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Can Clinton win over superdelegates?

NBC's Chuck Todd on Hillary Clinton's make-or-break effort to woo superdelegates away from her opponent.
Clinton 2008
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., answers a question from a reporter after speaking about Iraq, Monday, March 17, 2008, at George Washington University in Washington. Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: NBC News

Forget the pledged delegate issue that Sen. Hillary Clinton is facing; her real problem may be on the superdelegate front.

As many folks following this Democratic fight now realize, Clinton’s only shot at the nomination is to somehow make a case to the majority of the superdelegates that she’ll be the better nominee for the party.

But ask yourself, why does Clinton have less than half of superdelegates publicly behind her right now? Why isn’t her number higher?

At last count, Clinton had 253 superdelegates in her corner, not counting another dozen or so from Michigan and Florida.

But even including those folks, Clinton has fewer than 40 percent of superdelegates supporting her, and that's after more than a year of campaigning.

This is the wife of the former president, after all. Shouldn’t there be at least 400 party leaders who owe something to the Clintons on board?

This has been a campaign riddle that many of us have overlooked.

Clinton problems
One reason this has been brushed under the rug? Media-types don't realize the problems many rank-and-file Democratic activists have with the Clinton family.

Simply take a look at Bill Clinton's record from '92 to '00 and you’ll understand why they're having a harder time corralling party activists and elected officials to their side.

Remember, when his name was on the ballot ('92 and '96) the Democratic party lost Senate seats both times. Never mind the beating the party took in '94; a walloping often blamed on both Bill and Hillary.

Even in '98, which was, perhaps, the most successful Congressional election of the Clinton era, the party netted zero Senate seats and gained less than a handful of House seats.

It's not exactly something to brag about.

While there are plenty of unknowns about Obama’s ability to truly expand the base of the Democratic Party, there are plenty of superdelegates who think they know Clinton couldn't rise to that very same challenge.

The scars of the '90s are still rather prominent for some Democrats, particularly members of the House leadership who appear to be leaning Obama’s way (see Nancy Pelosi’s weekend comments).

The Clintons' up-and-down relationship with some Congressional Democrats in the ‘90s could become an issue when many of these undecided members of Congress (a.k.a. superdelegates)are asked to make up their mind.

In fact, that's not the Clintons' only rocky relationship. Key labor leaders also hold some grudges from that decade, when they felt like they had to capitulate more on certain things, like NAFTA. Some felt that it was beginning of what would be a long, hard fall from power in the '90s and early '00s. 

So if Clinton has a pledged delegate problem (something that’s been well documented) and also has a superdelegate problem, then what’s her path to victory?

Believe it or not, it’s the media.

This is one area where Clinton has been running circles around Obama.  As far as the media’s concerned, Obama may be the Democratic frontrunner, but Clinton is in the driver's seat.

Looking at the campaign narrative, it's hard to identify the frontrunner.

In fact, if you ignore the numbers and just examine the messages being lobbed back and forth between the two campaigns, one might assume Clinton was in the lead.

(This is something that could start being reflected in some national polls. On Monday, a Gallup poll showed that in a potential match-up, Clinton would best John McCain 51 percent to 46 percent. Obama would lead 49 percent to 47 percent. Surely, these numbers are giving Team Obama some serious heartburn.)

Since the unveiling of the "3am phone call" television ad, there hasn't been a news cycle or a storyline that hasn't been controlled by the Clinton campaign.

Whether it's downplaying Obama's momentum ahead of the March 4 contests, placing emphasis on the importance of the Pennsylvania primary, or shifting focus to the potential for re-votes in Michigan and Florida, the media narrative seems to be in Clinton’s favor.

This is a reality for a few reasons.

First, and most importantly, is the media's bias toward keeping the campaign going.

A boost from bias?
But it's more than that, it's also a bias rooted in history. Many a reporter believes that someone with the last name of "Clinton" should never be counted out. And that built-in bias is assisting the campaign, despite the Clintons history of antagonism with the press.

Longtime readers know that when I toss out the word "bias,” I never do so ideologically.

I believe most bias is based on experience or what I call the "been there, done that" disease. We're all prisoners of history and this Democratic nomination fight features two conflicting historical precedents.

The one that favors Obama throws back to the last two major Democratic nomination fights in '80 and '84. The candidate who was in Obama's position (Carter and Mondale, respectively) won, while the candidate in Clinton's position (Kennedy and Hart) lost.

Of course, that historical perspective is a bit warped since unlike this year, the establishment candidate stayed ahead in those two elections, while the outsider always trailed.

It's vice versa this year.

The second historical anecdote, which favors Clinton, is that last name of hers.

A Clinton always finds a way to survive, so goes the myth.

Bill Clinton has escaped political death more times than any politician in history. And profiles of Hillary Clinton are rarely written without the word "resilient" being featured prominently.

The irony to all of this, of course, is that while the mechanics of the Democratic nomination fight overwhelmingly favor Obama, the media is giving Clinton a huge lift. And this comes after a year of Clinton complaints that the media was doing them more harm than good.

Does Clinton have a path to the nomination? If this were a pure delegate fight, perhaps not and, frankly, I still have my doubts given what I think is a deeper superdelegate problem.

But anything is possible, and if Obama becomes unelectable for some reason over the next few months, Clinton will be there to pick up the pieces.

The trick for her is how to pick up those pieces without being the person to break Obama into pieces.

If her campaign goes completely "scorched Earth" in its efforts to make Obama appear unelectable, there may not be time to put the party back together for a run at John McCain.

The Rev. Wright stuff is the first major problem for Obama that the Clinton campaign smartly stayed away from.

It’s going to take another troublesome moment or two like this for Obama for the superdelegates to start re-thinking their nervousness about another eight years of a Clinton leading their party.

If this doesn’t happen organically, then it may not be a nomination worth having.