So was it the Saturday Night Live factor? Did her mildly embarrassing appearance on the baggy sketch comedy swing it for Hillary? With her surprise triple victory in what has retroactively been called SuperTuesday II – or did I not get the memo? — the desperate scrambling has begun for a coherent narrative which would describe exactly the switches pulled to lead the voters to the desired result. Was it Rezko? The Canadian NAFTA snafu? The pants suits? All of these? Something needs explaining, because the results were well out of whack.

Ohio had been predicted to go to Clinton, but only by two or three per cent. In the end she was clear of Obama by ten per cent. Texas was running fifty fifty, but Clinton pulled four points clear. Rhode Island went Clinton’s way 58% to 40%, the biggest win she’s had for a long time. Only Vermont unpredictably predictably gave Obama the sort of margin he’s been spoilt with over the past few weeks. So what happened?

The polls have never been right – there’s too many variables in votes where strategic and tactical voting ping pongs around, and different groups move in and out of the voting – but to date they’ve tended to underestimate Obama’s support.

This time they didn’t have Hillary on the radar at all, and so they have to come up with something other than informed choice. Most popular has been the coincidence of the primaries with opening day of the trial of Tony “Tony the Tony” Rezko, Obama’s previous patron of sorts, on a range of charges that could be easily summed up as general sleaziness. How the Canadian NAFTA thing is shoehorned into it, is beyond me.

The argument is that Obama’s people met with Canadian officials to reassure them that the campaign against NAFTA was simply politics not a real statement of policy. But the question has to be — why the hell would Obama’s people do that? To prevent armed Canadian intervention in the Ohio primary, a horde of polite, slightly paunchy people pouring across the border saying “ehhhh?”

More particularly it took about three read-overs of the charge to see who was saying what about whom. A soundbite it weren’t. And then there’s the fact that when you say “Canada” Americans simply get their brains reset to zero, like the high frequency that turns the contents of dogs’ heads into guacamole. Mind you, as far as Americans go there are a lot of triggers – “dollar ninety nine philly cheese steak taco”, “the feel good movie of the year”, “side effects include extreme deliciousness not to mention attacks of tastomaticity” – that’ll nail that sucker.

So the attention has come back to what were previously deemed to be Hillary’s lame attempts to take the piss out of her own image. Having appeared on SNL in a sketch, the second thirty-four minutes of which were perhaps less scintillating than the first, wearing a brown pantsuit that looked like Butterick had produced a line for Chairman Mao, she pretty much didn’t take it off for another four days.

The sketch had had real Hillary meet her SNL character and, well, admire each other’s pantsuits and if you’ve ever seen SNL you’ll know that’s good for eleven minutes. She followed this appearance up with a guest spot on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, on which she was, it must be said, pretty sharp.

“It’s the night before your most important primary and you’re talking to me – as a host I’m honoured as a citizen I’m appalled,” Stewart remarked.

“Yeah well it is uh pretty pathetic,” Clinton fired back.

OK, embrace your principles or your mistress it wasn’t, but it wasn’t too bad.

But whatever these appearances may have done to knock some of the corners off her perceived squareness, the suggestion that they made all the difference in Ohio is simply another attempt by the US media to wriggle out of the idea that the voting public reflect, react to new information, react to themselves being interpreted and so on.

The clear result of Tuesday was that Obama’s act had started to peak, worn down by successive repetition on the airwaves, so that the effect of him coming to town was by now somewhat reduced. The charm-like effect of his rhetoric simply could no longer cover growing questions about what he would do in power, how he would do and what he’s done.

More importantly, in Ohio, it’s clear that Hillary’s base – in that state at least – had held solid. Because Illinois was Obamatown and Michigan was running dead, there hadn’t been a real heavy industrial state – unleavened by a seperate layer of liberals – to test the Clinton Obama competition. Famously predictive of the national result in the general election, the idea that the candidate it selects as Democratic nominee is necessarily the only one who can win the country is drawing a long bow.

Whatever solid base Hillary was building on, there were at least a few Republican spoilers in there, herded in by shock jock Rush Limbaugh, as a way of “hyping the chaos” for the other side. This has been portrayed as dirty pool, but it seems perfectly fair to me – if only because there is no way of knowing who it will hurt and harm.

One of the features of a campaign that keeps rolling along is that the money keeps rolling in, as does the coverage. If discipline can be restored – a mega-if – in the Democrats, then the next two months of primary coverage are a huge megaphone for them to broadcast the idea that America is broken and McCain is more of the same. Meanwhile the latter will either have to hold his fire, or speak to half-filled Holiday Inn ballrooms – an invidious choice.

Moreover, having grabbed the brass ring of the nomination, McCain is now faced with it turning into an albatross (tight turn on the metaphor, yes but we got away with it, drive, drive), as he has to suffer the official endorsement of Dubya, the man every candidate has been desperate to distance themselves from all the way through, save for Mitt Romney. Remember Mitt? So there he was this morning, turning up for the White House photo op. Dubya was a little early, so, for the press, he did a little dance on the patio. My god what do you tories out there do in such moments? The man is eleven years old – and about to be held back yet another year. The judgement of history will turn him into a jester’s head on a stick.

McCain got through it with his teeth clenched – actually his teeth are always clenched, possibly in practice for the next eight months of making nice with the hard right. No SNL for him, tho’ he’s been a Daily Show regular more than once. It’s gravitas all the way – among other things this contest is now a three-generational verdict, “greatest generation”, versus boomer versus X.

Being X, I am not filled with confidence. We tend to be better at old Python sketches or remembering Pez flavours (ask your… well, ask yourself) than we are at the order of battle thing. If the vote were for “Person To Hang Out With” Bama would be a knock down misere. But the war thing? I wonder how many other people think the same way.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey