'Pundits Declare the Race Over'
By JIM RUTENBERG
Published: May 8, 2008
Very early this morning, after many voters had already gone to sleep, the conventional wisdom of the elite political pundit class that resides on television shifted hard, and possibly irretrievably, against Senator Hillary Clinton’s continued viability as a presidential candidate.
The moment came shortly after midnight Eastern time, captured in a devastatingly declarative statement from Tim Russert of NBC News: “We now know who the Democratic nominee’s going to be, and no one’s going to dispute it,” he said on MSNBC. “Those closest to her will give her a hard-headed analysis, and if they lay it all out, they’ll say: ‘What is the rationale? What do we say to the undeclared super delegates tomorrow? Why do we tell them you’re staying in the race?’ And tonight, there’s no good answer for that.”
It was not exactly Walter Cronkite declaring that the Vietnam War would end in stalemate. But the impact was apparent almost immediately, starting with The Drudge Report, the online news billboard that is the home page to many political reporters in Washington and news producers in New York. It had as its lead story a link to a YouTube clip of Mr. Russert’s comments, accompanied by a photograph of a beaming Mr. Obama with his wife, Michelle, and the headline, “The Nominee.”
The thought echoed throughout the world of instant political analysis, steamrolling the Clinton campaign’s attempts to promote the idea that her victory in Indiana was nonetheless an upset in the face of Mr. Obama’s heavy spending and his campaign’s predictions that he would win there, or that she could still come back if delegates in Florida and Michigan are seated.
“I think there’s an increasing presumption tonight that Obama’s going to be the nominee,” Chris Wallace, the Fox News host, said to Karl Rove, President Bush’s longtime political guru, who is now a Fox News analyst. The statement preceded a discussion about what a general election race would look like between Mr. Obama and the presumptive Republican nominee, Senator John McCain.
A posting on the DailyKos Web site included a mock memo to Mrs. Clinton titled, “To-Do List Before Dropping Out.”
Speaking on CNN, David Gergen, a former adviser to several presidents, including Mrs. Clinton’s husband, said, “I think the Clinton people know the game is almost up.”
Stating it more bluntly, Bob Franken, the political analyst, told the MSNBC host Dan Abrams shortly after 2 a.m. Eastern time, “Let’s put it right on the table: It’s over. It’s over.”
And it picked up again on the major morning news programs in a devastating cascade of sound bites for Mrs. Clinton and her campaign.
Bob Schieffer on the CBS News program “Early Show”: “Basically, Maggie, this race is over.”
George Stephanopoulos on the ABC program “Good Morning America”: “This nomination fight is over.”
Matt Lauer on the NBC News program “Today”: “Good morning, is it over?”
The commentary was punctuated by some brutal morning newspaper headlines: “Toast!” blared The New York Post; “Hil Needs a Miracle” declared The New York Daily News.
Of course, the political news media have not exactly showered themselves in glory this year. They have frequently made predictions that have been upended by actual votes from actual people.
But their opinions matter as much as ever in this late phase of the primary race, when Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are battling to sway the opinions of the uncommitted superdelegates — the party leaders and elected officials with automatic convention seats, whose support Mrs. Clinton will need if she is to snatch the nomination from Mr. Obama.
The superdelegates are a largely elite group that presumably will track the conventional wisdom of Washington’s class of political insiders as they weigh their decisions. And the big donors and fund-raisers whose help Mrs. Clinton will need to continue her campaign are similarly tapped into the news media echo-sphere.
Mrs. Clinton’s campaign indicated early this morning that it would try to prove the commentariat wrong once again. “Pundits have gleefully counted Senator Clinton out before, and each time they have been wrong, because they don’t decide this race — voters do,” Howard Wolfson, Mrs. Clinton’s communications director, wrote in an e-mail message. “And as the results in Indiana demonstrated, voters are rewarding Senator Clinton with victories, even in states Senator Obama predicted victory in.”
Mr. Wolfson’s statement came in quick response to a request for comment that was sent to him by e-mail after 2 a.m. Eastern time — an indication of the campaign’s eagerness to undo the new conventional wisdom before it hardens.
And the campaign held a conference call with reporters this morning to send the clear signal that nothing had changed overnight.
Pointing to Mrs. Clinton’s victory in Indiana, and her inroads with what he called swing voters, Geoff Garin, her lead strategist, told the gathered reporters, “We think the results last night strengthen the case that she will be the strongest candidate for the Democratic Party in November.”
Asked if the harsh assessments on television and in the blogosphere would not drive superdelegates to Mr. Obama, Mr. Wolfson said, “Thankfully for us the punditocracy does not control this nominating process — voters do and voters gave us an important victory in Indiana.”
The Clinton campaign initially had some reason for optimism earlier today.
Many of the gloomier assessments of her chances came late Tuesday night and early this morning, when it appeared that she would not win Indiana as easily as exit polls and early vote tallies indicated earlier in the night. By then, early newspaper deadlines had passed and many voters were probably either asleep or off watching Jay Leno or David Letterman.
If East Coast viewers of “NCIS” saw no news the rest of the night, they certainly went to bed believing that Mrs. Clinton’s campaign was still there to fight another day. CBS, which broadcasts the show, declared that she had won the Indiana primary at 8:09 p.m. Eastern time, and Jeff Greenfield, the CBS analyst, reported, “We go on to June 3, Hillary Clinton got the win she needs to press her case.”
Even as Mrs. Clinton’s real-vote lead over Mr. Obama in the state dwindled to just 16,000 as later returns came in, the CBS News Web site held on to its headline, “Clinton Wins Ind., Obama Takes N.C.”
The headline was vindicated when several other news organizations declared that Mrs. Clinton had indeed won in Indiana, five hours after CBS made its projection. And it is that view of Tuesday’s results that most voters awoke to on Wednesday: A split decision for Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, no matter how narrow.
The question is, will the analysts be talking that way throughout the day — and if not, where does it leave Mrs. Clinton?
As of this afternoon, the climb for her seemed steeper. Mr. Obama’s campaign responded to the Clinton conference call with one of its own that included some big-name party leaders and superdelegates, among them the last Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry, who declared, “Barack Obama took a giant and possibly decisive step toward the nomination.” Minutes earlier, CNN had broken in with news from The Associated Press: Another former nominee was breaking for Mr. Obama, former Senator George McGovern, of South Dakota, which will vote along with Montana on June 3, the last primaries of the contest.