Dems' Bitter Path to the Bitter End

The longer Democrats take to pick a nominee, the worse their chances in Nov.


April 23, 2008— -- On the heels of a decisive win in the Pennsylvania primary Tuesday night, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York let her party know she is willing to stay in the race until the bitter end.

But in an already long and increasingly negative campaign, bitterness is the last thing Democratic voters are looking for, leaving many to wonder what effects a protracted and bloody race will have on the party and the eventual nominee's chances in the November general election.

Trailing Sen. Barack Obama in delegates and popular votes, Clinton's only hope for the nomination is to secure the support of superdelegates, the party activists and insiders who can give her the 2,025 total delegates required to win the nomination.

Most of the superdelegates remain unpledged to either candidate and are biding their time. They waited to see how Clinton would perform in Pennsylvania, and many will continue to wait and see how the remaining eight primaries play out.

Though Obama leads in overall delegates so far, with 1,716 to Clinton's 1,583, he is far from having the nomination sewn up. He, too, needs the support of superdelegates, extending the electoral process, with each candidate campaigning openly for votes, while at the same time courting the supers behind closed doors.

The final showdown and ultimate tally of superdelegates might not take place until the party's convention in August, just three months before the general election and seven months since Sen. John McCain became the Republican's presumptive nominee and began his national campaign.

The Democrats' waiting game will likely hurt the party and either candidate's chance for victory come November, political scientists and party insiders told ABC News.

"Waiting for the convention is not good for the party," said George C. Edwards III, a political science professor at Texas A&M University. "Divisive primaries never help. The party with the longest and most divisive primary usually loses. It takes time away from going after the opposition, and it beats up your own party's candidate."

While the superdelegates might end the stalemate by picking a nominee, their involvement might also alienate and anger half of the party's members.

"They both need the superdelegates, she just needs almost all of them," said James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. "After the remaining primaries, if he has the popular vote and more delegates, and she puts the full court press on the superdelegates, there is going to be an internal battle of some significance."

With little time between the convention and Election Day, an internal battle, which may turn people off from voting or lead them to vote for McCain instead, is the last thing the Democrats need or want.

"There's a lot of that concern that the party's constituency is split. We need to come together if our candidate is going to win in November. If it goes to the convention, it will be all the more difficult to heal those wounds," said Leon Panetta, a former congressman and White House chief of staff under former President Clinton.

Superdelegates were conceived as an independent check on state delegates, but many believe their decisions should be a reflection of party sentiment.

"If Clinton wins the nomination on the backs of the superdelegates, some people will think she stole the election. It raises questions about the legitimacy of her candidacy. It shouldn't, because it is totally within the party's own rules, but it will anyway," Edwards said. "They'll say superdelegates are elites who handed her the nomination. That could likely alienate Obama's supporters, many of whom are African-American, one of the party's most core and loyal bases."

But if Obama wins the nomination, his success might lead Clinton supporters -- another key constituency composed of white working class voters -- to vote for McCain instead, an even more troublesome scenario for the party.

In the early days of the campaign, Democrats prided themselves on a diverse race, enthusiastically turning out to vote for who would be either the first African-American or first woman to win a major party's nomination.

In recent weeks, as the tenor of the campaign has become increasingly negative and millions of dollars have been spent on attack ads, enthusiasm has begun to wane and divisiveness has increased.

In Pennsylvania Tuesday, exit polls found that one in four Clinton supporters would vote for McCain if Obama were the Democratic nominee. Some 16 percent of Obama backers said they would choose McCain over Clinton.

Of the remaining primaries, Indiana and North Carolina on May 6 are expected to be the most decisive, but Puerto Rico is the last on June 7.

That will give superdelegates the better part of three months to assess the situation, review the delegate and popular vote counts, and make a decision.

"If the nomination battle goes all the way to the convention it is going to get ugly," said Panetta.

"The leadership of the party has to do whatever is necessary to see if they can come together and make a decision. Howard Dean, as chairman of the party, has to do it. If he doesn't have the sway, then he needs to convene people who do. By the middle of June, the superdelegates have an idea of the lay of the land and ought to make a decision for the good of the party," he said.

Further complicating the situation if the nomination comes down to the wire is the controversy over the Michigan and Florida primaries.

If supers believe their decision should be in line with the will of the populace, they have to decide if the populace should include two of the largest and most influential states.

In an ironic misstep, both Michigan and Florida pushed their primaries up on the calendar to become more relevant in the nominating process. As a result, the national party has refused to count their delegates.

Obama leads in the popular vote when Michigan and Florida are excluded from the count, but Clinton leads when their votes are included.

There is perhaps a silver lining to a lengthy race, said Thomas M. Holbrook, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

"If this plays out through the summer, the focus for months will be on the two of them. McCain will be left fighting to get any attention," he said. "That might just mean five more months of free publicity."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events