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If the Press Could Count, Hillary Clinton Would Be Out

Hillary Clinton, her campaign, and her supporters are right: It is not a certainty that Barack Obama will be the Democratic presidential nominee. On the other hand, they're wrong to think that means her candidacy is still viable. It's effectively … Read More

By / May 5, 2008

Hillary Clinton, her campaign, and her supporters are right: It is not a certainty that Barack Obama will be the Democratic presidential nominee. On the other hand, they're wrong to think that means her candidacy is still viable. It's effectively certain that she will not be the nominee, in the same way, though not to quite the same degree, that it's effectively certain that buying lottery tickets isn't a wise retirement plan.

After Obama's win in the Guam caucuses (by a margin of seven, meaning your single vote still wouldn't have made a difference), Obama leads Hillary Clinton by some 154 elected delegates, with eight primaries and caucuses left to go. If Hillary Clinton can win 60 percent of the vote in every remaining contest, she will reduce Obama's lead to about 73, according to Slate's delegate calculator — a margin large enough that it's still exceedingly unlikely for Clinton to make up the difference among superdelegates. Still, let's give Clinton supporters the benefit of the doubt, and assume for the sake of argument that if Clinton does achieve 20 percent or more margins in all the remaining states, that sufficiently many superdelegates will be swayed by her campaign's electability arguments and give her the nomination. Let's further assume that Clinton has a 50:50 shot of getting to 60 percent in each state — an absurdly generous assumption for Clinton considering that she has broken 60 percent once, in Arkansas, on Feb. 5.

In other words, let's offer Clinton supporters assumptions so generous that they beggar plausibility. What are the odds, given those assumptions, that Clinton can close the elected delegate margin to one close enough to win the nomination? With eight contests, and a 50 percent chance of winning 60 percent or more in each one, the probability is (1/2)8, or 1 in 256, or less than one quarter of one percent, or worse than the odds of being on a plane with a drunk pilot, of dating a millionaire, or of writing a New York Times bestseller.

And of course, in reality, Clinton's odds of reducing Obama's elected delegate lead even to single digits are far longer, likely by orders of magnitude, since the largest remaining state by far, North Carolina, is favorable to Obama, as are Oregon, Montana, and South Dakota. Meanwhile, Indiana, which votes along with North Carolina tomorrow, is set to be a mid-to-high single digit win for Clinton with a negligible impact on the delegate count — like Pennsylvania, even though the latter was reported as a double digit win, because, unfortunately, simple arithmetic is too much for most reporters to handle.

I mention reporters' losing fight with math because if a critical mass within the press were at all capable of understanding probability, the Democrats would already have their undisputed candidate. The band-wagon phenomenon in elections is well-established: People like to associate with winners, and don't like to associate with losers. So if the state of the race were reported accurately — if the "journalism" available to the low-information, low-education voters Clinton is depending on were to correspond to reality — then anyone looking for information about the Democratic election would encounter the fact that Hillary Clinton's continuing campaign is vastly more likely to make John McCain the president than to make her the nominee. And that would surely improve Obama's margins enough to euthanize the Clinton campaign before the convention.

Instead, we are subjected to an hourly fusillade of obfuscatory bullshit†† out of the Clinton campaign. And since the direct target of that bullshit is a press corps incapable of discriminating between an event that's improbable because it has a 49 percent chance of occurring and an event that's improbable because its odds are less than 1 in 256, and since that press corps is the filter through which voters pick up information about the election, the fantasy that Hillary Clinton can be the Democrats' presidential nominee continues apace.

That fantasy, by the by, is what's sustaining the small but non-negligible chance that Barack Obama won't be the Democratic nominee. Of the plausible scenarios that don't lead to an Obama nomination, many involve the Clintonites behaving so despicably that they not only ensure her defeat in the general election — an outcome that makes nonsense of their appeal to superdelegates to think of "electability" — but also quite possibly endanger her senate seat. Of which Timothy Noah writes, "Clinton is determined, but she isn't insane." That's conciliatory, but maybe not true. What else would you call someone who bets the house — not her house, but the houses of 30 million Democratic primary voters — on a (worse than) 256 to 1 shot?

†Assuming also (for the sake of simplicity) that each primary or caucus is an independent event — which, in this primary campaign, doesn't seem like much of a stretch. Consider the mirror-image outcomes in Vermont and Rhode Island, the disparity between Wisconsin and Ohio, etc.

†† That is, bullshit in Harry Frankfurt's technical sense of language deployed to achieve some (usually political goal) without the slightest regard for what the truth is. Lying, by contrast, is concerned with truth — the point is to convince the hearer of the opposite of the truth.

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