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One big fact has largely been lost in the recent coverage of the Democratic presidential race: Hillary Rodham Clinton has virtually no chance of winning.
Her own campaign acknowledges there is no way that she will finish ahead in pledged delegates. That means the only way she wins is if Democratic superdelegates are ready to risk a backlash of historic proportions from the party’s most reliable constituency.
Unless Clinton is able to at least win the primary popular vote — which also would take nothing less than an electoral miracle — and use that achievement to pressure superdelegates, she has only one scenario for victory. An African-American opponent and his backers would be told that, even though he won the contest with voters, the prize is going to someone else.
People who think that scenario is even remotely likely are living on another planet.
As it happens, many people inside Clinton’s campaign live right here on Earth. One important Clinton adviser estimated to Politico privately that she has no more than a 10 percent chance of winning her race against Barack Obama, an appraisal that was echoed by other operatives.
In other words: The notion of the Democratic contest being a dramatic cliffhanger is a game of make-believe.
Story Behind the Story
Why news gets covered the way it does
Politico’s top editors draw on their experience at the nation's largest news organizations to pull back the curtain on coverage decisions and the media mindset.
The real question is why so many people are playing. The answer has more to do with media psychology than with practical politics.
Journalists have become partners with the Clinton campaign in pretending that the contest is closer than it really is. Most coverage breathlessly portrays the race as a down-to-the-wire sprint between two well-matched candidates, one only slightly better situated than the other to win in August at the national convention in Denver.
One reason is fear of embarrassment. In its zeal to avoid predictive reporting of the sort that embarrassed journalists in New Hampshire, the media — including Politico — have tended to avoid zeroing in on the tough math Clinton faces.
Avoiding predictions based on polls even before voters cast their ballots is wise policy. But that's not the same as drawing sober and well-grounded conclusions about the current state of a race after millions of voters have registered their preferences.
The antidote to last winter's flawed predictions is not to promote a misleading narrative based on the desired but unlikely story line of one candidate.
There are other forces also working to preserve the notion of a contest that is still up for grabs.
One important, if subliminal, reason is self-interest. Reporters and editors love a close race — it’s more fun and it’s good for business.
The media are also enamored of the almost mystical ability of the Clintons to work their way out of tight jams, as they have done for 16 years at the national level. That explains why some reporters are inclined to believe the Clinton campaign when it talks about how she’s going to win on the third ballot at the Democratic National Convention in August.
That’s certainly possible — and, to be clear, we’d love to see the race last that long — but it’s folly to write about this as if it is likely.
It’s also hard to overstate the role the talented Clinton camp plays in shaping the campaign narrative, first by subtly lowering the bar for the performance necessary to remain in the race, and then by keeping the focus on Obama’s relationships with a political fixer and a controversial pastor in Illinois.