If Barack Obama had won in Pennsylvania, it would have ended speculation over whether he can compete in the "rust belt" states crucial to a Democratic presidential victory in November.
Party bosses will soon learn whether the leader in both pledged delegates and popular votes can achieve the near impossible: Extend his appeal to every socioeconomic segment of the population and connect with voters identified as low-income, less-educated, white working-class and/or Catholics — all key groups every Democratic presidential candidate has sought to bring back into the fold since the 1980s with varying degrees of success.
Suddenly, this mission impossible has become the new metric pundits and the (so-called) undeclared superdelegates should use to assess the chances of the party defeating John McCain in the fall. But before everyone grabs this yardstick — a hurdle set by Obama's rival, who desperately wants to change the standard by which we both evaluate and declare the winner of the contest — let's keep in mind that the race is about who is winning more delegates.
After seven long weeks without an election, my colleagues in the punditry class have shifted into overdrive trying to explain what the Pennsylvania primary results say about the race for the Democratic nomination. They are following these individual state contests the same way an avid fantasy baseball fan examines statistics, breaking down the hits and misses to discern who will be the better general-election candidate. Well, I am both a pundit as well as an undeclared superdelegate, and I say there is no justification for turning the remaining contests in seven states and two territories into a contest about which candidate is attracting what kind of voter at the ballot box. The primaries are a numbers game based on winning delegates, not picking apart the Democratic coalition and who is appealing to whom.
Hillary Clinton contends that Obama can't win the really big states like Ohio, California and Pennsylvania in the general election because he didn't in the primaries. The argument is specious. Given the state of the economy and McCain's lack of interest in it, these voters, with Clinton out of the race, will likely be interested in voting for Obama.
Meanwhile, for Obama to win them over in the remaining primaries, he must neutralize Clinton's strength on the economy by appealing to key middle-class swing voters in Indiana, North Carolina, Oregon and Kentucky. Obama wasn't able to fully connect with blue-collar, white, small-town voters like those in Texas and Mississippi. That's no surprise. Pennsylvania is no surprise, either. He wins delegates with a different coalition of voters than Democrats have typically relied upon. Still, Obama can't rest on being the leader in pledged delegates or the popular vote. He has to fight back against the media that has fallen into Clinton's trap of declaring that he can't win the general because the coalition that brought him victory in the primaries is different.
I have to ask: Does anyone actually believe New York, New Jersey, California or Pennsylvania would go for McCain over Obama in the general election? Will white working-class men and women prefer someone more in line with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney than someone who can bring about the change they are anxious for? We'll see if Obama wins the nod if he can appeal to their aspirations. But, for now, the media would have us focus on their fears — real or imagined.
During the closing weeks of this long Democratic campaign season, I expect Clinton will remain the most competitive Democrat in winning over those voters who continue to believe in the Clinton brand — especially on the economy. But, I can't swallow the idea that those voters or even those so called big states Clinton won will go red in resentment if Obama wins the nomination.
To win the nomination, Clinton's supporters have said that Obama must also demonstrate that he can withstand the GOP's political attack machine — and the filth generated inside the protracted Democratic nominating contest. They act as if Republicans will treat the nomination of Clinton in the same manner that Cheney believed the Iraqi people would treat our invasion: with flowers.
Obama makes a compelling argument that he presents the best change in a change election. And if Clinton is able to win the nomination, she must also hammer away at the same change message in order to defeat McCain, whom many believe would represent a third Bush term on both national security as well as domestic issues.
Sophisticated superdelegates looking to determine who is the most electable candidate must go beyond turnout numbers to determine which candidate is responsible for the new voters, can help Democrats expand the electoral map, and can inspire Americans of every persuasion to move beyond the hot, heated and distorted rhetoric of past election seasons to really get an understanding of where the candidates stand on the issues.
There's a reason for the dissatisfaction, mood and spirit of voters right now. From the way we shield ourselves from their wrath to how we frame the elections, politicians and pundits are partly to blame.
This election is not just about blue-collar, low-income white voters. This election is about each and every one of us who wants a better life, a safe and secure country and competent leaders who represent our values and are accountable to us, the American people.
As the vice president of the United States would say: so. Obama did not pull off an upset. So. Hillary will fight until the bitter end. So. Obama needs to deal with "bitter gate." So. Clinton needs to deal with "Bosnia sniper-firegate." So.
And so it goes. Will Clinton's perceived dishonesty or Obama's perceived inexperience be more damning when it comes to the type of attacks the Republicans will mount in the fall? One thing is for sure: The Democrats will need anyone and everyone shouting from the rafters to show up on a cold, wet, windy day in early November.