Clinton's Faltering Case for Staying In

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Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty

Senator Hillary Clinton speaks to supporters at her election night event at the Murat Centre, May 6, 2008.

Can you imagine Hillary Clinton actually giving up her quest for the presidency? Anyone who heard her proclaim "full-speed onto the White House" on Tuesday night and back that up with her declaration Wednesday that "I'm staying in this race until there's a nominee" will find it difficult to visualize what a Clinton concession would look like. She and her husband have been the Democratic establishment for the past 16 years and they have not conceded defeat since he lost the Arkansas governorship in 1980. And she has so recently found an effective political voice, sounding a populist trumpet throughout Pennsylvania and Indiana with an energy that seems inversely related to the health of the economy.

It's hard to admit defeat when you are constantly trying to change the rules of the game. Over the tough weeks of the primary process, Clinton's campaign has managed to make over setbacks and alter the parameters of victory, if not make a run at the rules defining victory itself. When winning the nomination proved to be mathematically impossible, the Clintons made much of the media take seriously the notion that what was more important was surviving until the final round and then prevailing in a winner-take-all vote decided by the people of South Dakota and Montana. (Or, failing that, superdelegates.)

But while the upcoming primaries in West Virginia and Kentucky will undoubtedly test the resolve of pundits whose eulogies for the Clinton campaign can be undone by the whiff of "momentum," we've already seen the final round. And while Barack Obama's 14-point victory in North Carolina — a big state that he was nonetheless expected to win — was decisive, it was his close loss in Indiana that revealed the trends that have brought the Democratic presidential campaign near to a close.

No matter how hard she and her steadfast backers try, the exit polling from Indiana and North Carolina are not going to help make the case for her going on. In order for Clinton to persuade superdelegates to back her over Obama, she needed to demonstrate that she was the less divisive candidate who could win over general election swing voters in states like Indiana. Her aggressive campaign, however, has led to a growing gap — now between 15 and 20 points in Indiana and North Carolina — in the perception that she has been more unfair in her attacks than Obama has.

Clinton's recent embrace of a "gas-tax holiday" — an idea dismissed by others in her party as a bit of ineffective pandering — also reinforced questions about her trustworthiness. In Indiana exit polls, a full quarter of Clinton's own supporters said that they did not think she was honest. Just as Obama suffered in Ohio for looking like he was too political on NAFTA, Clinton's position on the gas tax issue riled Indiana voters, who consistently raised it in conversations with reporters the weekend before the primary vote.

Perhaps the most disturbing indicator for Clinton was the fact that 15% of those who voted for her on Tuesday said they would not back her in November (7% of Obama voters said they would not support him in the general election). Some conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh have urged Republicans in the remaining primary states to prolong the process by casting votes for Clinton, who they think would be an easier opponent for John McCain. Numbers like this, whch some pundits claimed meant that Limbaugh's "Operation Chaos" helped put Clinton over the top in Indiana, are watched closely by superdelegates and do not ease their concerns about Clinton's electability.

The Indiana numbers also undercut Clinton's implicit argument that the white working-class voters who support her over Obama would not vote for him over McCain in November. From Ohio to Pennsylvania to Indiana, Obama has either narrowed or eliminated Clinton's lead among those with no college education (65% of all Indiana voters), Catholics, white women, regular church-attendees, those in union households and those making less than $50,000. And he has even inched his way up the age ladder, drawing even with her among voters between the ages of 45 and 59. In fact, if it weren't for voters over the age of 65 — who made up 14% of the Democratic electorate in Indiana and who supported Clinton 69 to 31 over Obama — the Senator from Illinois would have cleaned up in the state.

What Obama advisers hope is that their candidate will soon have the opportunity to introduce himself to voters on his own terms, free from attacks within his own party and the magnifying glasses of the press corps. Media coverage in the past few weeks reached previously unseen levels of absurdity as pundits debated whether it was a sign of elitism that Obama prefers juice to coffee, whether his basketball playing made him seem too ghetto or too rarefied, and whether he should start smoking again in order to relate to Jack and Jill America.

For that to happen, however, Hillary Clinton will have to step out of the race. When that might happen, and what it would look like, remains the great unknown of the Democratic race. On the one hand, the path offstage seems obvious. On the heels of Tuesday's disappointing results, Clinton's advisers acknowledged that she has been forced to loan her campaign an additional $6.4 million in order to stay afloat. One of her key supporters, Senator George McGovern, announced on Wednesday that he is shifting his backing to Obama.

Those who know Clinton say she may in the end be trapped by the historic nature of her candidacy. She tells friends that as the first significant female candidate for the presidency, she doesn't feel that she can just quit. But neither does she want to go out with a whimper, tallying up her delegate totals on June 3 and meekly accepting the fact that she has come up short. Her exit from the race will require classic Clinton political magic. And although we don't know when or how it will come, it's guaranteed to be a showstopper.