Two days ago there was a flurry of excitement when it was announced that a couple of polls had Hillary and Obama running neck-and-neck in Wisconsin. It’s a measure of how far her fortunes have fallen, that running evens in this northern blue collar state was deemed worthy of news.

Could she make it back? The pundits said no. The pundits were right. In the end Wisconsin went to Obama, nearly 60 to 40. It’s less of a stonking victory than some of the other northern states – Nebraska, for example – but most of these were caucuses, and Wisconsin was a primary. The running theory has been that Obama has been able to win caucuses in some of the traditionally conservative Democrat states because of the self-selecting nature of the caucus process. If you’re willing to come out in a North Dakota winter to stand in a school basketball court arguing for three hours about two candidates with virtually identical programmes, you’re hardcore. Obama’s victories in the caucuses weren’t due to stealing Hillary supporters, so much as they were persuading people that he was someone worth walking through snowdrifts for.

Crucial to his success was the degrees of separation rule – that personal charisma diminishes as the inverse power of the distance from the candidate. So, you go to an Obama “stand for change” rally (1 degree of separation), and you are energised, you are converted, you are filled with the spirit, you totally identify. You tell four people close to you about it – the average American has four family or friends they feel emotionally close to (down, incidentally, from seven in the 1950s) – and they are filled with a quarter the spirit (4 divided by 2 degrees squared). They fill sixteen people with a twenty-seventh (three cubed) of the spirit, who fill 64 people with a 256th of the spirit, and so on. So the votes gained equal
1 + 1 + 16/27 + 64/256… etc

Multiplied of course by the conversion ratio, which is composed of the ratio of undecideds to total attendees, multiplied by those actually convinced to vote. Thus if 1/2 of Obama attendees are undecided and 1/4 of Hillary’s, and if 1/2 of those Obama attendees are convinced and only 1/3 of Hillary’s, then their conversion ratios are: Obama – 0.25, Hillary – 0.08333. This must then be multiplied by total attendees to generate votes gained. So the final figures are:

Obama: 80,000 x 0.25 x (1 + 1 + 16/27 + 1/4* + 256/3125…..)
Hillary: 50,000 x 0.0833 x (1 + 1 + 16/27 + 1/4 + 256/3125…..)

I suspect without checking that that last figure is Euler’s constant or close, so round it out to 2.7, which gives you:

Obama: 54,000 votes
Hillary: about 10,000

To paraphrase Chris Mitchell, “can I give you my CV?” What? No, that other thing he said – “We understand the figures because we made them up”.

Of course it all depends on how you set the conversion ratio, but I’d suggest this sort of discrepancy pretty much matches the process by which Obama has come from second place and streaked past Hillary as the weeks have progressed. (The best correction of elementary errors, or further development of the theorem wins a First Dog on the Moon t-shirt.) It works best for caucus states, where motivation is the key, but Wisconsin would suggest it’s now applicable to primaries. 

Team Obama is obviously working off the same math(s) – obviously – because today they launched their first call to Hillary to quit the race, even though the polls still have her ahead in Texas and Ohio. With about a fortnight to go, his seven point deficit in Ohio is something he can eat up easily. He’s already proven that he can win in all the key Ohio demographics – white working-class, social conservative Democrats, angry second generation Polacks down at the union bar etc etc – and today’s endorsement by the powerful Teamsters (ie, the Painters and Garrotters equivalent), based on the time-honoured principle of backing whoever’s going to win, will shift those numbers further.

There may be less movement in Texas, due to Hillary’s strong base among Hispanics, and the continued support, though not endorsement of the United Farm Workers union. But it’s widely held that this vote splits less on active support for Hillary, than on Latino fear that a black president will favour low income blacks over low income Latinos. This strikes me as unlikely, but as soon as I say that, I strike me as naive, so I defer.

Would Hillary concede before the firewall primary? One factor that might tip it is if her money situation is totally down the tubes. She tapped out a lot of her donors to their maximum contribution early on, and most of that was spent pre-Super Tuesday in the hope of a knock-out. Some suggest she had nothing much planned for the weeks after that date, while Obama had a whole series of rallies lined up, and that the campaign has been a scramble since. To add to her woes, she has been clearly ill for the past week – that special combo of fluish depression that only a relentless hammering at the hands of a personal nemesis can induce – and her appearances tend to communicate, rather than overcome, that exhaustion.

Illness of this sort is a real factor, since candidates are in the paradoxical process of running their energy down at the same time as they expose themselves to audiences like students in heated campus buildings at which point you may as well just lick a cultured petri dish.

The fact that every such moment is caught on film is further evidence of the unintended consequence of the purportedly grassroots process of the primaries meeting the open-ended transmission of personality and image by the media. Large sections of America never knew that FDR was in a wheelchair. These days, history hangs on a case of the sniffles.

I feel her pain, because I’ve got the same lurgy, contracting it after seeing Hillary’s husband in a fetid student hall in Virginia, then waiting forty minutes for a cab in sub-zero temps. Yes, Bill gave it to both of us, a phrase I bet got a big workout in the bars of Little Rock, c. 1970s.

As Bill Shorten once said “try the Lafitte ’49, it’s really a sardonic little drop, with fruity notes”. What? No that other thing. Oh yeah, to get success, you need success, and when it runs the other way, it goes and goes.

Money worries may dissuade her from continuing if it’s deemed possible that they would contribute to results that are embarrassing. If Obama uses his war chest for blanket exhaustive coverage, and could drive her to a fifteen point loss then at some point her post-primary cachet – for a plum UN post, top dollar speaking fees etc – starts to drop quite sharply, simply on the perception that she is not not a winner, but a loser, which is something else entirely.

With Obama making a fetish of the donation competition – trumpeting the fact that he’s about to get his millionth individual donor racked up – and a group called the American Leadership Project (they couldn’t sound more sinister if they called themselves Gestapo USA) spending ten mill’ on pro-Hillary ads in Texas and Ohio – the money thang is adding an extra attrition dimension to the whole comp.

What would she stay in for? The answer is obvious. Nothing she now does policy or pitch-wise will likely deflect the Obamanaut – the length of the primary season means that at a certain point everyone just runs out stuff, and you’d pretty much have to promise a North Korean style makeover with Basque as the national langauge to get much attention now. Her new economic blueprint, of which more, manana, has made no impact, not simply because the media is becoming increasingly gaffe-focused, but because it only filled out existing themes – most of them John Edwards’. Indeed in the “hope and change” atmosphere it just becomes kind of a bummer. David Letterman once had a top ten list – “if supermodels ran America” – which had the Constitution rewritten to read “like, whatever”, and that is close to the national mood as far as policy discussion goes.

Hillary’s only hope now resides in what happens to Obama. Will there be a sudden Obama hang-over – a sort of reaction to the ecstasis of the floaty stand for change message? If so, she might come back as the gritty realist candidate, Obama as the fling you don’t break up the home for. Could there be a major major scandal in the works? Does her team have a bomb to drop a week out from Texas?

There are also nastier possibilities, evidenced by the fact that Obama’s security detail is about four times the size of everyone else’s. This wouldn’t be the first primary process, worst come to worst, to end in a bullet and I’m not suggesting for a moment that anyone in Team Clinton would be hoping for it, but politics is about considering all the angles, and the most important virtue is persistence.

Or, as Barry Obama once said, “Man, don’t bogart that weed”. What? No, that other thing.

*64/256 factored down. We did that last term.

Peter Fray

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