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A Pennsylvania primer: What to make of Tuesday's numbers

April 21, 2008 |  6:32 pm

Barack Obama made the type of admission today that doesn't often come from the mouths of politicians.

"I'm not predicting a win," he told radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh, referencing Pennsylvania's Tuesday primary.

Even candidates obviously on their last legs (think Republican Mike Huckabee, on the eve of the March 4 Texas and Ohio primaries) are loath to rule out a victory.

But though Obama took a pass on cockeyed optimism, he did offer a measuring stick for his performance in the Keystone State: "I'm predicting it's going to be close and that we are going to do a lot better than people expect."

So what would constitute a better-than-expected showing for Obama? And what sort of winning margin does Hillary Clinton need to get a real boost from Tuesday's results? Here's our take:

  • A Clinton triumph of 5 percentage points or less will leave Obama and his aides feeling fine as attention turns to the May 6 North Carolina and Indiana primaries. Alternatively, even though the slimmest of wins will be greeted gleefully by Clinton supporters at a primary-night rally in Philadelphia, offstage neither the candidate nor her aides will be doing much celebrating. (Obama, tellingly, will be in Evansville, Ind., as the votes roll in.)
  • A Clinton triumph of 6 to 9 percentage points will preserve the race's status quo -- Obama ahead by all measures, but not by enough to significantly increase pressure on Clinton to drop out. In the only category that really counts -- delegates -- a Clinton win within this range will probably give her only a minimal gain. That's because, as our friend Josh Drobnyk of the Allentown Morning Call recently wrote, only a third of Pennsylvania's 158 pledged delegates at stake Tuesday are allotted according to the statewide vote. The the rest get divided based on the margin of the outcomes in each of the state's 19 congressional districts. And where Obama wins, he often wins big.
  • A Clinton triumph of 10 or more percentage points will put some wind in her political sails. Most immediately, it will increase the pressure on Obama to win solidly in North Carolina (where most polls have shown him comfortably ahead) and it will intensify the spotlight on Indiana as the next potential fulcrum in the overall contest. Long-term, it will give the Clinton forces more ammunition to make the case that she's best positioned to win at least three of these four key states come November: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Florida.

-- Don Frederick