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Clinton dropout depends on donors

/ Source: National Journal

This year I will celebrate -- actually, observe is probably a better word -- the fifth anniversary of my 50th birthday.

Perhaps with advancing years we become a bit less tolerant -- for me, it's less patience with the hand-wringing and bed-wetting often found in politics and the media over whatever the malady of the day is. It is human nature, to be sure, but certainly exacerbated by the 24/7 cable news cycle and the blogosphere.

In recent weeks there has been great debate over whether, or even how soon, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., will drop her presidential bid. There's also been a lot of discussion about the ongoing fight between Clinton, her campaign and her backers vs. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and his team -- not to mention whether the fight will jeopardize Democrats' chances of winning in November.

The hand-wringing today is over a nomination process that some say has gone on too long, but just four years ago, it was over a process that seemed to begin and end in Iowa. Once Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., pulled off his upset win in Iowa, with his neighboring state of New Hampshire next on the calendar, the Democratic nomination process was effectively over. One state voted; the nomination was basically settled.

In 2000, the process went on for all of two states. Once Vice President Al Gore beat former Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., in New Hampshire (Bradley had not seriously contested the Iowa caucus), the nomination fight was over. Two states voted; the nomination was settled.

All around we could hear the moaners and groaners fretting that not enough voters had had a chance to have their say, that Iowa and New Hampshire had grown too important, and that nominations were over before candidates were fully vetted.

This year, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., clinched the GOP nomination on March 4 after winning primaries and caucuses in 22 states. The last contested Republican nomination was effectively over on March 7, 2000, after George W. Bush and McCain traded victories in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Arizona, Michigan and Virginia before the 13 Super Tuesday primaries effectively settled the nomination for Bush.

So people fret when the process is too brief, but they despair when they see it going on too long. What's wrong with having the voters in more than a handful of states participate in the process? Did deciding the Democratic nomination in Iowa or New Hampshire give the party an advantage? Was Bush disadvantaged by having to wait until March 9 for McCain to drop out of the race in 2000, two days after McCain's Super Tuesday loss? Isn't McCain's nomination this year more legitimate after winning more than a primary and caucus or two, besting opponents in a variety of states in every corner of the country?

Someone recently gave Clinton a 12-percent chance of winning the Democratic nomination.

My guess is that her odds are less than half of that; it would take three or four consecutive weeks of problems the magnitude of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright hitting Obama, plus Clinton getting every other break in the world. And she would still need to win the remaining contests by 60 percent or more to close the gap sufficiently so that the remaining uncommitted superdelegates might break a tie (defined as an Obama margin of, say, 60 delegates or less) in her favor.

At this point, it's not clear that a majority of the remaining undecided superdelegates would even vote for Clinton. But having won Ohio, Rhode Island and Texas in the last big night of contests, it is unrealistic for anyone to ask or expect Clinton to drop out. Clinton will drop out of this contest when she, and perhaps more importantly her donors, decide that it's time to terminate the campaign.

Generally speaking, presidential candidates don't decide to drop out because they lose primaries and caucuses; they decide when their donors have stopped writing checks and their campaigns run out of money. Unless Clinton wins Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina and a few other places by landslide margins, which is very unlikely, her donors will stop giving and her campaign will grind to a halt.

Perhaps the better question is whether she will drop out altogether or just suspend certain activities, holding out for a Denver convention speech similar to Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy's famous speech to the 1980 Democratic National Convention in Madison Square Garden, long after President Jimmy Carter had effectively secured the nomination.

Sure, some will point to Ronald Reagan's contesting of the Republican nomination all the way to the convention in 1976 or Kennedy's refusal to throw in the towel early in 1980 as likely contributing factors to their respective parties' general election losses in those years. But those defeats had so many contributing elements that to blame Reagan or Kennedy is a bit extreme.

Obama backers and Democrats who fear that this ongoing fight damages their candidate and puts him at a disadvantage in the fall campaign should consider that anything Hillary Clinton's campaign dishes out today will be Pablum compared with what Republicans will be serving up this fall. If he can't withstand this, he certainly won't survive a general election.