Sabato's Crystal Ball

A Virtual Tie:

Clinton, Obama divide the Democratic primary vote

Rhodes Cook, Senior Columnist March 13th, 2008

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As the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama approach the ides of March, they are virtually tied in the Democratic primary vote count. Include results from the unsanctioned contests in Florida and Michigan and Clinton leads by less than 80,000 votes out of almost 30 million Democratic primary ballots cast. Exclude these unsanctioned results and Obama is ahead by more than a half million votes, a lead which grows if caucus votes are added to the mix.

Boosted by record Democratic turnouts this year, each candidate has already won more primary votes than any other presidential nominee in the nation’s history. In the sanctioned primaries alone, the individual vote total for each has surpassed 12 million. That is higher than the number received by the previous high primary vote-getter, George W. Bush, in the entire 2000 Republican primary season.

Yet one of the most striking features of this year’s Democratic dead heat is the feast or famine nature of the competition between Clinton and Obama. Few individual primary contests between the two have actually been that close. Most have been decided by landslide margins for one candidate or the other.

Take the primary voting on March 4. Clinton swept Rhode Island by 18 percentage points and Ohio by 10, while Obama romped to victory in Vermont by 21 points. Only Texas proved competitive, with Clinton winning, 51-to-47 percent.

The results of these five primaries–four landslides and one narrow result–mirrors the year as a whole. Of the 30 Democratic primaries held thus far, nearly three-quarters (22) have been decided by a margin of at least 10 percentage points, often considered to be the definition of a landslide. In contrast, only four primaries have been settled by a margin of less than 5 points, often considered to be the definition of a close contest. The small group of closely contested primary states is limited to New Hampshire and Texas, which went for Clinton, and Connecticut and Missouri, which were won by Obama.

In short, while the nationwide primary vote stands virtually even between Clinton and Obama, the vast majority of their individual primary contests have been one-sided.

It presents the unusual situation where the Democrats have two historically potent and evenly matched vote-getters, who are coming dangerously close to checkmating each other.


Figure 1. Obama, Clinton Already Top All-Time Primary Vote-Getters

A byproduct of the record Democratic turnout this year has been that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have already won far more primary votes than any previous presidential nominee of either party. While both Democrats have won more than 12 million votes in the sanctioned primaries alone–those that have elected delegates–the Republican nominee-in-waiting, John McCain, has so far collected barely 7.5 million primary votes. However, at this point, neither Obama, Clinton or McCain have won a majority of their party’s primary ballots. The chart lists all candidates who won at least 7.5 million votes in their party’s presidential primaries.

Candidates Party Election Primary Vote % of Party’s Primary Vote Primary Outcome
Barack Obama# Dem. 2008 12,844,496 49%
Hillary Clinton# Dem. 2008 12,335,872 47%
George W. Bush Rep. 2000 10,844,401 63% Nominee
Al Gore Dem. 2000 10,628,410 76% Nominee
Bill Clinton Dem. 1992 10,482,411 52% Nominee
John Kerry Dem. 2004 9,870,082 61% Nominee
Michael Dukakis Dem. 1988 9,817,185 43% Nominee
Bill Clinton* Dem. 1996 9,694,499 89% Nominee
Jimmy Carter* Dem. 1980 9,593,335 51% Nominee
George H.W. Bush* Rep. 1992 9,199,463 72% Nominee
George H.W. Bush Rep. 1988 8,254,654 68% Nominee
Bob Dole Rep. 1996 8,191,239 59% Nominee
George W. Bush* Rep. 2004 7,784,653 98% Nominee
Ronald Reagan Rep. 1980 7,709,793 61% Nominee
John McCain# Rep. 2008 7,580,799 43%

Note: An asterisk (*) indicates an incumbent president. A pound sign (#) indicates primary results are as of March 12, and reflect a combination of official and nearly complete but unofficial returns from the sanctioned Democratic primaries. Results from each election reflect the outcome of presidential primaries in the states and the District of Columbia.

Source: Race for the Presidency: Winning the 2008 Nomination (CQ Press).


The norm of recent nominating campaigns has been for the winning candidate to quickly consolidate support across the breadth of their party, so that by the middle of the process the primaries are simply one victory lap after another. John McCain is already at that point, having dispatched his last serious rival for the Republican nomination.

But the Democrats in 2008 will either nominate a candidate in Clinton who went for nearly a month from early February to early March decisively losing every primary and caucus. Or the party will nominate a candidate in Obama who thus far has gone belly up in primary contests in most of the big electoral vote states.

With no knockout in sight, each candidate is downplaying his or her weakness at the ballot box and accenting strengths. Clinton touts an ability to attract core Democrats in major vote prizes such as California, New Jersey and Ohio that she claims would be essential to carrying these states in November. Obama draws support from independents and Republicans that he contends would enable him to be competitive in many states the Democrats have been routinely conceding to the GOP.

