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'Bittergate' too late to save Clinton campaign

Although Barack Obama's controversial comments about small-town voters are costly, the incident is hardly enough to derail his campaign.
/ Source: National Journal

Last week's column speculated that there was a "95-percent chance" of Illinois Sen. winning the Democratic presidential nomination. Furthermore, I stated that "short of a Rev. Jeremiah Wright-level embarrassment visiting Obama each week for four or five consecutive weeks, this thing is over."

Well, "Bittergate" is a Wright-size problem. To recap, at a fundraiser in San Francisco last week, Obama said: "You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then, that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Alone, this incident is hardly enough to derail Obama's nomination. It would take much more than that. While Obama's delegate lead over Sen. , D-N.Y., is not large, it is very difficult to overcome given how few states are left to vote, how hard it is to close a gap under the Democrats' proportional representation system and that the remaining undecided superdelegates hardly seem ready to march lock step into the Clinton column.

It doesn't mean this isn't costly and doesn't hurt Obama in a general election. Even a cursory look at the national and state-by-state polling shows that voters are predisposed to vote Democratic and vote for change this year. But swing voters have to be comfortable with the change they are asked to make.

For undecided voters being asked to support a 46-year-old black man with a relatively thin résumé on the national or statewide level, this kind of story does not make them comfortable.

When times are good and voters are reasonably happy with what is going on, they will usually make the safe choice, choose the known quantity. But with polls showing that less than a quarter of voters think the country is headed in the right direction, a certain amount of uncertainty can be preferable to the status quo. That appears to be where we are now.

But if too much risk is associated with that uncertainty, voters might not be willing to take that big of a leap of faith. The more Jeremiah Wright and Bittergate stories that come out, the greater the perceived risk.

One of the many unique aspects of Obama's candidacy is that his patterns of support differ from the traditional Democratic model. An April 10 report by the Gallup Organization, based on 6,158 interviews with registered voters between March 31-April 6 (with a 1-point error margin) showed Obama and presumptive GOP nominee John McCain of Arizona both with 45 percent.

But among the sample of 1,440 voters (with a 3-point error margin) with a high school education or less, a group that normally favors Democrats, McCain had 46 percent to Obama's 40 percent. In comparison, Clinton had 48 percent to McCain's 43 percent among this sample.

Among the 1,936 registered voters (with a 2-point error margin) with some college, but no four-year degree, Obama got 46 percent to McCain's 45 percent. For the sample of 1,388 registered voters (with a 3-point error margin) with a four-year college degree but no postgraduate education, Obama and McCain were tied at 46 percent. And among the 1,350 registered voters with some postgraduate education, Obama had 52 percent to McCain's 42 percent. That sample had a 3-point error margin.

Historically, the more education a voter has, the more Republican they tend to vote, up to the point of post-graduate. At that point, voters tend to go more Democratic.

This is also where anything that smacks of elitism -- or anything that raises anxieties among lower-educated, working-class, white voters -- exacerbates problems Obama already has with downscale voters. It also means he has to perform that much better among upscale voters.

For many downscale, white voters, casting a ballot for Obama might be a bit of a challenge, but not necessarily an insurmountable one. More incidents like Bittergate, however, will make it a very, very uphill climb.

For Clinton, the odds are the incident is too late to save her candidacy. But more Bittergates would increase her chances of drawing enough support in the April 22 Pennsylvania primary to justify, or even guarantee, her continued run.

There are likely to be more gaffes for each of the candidates as this campaign progresses, but in a race like this, each one is exceedingly costly and, cumulatively, can become fatal. As of now, I still believe that Obama has about a 95-percent chance of clinching the Democratic nomination. The only way Clinton can win is to get enough pledged delegates through the remaining primaries and caucuses so that superdelegates can perceive the race as a virtual tie and vote for her.

However, the window for that is pretty much closed.

She can't win the remaining contests by sufficiently large-enough margins to appreciably close the gap, and superdelegates appear to be breaking more toward Obama. So again, short of a Rev. Jeremiah Wright-level embarrassment visiting Obama each week for four or five more consecutive weeks, this thing is over.