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Forsaking the tipping point

The predictable results in Indiana and North Carolina indicate that both Obama and Clinton are spending millions of dollars simply to run in place.
Obama 2008 Primary
Sen. Barack Obama and his wife Michelle greet supporters in Raleigh, N.C., after winning the North Carolina Democratic presidential primary on May 6.Gerry Broome / AP
/ Source: National Journal

A month ago, conventional wisdom held that Barack Obama would win North Carolina big and Hillary Rodham Clinton would narrowly carry Indiana. Thanks to the fact that I rarely delete any email (which makes our I.T. department crazy) I found an exchange I had in mid-March with a smart, unaffiliated Democratic strategist who was predicting a narrow-but-not-certain Clinton victory.

The demographics of both states suggested such an outcome, but while that prediction ultimately came true, the interpretation of the result has changed.

To be sure, last night’s results did nothing to prove that one candidate has finally been able to “seal the deal” with Democratic primary voters, a fact that both candidates noted in their speeches. Obama referenced the Clinton camp’s prediction that North Carolina would serve as the “game changer,” while Clinton reminded her supporters that Obama referred to Indiana as the “tie-breaker.”

Neither was true. Clinton still carried white voters by a significant margin in both North Carolina and Indiana, while Obama ran up the score among black voters.

But it’s also clear that there isn’t going to be a magic tipping point. It’s as if the campaigns are spending millions of dollars simply to run in place. Voters, it seems, have already had their fill of Rev. Jeremiah Wright and aren’t particularly swayed by debates over the gas tax. What does it mean that Clinton carried Indiana voters concerned about the economy but Obama carried them in North Carolina? Did her message simply resonate better in Indiana, or is it more likely that those voters already predisposed to her message supported her while the rest just tuned it out?

It then falls upon the media to determine the winners and losers each week. Obama spent the week after the Pennsylvania primary having to explain why he couldn’t carry white, working-class voters even after he outspent Clinton by a significant margin. This week, Clinton has to explain why she couldn’t do better in either state given the fact that Obama had been playing defense for most of the last few weeks. Exit polls can be parsed a thousand different ways, but when news organizations called the Tar Heel State for Obama minutes after the polls closed but couldn't declare an Indiana winner until hours later, the message had been sent: Clinton can’t turn the tide.

And so, we once again come back to where we started. Is the fact that Obama hasn’t been able to wrest the white vote from Clinton more or less important than the fact that she can’t break into Obama’s almost monolithic hold on the black vote? Down in both the popular vote and delegate count, Clinton’s only hope to win over superdelegates is to show that she is not only the strongest general election candidate, but that picking her would not cause serious friction with black voters. She can’t prove either one of those things today.

All of this should be good news for John McCain -- but even while he’s been out of the line of fire, he’s been remarkably good at shooting himself in the foot. He has had to spend as much time “re-clarifying” statements (ranging from comments on the Minneapolis bridge collapse to whether U.S. troops are in Iraq for oil) as making them. This is not to suggest that McCain will simply wither when the spotlight ultimately fixes on him, but it does suggest that, as much as Democrats want this primary campaign to end, McCain is not prepared for it to be over just yet.