campaign acknowledges that Obama is the favorite in most remaining February contests -- particularly Tuesday's primaries in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., which combine African-Americans with high-income whites.

March 4 looms as the critical date for Clinton. That's when Texas and Ohio vote, and both are the sort of brawny blue-collar states that favor her. If Obama generates enough momentum in February to swipe either, it could trigger a rush toward him from party leaders eager to end the race (especially because John McCain seems likely to claim the GOP nomination by then). But if Clinton holds both, she could consolidate an advantage over Obama in the other beefy states that follow: Pennsylvania in April, and then Indiana and Kentucky -- which don't vote until May and may find their decisions more relevant than they, or anyone else, had expected.