As of this morning, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are as close to tied as two candidates could be. Despite lopsided wins in unrepresentative, low-turnout caucus states, Obama leads the pledged delegate count by only the slender margin of 53% to 47%. The overall popular vote is even closer. In a summary of surveys matching each candidate against presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, each polls exactly 48% (Obama's lead over McCain is slightly higher because of the undecided vote). This is Bush-Gore 2000 without the U.S. Supreme Court.
The much-maligned Super Delegates are going to decide the Democratic nomination, regardless of what Senator Obama's internet supporters try to claim. Most of them probably dread that prospect, particularly the elected officials who do not wish to be accused of overturning the will of the people, whatever that means in this topsy-turvy, multilayered contest. But their task is very clear and this is, in fact, the sort of moment for which the role of the Super Delegate was created after the 1972 election. They are called upon to break this tie in favor of the candidate who is most likely to defeat Senator McCain and win the presidency. It's really that simple.
If Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nod, we will almost certainly face the third consecutive nail-biting presidential election of the 21st Century. In the two candidate polls, Clinton leads McCain 48% to 46.3%. Even at this early date, less than six percent of the electorate is undecided between these two very well-known quantities.
When we disaggregate these figures by state, Clinton would, if the election were held today, narrowly prevail in the Electoral College. But it would be close, and the shift of a few thousand votes here and there could turn a narrow Hillary win into an equally narrow McCain victory. Still, given the dire economic circumstances facing many of the swing states, most notably Ohio, Democrats can be hopeful that Clinton could rise above the Gore/Kerry line and take the presidency back for the party. Just barely. Probably.
The upside of an Obama candidacy is quite a bit better. If even one-third of the undecided voters move in his direction, and everything else stays the same, he could be the first Democratic nominee since Jimmy Carter in 1976 to capture an absolute majority of the popular vote. His candidacy might also put a few states in play for the Dems that had previously seemed unreachable. If any Democrat is going to top 320 electoral votes next year, it will be Barack Obama.
On the other hand, the downside of an Obama candidacy cannot be ignored. Millions of Americans, even many of those who voted for the man, have not made up their minds about the Illinois senator. They know little about him other than the fact that he is a captivating speaker who promises to change the climate in Washington. As popular as he currently is, Obama's star is not fixed in the political firmament. There is still room for significant movement.
The problem, of course, is that nearly all of that movement, should it occur, will be in a negative direction. The ratio of Obama's positives to his negatives is so favorable right now that there is little chance that it will improve. Instead, the Democrats' greatest fear is that the senator, once nominated, might see his not-fully-formed image crumble in the face of a withering Republican attack.
We've seen this movie before. Michael Dukakis was enormously popular in early 1988 and left the Democratic convention with a 17-point lead over George H.W. Bush. Jimmy Carter's summertime polling numbers projected him to a historical landslide victory over Gerald Ford. In each case, though, the GOP successfully seized on the fact that voters, although they liked both men, lacked a clear definition of who they were and what they stood for. They painted Carter as weak and indecisive; they tarred Dukakis as a criminal-loving, tax-happy, unpatriotic liberal. Carter survived, but just barely, having squandered a huge advantage in the polls; Dukakis was buried.
Obama, should he win the Democratic nomination, will get both the Carter and the Dukakis treatment. McCain will paint him as untested and uncertain, a man who will turn to mush in the face of al Qaeda's next attack on American soil, unwilling to commit U.S. forces until disaster has already occurred. Republican operatives will also comb Obama's Illinois and Washington legislative records for evidence that he is another tax-and-spend liberal who worries more about the rights of wrongdoers than those of victims. He will, they'll say, bring us back to the Jimmy Carter days of high inflation and the Michael Dukakis days of coddling criminals.
The patriotism card will, of course, be played as well. This is already happening. Republicans will suggest that Obama, having spent his formative years in Indonesia, is not fully Americanized and lacks the fundamental devotion to country common to those who spent their elementary school days learning about Washington and Lincoln, rather than Sukarno and Suharto. Whispers will continue about his commitment to Christianity and whether he is actually a Muslim at heart. At the same time, Obama's Chicago church ties will result in exaggerated smears about anti-white bias and indirect connections to Louis Farrakhan.
This is, it goes without saying, deeply unfair and quite likely slanderous. Nevertheless, these claims have already taken a toll on Obama's public image and they will likely continue to do so. Politics, like nature, abhors a void, and Barack Obama, if he is the Democratic nominee, will be defined, just as Carter and Dukakis were before him.
It is difficult to envy the Super Delegates the task with which they have been charged. Nobody can predict the future with any accuracy, but they must still try, to the best of their ability, to guess what will happen in the coming months. Will Clinton stay just far enough ahead of McCain to win? Will Obama prove a capable counterpuncher who can turn back Republican efforts to define him negatively? Or will the GOP succeed once more in turning a fresh, but little known, Democratic face into something bizarre and frightening?
One thing is clear: if the Super Delegates simply elect to ratify the narrow edge that either candidate might have in the pledged delegate count or the popular vote, then they are abrogating their responsibility to the party. Perhaps things will break over the next several weeks and one or the other candidate will emerge with a strong enough lead that the party bosses and elected officials will become irrelevant. But if not, they must somehow tune out all the noise and give their party its best shot of defeating John McCain in November.