Being a child of the 70s, I was always taught--by Schoolhouse Rocks--that three was the magic number (Oh fine, I suppose my exposure to SHR was during the 80s when ABC tried to wedge educational material in between my Looney Toons.).
In the race for the Democratic nomination though, a different calculus is emerging. Both campaigns are beginning to cite 100 delegates as the margin to look for as the primary season draws to a close (Yes, it seems weird to talk about the season coming to an end, especially since that end won't come until June. However, things have really slowed down post-Super Tuesday and there are only 16 contests remaining on the Democratic side. It is interesting that there are also 16 weeks left before South Dakota brings up the rear on June 3. That's an average of one contest per week.). The Obama camp is contending that anything over a 100 delegate margin in his favor will be enough to claim the nomination within the court of public opinion. The Clinton folks are hoping to bring that margin under 100 so they can argue that the nomination is still undecided. Even with something as seemingly minuscule as 100 being the magic number, it will be difficult for Clinton to catch up without decisive victories in the states that comprise this stretch run. 51/49 victories in her favor in those primaries (There are only two caucuses left--in Hawaii on Feb. 19 and Wyoming on March 8.) will not allot her enough of a delegate spread to make up that difference or get it under 100 for that matter.
The one wild card, as we've mentioned countless times, is the superdelegate distribution among the two. Obama was out yesterday after his Potomac sweep talking momentum which was no doubt a claim directed at those superdelegates still on the fence. It is a testament to the strength of Clinton's candidacy that, unlike recent cycles, these superdelegates aren't already coalescing behind Obama at this point. And here's where another calculus enters the discussion; the calculus that each of these undecided superdelegates is going through. They have to not only balance their own personal feelings, but must also consider (at least those holding elective office) the feelings/decisions of their constituents in the primaries and caucuses. Of course those "personal feelings" include considerations of their own upward ambition within the party, their perceptions of general election electability and their relationships with the candidate (if they exist).
So what are the knowns and unknowns within that calculus (and further, how do we weight each)?
1) Electability: Well, the head-to-head general election polls conducted recently give us some indication there: that Obama has the edge over Clinton in hypothetical races against McCain (Real Clear Politics: Obama v. McCain; Clinton v. McCain). Obama has a consistent lead over McCain while Clinton and McCain are within the margin of error of each other. On the electability issue, the scale tips toward Obama.
2) Primaries and Caucuses so far: We also know the decisions of voters in 34 states plus DC. In those 35 contests, Obama leads 22-13. Sure that's as misleading as using a predominantly red electoral college map to demonstrate a close election (Remember those maps from 2000? Looking at them, you'd think a person making that claim was crazy.), but these primary/caucus results carry weight with the elected officials in those states. On the one hand you have evenly divided states like Missouri and New Mexico and on the other caucus states that have given Obama between 2:1 and 3:1 level victories. One could argue that a greater proportion of Democratic elected officials in those latter states would break for Obama than the proportion in the contest. Whereas in those evenly divided states, superdelegates could break either way. The bandwagon effect is clearly a resultant factor in these individuals' calculi. So too though is the idea that this segment of the delegates to the convention will be the decisive one. Going against the constituency is generally considered in a negative regard when this issue is raised.
The rest of these factors are less known than the above and fall into the unknown category:
1) Personal feelings/relationships with the candidates: Look, public officials are, more often than not, going to go public with incendiary remarks concerning another public official (...unless this is a discussion about Dick Cheney and Patrick Leahy inside the Capitol.). So this one is a tough one to get at. We can probably glean some of these feelings from the relationships we know exist. Both Obama and Clinton have some relationship with Democratic senators. Some of those folks have weighed in, others haven't (Here's the full list.). Further, you'd imagine that Obama has some relationship with the Democratic members of the Illinois Senate as well. But for those still undecided, good luck attempting to ascertain these factors.
2) Upward ambition: Well, everyone of these elected officials could be considered upwardly mobile to some extent. But that's the catch, we don't know the extent to which these folks are upwardly ambitious. One thing we do know, is that, on the whole, these folks want to keep the spots they've got if not move up. We also know that all the members of the House, some members of the Senate and some members of state legislatures are up for re-election this fall. And choosing incorrectly in this fight wouldn't necessarily help. Politicians, like elephants (Oops, wrong party. I don't have a sense about how strong donkey memories are.), have long memories and won't soon forget someone who chose incorrectly.
This is where the strength of Clinton's candidacy is most likely to figure in. For starters, she has nearly half of the delegates allocated thus far. Without that and under the circumstances of the typical nomination campaign of the last ten years or so, Obama would have this thing wrapped up. But if 2008 has proven anything, it is that it is not a typical cycle. In other words, until Clinton is out, you can't count her out. Those on the fence then are more likely to remain there if Clinton's bid is still perceived to be legitimate.
This is a lot for these undecided folks to weigh and underscores the potential for division within the Democratic party as it heads toward the Denver convention in August. Both the candidates and these superdelegates are treading a very fine line on this and it is still very much up in the air as to how this whole thing will play out. With all the usual indicators pointing toward a Democratic win this fall, squandering the opportunity would be a real defeat for the Democrats. And I suppose that is another factor to consider.