There’s been a fierce and now apparently fading argument over the last week over whether Hillary Clinton should drop out of the nomination race or, more pointedly, whether she’s under some sort of obligation to do so. Not just in this race but in general I’ve always taken a dim view of people trying to muscle candidates to drop out of campaigns, usually on the basis of long odds or when it comes from insider pundit types pushing the idea that there’s something undignified about keeping a campaign going after it looks like you probably won’t win — something I’ve never understood and don’t agree with.

So when people have asked me whether I think Hillary should drop out I’ve said I don’t think she’s under any obligation to do so but that I do think, with her odds now this long, she should not be running a campaign that seems to go out of its way not simply to compete but to damage the likely nominee as a general election candidate and attempt to discredit the nomination process itself.

But when I was writing out my take on her interview over the weekend with Post, I realized that I hadn’t made clear enough in what I’d written, or even really in my own head, how much the two things are really combined.

As I said in that post, I don’t think Hillary’s claim that she’s going to stay in the race through the convention in Denver is really about Denver, or staying through August or even till June. It’s about keeping her troops motivated and confident so that she can keep in the game through April and May.

And here I think we see the pattern. Hillary doesn’t want to run for president in 2nd or 3rd gear. It’s beneath her dignity. And I don’t mean that sarcastically. It really is. She’s a powerful United States senator, former First Lady, etc. She wants to win. And if she’s still in it she wants to run full bore with the money you need to run a serious campaign, the crowds, poll numbers, etc. She’s not some Huckabee figure who’s going to hang around with little chance of winning

It really is all or nothing. You’ve got to convince your supporters, donors and to at least some degree the media that you’re really in it, and in it with a shot. Otherwise you face the classic problem of a cascade failure. Poor fundraising generates bad press stories, which depress turnout at rallies, which create more bad press stories and eventually no press stories, etc. It’s no different from the precarious position any campaign faces when the odds aren’t looking good.

And so we have this vicious cycle in which the longer Hillary’s odds become the further she has to up the ante to keep her candidacy credible — in other words, the more forcefully she has to question the legitimacy of the nomination process and the more aggressively she has to push the idea that Obama can’t win the general election or is not qualified to be president. (For example, the argument that the Clinton campaign now appears to be making to funders and the press is that Obama literally cannot win the general. And thus she’s not only entitled but actually obligated to do whatever it takes to ensure that he’s not the nominee.) Without making real progress on one of those fronts, the premise of the candidacy just becomes too difficult to sustain. And when that fails just throw up lots of nonsense about the popular vote in primary states or blue states or significant states, or whatever.

I think there are a lot of people who would actually like to see the race play out as long as neither candidate is going out of their way to make their opponent unviable in the general. But thinking over what I’ve said above, I’m just not sure how realistic that is.

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