The Democratic Party primaries may appear to continue the status quo in the campaign, with Hilary Clinton winning Indiana as expected, and Barack Obama winning North Carolina as expected. But the magnitude of Obama's win in North Carolina (58-42%) and the narrowness of Hilary Clinton's win in Indiana (52-48%) indicate that the long Democrat contest is all but over for Hilary Clinton.
As one Republican strategist unkindly put it on CNN as the early figures came in, "This is the last trip to send the family pet to the vet."
However you slice and dice the figures, it is now apparent that Barack Obama will be the Democratic Party's presidential candidate, and that the super delegates will now be close to declaring for Obama, killing off the Clinton's hope of a palace coup at the Denver Convention.
On the popular vote through the primaries overall, and including the disputed Florida primary (although not Michigan, where Obama's name did not appear on the ballot paper), Obama has a 49% to 47% margin over Hilary Clinton.
What it means for the Democrats' chances in November depends on how you read three factors. The first is the extent to which the Clinton campaign's bruising campaign against Obama has damaged him as a Presidential candidate, and whether they will put aside differences and work towards trying to see Obama win in 2008, or sit back and snipe with an eye to the 2012 campaign should John McCain beat Obama.
The second point is that the nature of the contest itself has energised the Democrat base significantly, and this may matter in states that would be otherwise solidly Republican, such as Indiana and North Carolina, as they have now had far more exposure to Barack Obama and his policies than they would have had if the primary contest had been settled earlier.
The last point, and the toughest one, is how to now hold together the very different voting blocs that have emerged. Obama's core bloc of the tertiary educated and African-Americans can carry the Democrat nomination but not the U.S. Presidency. They need to bring in Hilary Clinton's core bloc of older, rural, blue collar and high school educated voters. In particular, the big challenge will be to win over the women of Hilary's generation and older who saw this as the great opportunity of their lifetime to see the first U.S. woman president.
Hilary Clinton's campaign was not saved by the cornpoke politics of the last two weeks, with its mix of veiled threats about Obama, its know-nothing populist policies (nuke Iran, put OPEC before the WTO, the 'gas tax holiday' that couldn't be), and the attempt to transform herself into something less than she actually is (a kind of Bush-lite). If the Clintons can finally drop their swords and think about working with Barack Obama, they would be a great asset. Bill Clinton remain the only really successful Democrat U.S. presidential nominee since 1964, and Hilary Clinton would be a very strong contributor to public policy if Obama won.
One big problem was pinned down in Salon by Thomas Schaller, which is that Hilary Clinton should not have done as badly with African-American voter as she has. She would never have got a majority once it was clear that Barack Obama was a real chance, but figures such as 6% and 8% of the African-American vote in Indiana and North Carolina are appalling for a candidate whose husband had a very strong base of support among African-Americans when he was President.