Obama v. Clinton: what happens next?
By all accounts, February has been a very good month for Barack Obama. He needed to at least tie Hillary Clinton on Super Tuesday, which he did. For her part, Clinton, as the effective incumbent and frontrunner, needed to outperform Obama considerably, which she didn't.
This is bad news for Clinton. It didn't help her the following weekend, when primaries and caucuses were held in Washington state, Nebraska, Louisiana, the Virgin Islands and Maine, all of which were won by Obama handily. The vaunted "Potomac Primaries" on February 12 netted solid wins by Obama in Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC—outperforming even the Obama campaign's expectations. February 19 sees contests in Wisconsin and Hawaii, which Obama is expected to win. Some say that Clinton has a shot in Wisconsin, if she bothered to campaign there, but she isn't bothering.
Clinton isn't bothering with Wisconsin because she's focusing on the March 4 contests. And really, this could be where it's all decided. In all four March 4 states—Texas, Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island—Clinton is doing much better than Obama. This makes sense, because her strategy all along has been to focus on the big states (and New Hampshire) while more or less ignoring the small ones. Texas and Ohio are two of the biggest states out there, so Obama's got his work cut out for him.
The psychological effect of winning in Texas and Ohio could bolster the Clinton campaign to keep on fighting until the next big contest—and that might be smart. After the March 4 contests we see the Wyoming caucuses on March 8 and the Mississippi primary on March 11, then there's nothing until the Pennsylvania primary on April 22. That would mean that in those six weeks between March 4 and April 22, Clinton and the media will be talking about who won the last big contests, and if it's her, then that's plenty of free media for a long time.
The primaries, of course, are all about racking up delegates, and that's where Clinton has a problem. Considering how well Obama's been doing, she's going to need to win 57% of the delegates in all the contests going forward in order to blunt his momentum and overtake him in pledged delegates. Even Barack Obama hasn't been doing that well (in most contests, anyway.)
Clinton's leads in Texas and Ohio have been shrinking lately, but she still leads. Obama probably won't get much of a boost from winning Wisconsin and Hawaii; the story that he's cleaning up in relatively smaller states isn't fresh enough to turn many voters' heads. They need to know he can win big states, too. So far, the only big state that he's won has been Illinois, which shouldn't surprise anyone. If Obama wins Texas or Ohio (or both,) then it's a whole new ballgame, and we're going to see the Clinton campaign in panic mode. Running in Texas is no picnic, either: it takes money. Houston, Dallas and San Antonio are three of the most expensive media markets in the country; no other state has more than one of the most expensive media markets in it. And Texas has a total of 23 media markets, from El Paso to Corpus Cristi to Texarkana—that takes cash. Ohio's 11 media markets (none of which make the top ten most expensive list) aren't cheap, either, but they call for time and money, too. Rhode Island and Vermont are relatively cheap to run in and favor Clinton. Neither candidate is even campaigning in these two states, but I wouldn't be surprised if one or both candidates takes a break from Texas and Ohio to drop for a visit to Providence or Burlington.
At two and a half weeks out, I'm not going to dare predict what's going to happen on March 4. I will say that what happens on March 4 is going to predict how the rest of the presidential campaign goes. If Obama wins at least one of the two big states outright, the Clinton campaign will start hemorrhaging staff and losing money. If Obama comes close but doesn't win either Texas or Ohio, it's still on, with Obama looming large in the background, and six more weeks of campaigning until Pennsylvania. (What do you think of that, Punxsutawney Phil?) But if Clinton wins Texas and Ohio by, say, over 10%, she'll have bragging rights and a lot of time to exercise them, possibly getting her campaign back on its feet and winning the nomination for her.
I'll say that Clinton never expected things to turn out this way. Her campaign was predicated on the idea that no other Democrat would last as long or do as well as Obama's been doing. Her focus on the big states could wind up hurting her, which she never saw coming. Clearly that's the case: Clinton campaign manager Mark Penn has dismissed the smaller states that Obama has won, saying that Clinton has won "all the states that matter." I find it hard to believe that Democrats in Washington state, Colorado, Minnesota and Virginia, among others, are okay with being told that they "don't matter." The Clinton campaign has been working on rectifying this misjudgement, though, beefing up staff in post-March 4 places, like Wyoming (March 8) and Puerto Rico (June 7.)
If the election were held today, Clinton would win all four of the March 4 states, those ones on the map up there in yellow. However, the election isn't for over two weeks, and in politics, two weeks is practically an eternity. Either candidate has a decent crack at this, so hold onto your hats.