Each candidate has known success–and failure–in every region of the country, to the degree that the map of this year’s Democratic nominating fight resembles a geographic Rorschach test. Take the South alone. Obama has decisively swept every primary across the Deep South from South Carolina to Louisiana, states where African-Americans comprise a substantial share of the Democratic electorate. Meanwhile, in the mid-South states of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee, where the African-American share of the population is lower, Clinton has prevailed easily. And in the significant electoral vote prizes on the fringes of the South, it has been a dead heat, with Obama taking Virginia handily, Clinton finishing far in front in the unsanctioned primary in Florida, and Texas a split decision–the primary in the Lone Star state for Clinton, the caucuses for Obama.

Ultimately, the best way to judge the fall vote-getting appeal of Clinton and Obama may be to look at how they perform in the states that are most likely to be in play this fall. At this stage of the campaign, the early list of battleground states could be defined as those that were won or lost by either party in 2004 by a margin of 10 percentage points or less. It is a cutoff point that would value primary showings more highly, say, in Virginia than Democratic Massachusetts, and in Ohio more so than Republican South Carolina.

In this battleground portion of the electoral landscape, each candidate has a case to make. Clinton has swept Democratic voting in the heavily Hispanic Southwest from Texas to California, including swing states such as Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico that lie in between. Obama has prevailed in the highly competitive terrain of the upper Mississippi River Valley, winning primaries in Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin, and caucuses in Iowa and Minnesota.

Of the nation’s most politically marginal states, Democratic primary contests remain to be held in Pennsylvania and Oregon, with the prospect of high-stakes “re-votes” in Florida and Michigan as well.

How this all will end is anybody’s guess. Some Democrats talk hopefully of a “dream ticket” that would pair Clinton and Obama. But which of the two should be at the top of the ticket and which at the bottom? Right now, it is a question that cannot be answered. Based on the current primary vote totals, each can reasonably argue that they are the one who should be number one.


Figure 2. Slicing and Dicing the Democratic Primary Vote

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama arrive at this month-long intermission in the Democratic primary season virtually even at the ballot box. Yet category by category, either Clinton or Obama often has a clear advantage. Primary results are as of March 12, and reflect a combination of official and nearly complete but unofficial returns from all states that have voted thus far as well as the District of Columbia. For the sake of completeness, results from the unsanctioned contests in Florida and Michigan are included in this chart, as well as the returns from a non-binding primary in Washington. Exclude these votes and Obama has a clear lead in the Democratic primary vote count.

% of Dem. Primaries Won
Primary Vote Total Vote Clinton Obama Plurality Clinton Obama
OVERALL VOTE 100% 29,210,486 47% 47% Clinton by 76,089 14 16
BY TYPE
Binding (elects delegates) 90% 26,174,787 47% 49% Obama by 508,624 12 15
Nonbinding (no delegates at stake) 10% 3,035,699 50% 31% Clinton by 584,713 2 1
BY TIME PERIOD
Round 1: Opening Events (January)* 11% 3,164,026 46% 31% Clinton by 476,762 3 1
Round 2: Super Tuesday (Feb. 5) 55% 16,023,557 49% 47% Clinton by 243,187 8 7
Round 3: Obama Surge (rest of Feb.) 14% 4,177,851 38% 59% Obama by 875,396 0 6
Round 4: Critical Tuesday (March 4) 19% 5,427,624 52% 46% Clinton by 330,125 3 1
Round 5: Moving On (post-March 4) 1% 417,428 37% 61% Obama by 98,589 0 1
BY REGION
Northeast 22% 6,306,616 51% 46% Clinton by 322,521 5 5
Midwest 23% 6,787,673 45% 49% Obama by 298,573 2 3
South 34% 9,890,704 45% 49% Obama by 250,256 5 6
West 21% 6,225,493 51% 44% Clinton by 401,986 2 2
BY 2004 PRESIDENTIAL VOTE
“Red states” (Bush) 46% 13,518,650 47% 48% Obama by 120,356 7 8
“Blue states” (Kerry) 54% 15,691,836 48% 47% Clinton by 196,445 7 8
BY 2008 PRIMARY VOTE
Clinton states 65% 18,886,999 53% 40% Clinton by 2,396,976 14 0
Obama states 35% 10,323,487 37% 60% Obama by 2,320,887 0 16
BY SIZE
Big states (15 or more e.v.) 63% 18,447,974 49% 45% Clinton by 782,085 7 2
Medium-sized states (10-14 e.v.) 23% 6,825,701 45% 52% Obama by 425,878 3 5
Smaller states (less than 10 e.v.) 13% 3,936,811 42% 50% Obama by 280,118 4 9
BY VOTER PARTICIPATION
Closed (Democrats only) 22% 6,322,590 49% 43% Clinton by 356,195 4 5
Semi-open (Dems. and inds.) 27% 7,783,248 52% 42% Clinton by 771,395 5 0
Open (any registered voter) 52% 15,104,648 44% 51% Obama by 1,051,501 5 11

Note: An asterisk (*) indicates that if results from the unsanctioned primaries in Florida and Michigan are excluded, the January vote would stand, 49-to-31 percent in favor of Obama, with an Obama plurality of 146,319 votes.