In chess, all that matters is the king

At Dulles the other night, the couple that sat down at the table previously occupied by the defense contractors saw my Barack Obama t-shirt and struck up a conversation. While they were enthusiastic about his candidacy, the husband wondered whether Barack could do well “in the states that matter” – i.e., California, New York, Pennsylvania, etc.

You have to hand it to Hillary – that people are still holding on to this line of argument indicates the degree to which public opinion can be shaped by an oft-repeated argument, no matter how little that argument makes sense. Will Barack win in California? Yes. A Democratic ham sandwich would likely beat John McCain in California in November. Ditto New York.

But Clinton’s argument goes deeper than that. It’s as if she’s trying to paint Barack as a lesser Democrat because he wasn’t able to win in those states. And that argument is simply nonsensical.

Dial back the clock to late 2006, early 2007. Barack and a close circle of advisers are looking at the primary calendar, the nominating process, and Hillary’s all-but-certain campaign. Several things become clear obstacles to Barack securing the nomination: Hillary will raise a boatload of cash. Hillary has near-100% name recognition. The primary and caucus calendar is accelerated – leading almost everyone to conclude that the race will be over by February 5 (Super Tuesday). The bulk of the party infrastructure (party leaders and elected officials) still has warm feelings for the Clintons (indeed, many of them came to their current position during Bill’s 8 years in office).

But they look closer, and they see a ray of light. If they can just get an early win and hold on through Super Tuesday, the DNC’s proportional delegate assignment means that no candidate can score a knock-out punch. Indeed, a surgical campaign that looks at how every delegate is assigned – and a marrying of message and ground operation to those delegates – means that maybe, just maybe, they could compete. To do that, they’d need to match her cash without any national fundraising infrastructure, execute a flawless campaign where it mattered most (ground operation) without any benefit of party machinery, and overcome a sizable gap in name recognition. It was still a longshot on par with Abraham Lincoln being the Republican party’s nominee in 1860 – but it was a chance.

Securing the nomination for President as a Democrat is a ridiculously convolted process. But the rules were established years ago, and both candidates agreed to abide by them in an effort to win the nomination. Barack Obama looked 18 months ahead, and plotted out a strategy by which he neutralized every one of her advantages, while he surgically acquired delegates regardless of the state in which they were located. The result? The Clinton campaign planned ahead to February 5, assuming they’d lock things up. Barack planned ahead to the convention, and not only won 12 straight contests after February 5, he raised $55m without attending a single fundraiser. It was his February performance – after Super Tuesday – that made the difference in this contest.

While the Clinton campaign continues to try and move the goalposts (she won the primaries or at least the big primaries, she won the big states or at least the ones without caucuses, she won more votes if you count the states that don’t count, she won the swing states so long as you don’t count Virginia or Colorado, she wins more old people, she wins more white people…), there is just one metric by which this contest should be judged: who has more delegates. Tonight, Barack Obama secured the absolute majority of pledged delegates. That he leads Hillary in superdelegates, votes cast, money raised, states won is secondary.

In chess, nobody cares how many pawns you take. Or whether you sacrifice the queen early. All that matters is who gets the king at the end. When you really want to win, you think several moves ahead, no matter how strong you think your opening moves might be. Barack and his team planned ahead and won. Hillary’s team is trying desperately to get you to focus on entirely irrelevant factors like pawns captured, how many knights are still on the board, or whose rook is better positioned.

Barack’s the nominee. And I think the method of his victory – the precision with which the strategy was executed, the utter lack of drama from his campaign to get us to this point – says volumes about the bold, strong and capable leader he will be when he’s in the Oval Office.

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