Clinton's winning formula is to unite the traditional Democratic electorate, assuming traditional turnout. Obama's path to victory is bolder but more improbable: Leading the party past pluralities to a new, post-partisan true majority. Maybe these suppression disputes will push voters to think about which course is more appealing, or more inspiring, or just more likely to work.
Clinton now leads most of the centrist coalition that her husband built. That includes working class moderates, pro-trade centrists, liberal hawks, Latinos and most of the traditional Democratic-progressive establishment – an alliance that delivered two winning pluralities for Bill Clinton
. Obama is trying to build a new, bigger coalition on the fly. His success depends on mobilizing largely untested voting blocs, such as people under 30, apolitical independents and cross-over Republicans -- those "Obamacans
" -- while consolidating his base of affluent liberals and Blacks.
The first three contests suggest that either tack can work.
Clinton can (narrowly) win a traditional Democratic electorate, like New Hampshire and Nevada. She won 51 percent of Democrats in Nevada this weekend, compared to 39 percent for Obama, who relied on independents for the rest of his support. But Obama can triumph in a higher turnout universe, such as an Iowa Caucus flooded by new and young voters, who comprised a third of his backing there.
So based on the results so far, lower voter turnout portends a Clinton nomination. And lately, Clinton supporters have tried tactics to limit turnout. There was that last-minute lawsuit to restrict voter access in Nevada, which Bill Clinton staunchly defended. A court rejected the controversial ploy. In a conference call on Sunday, the Obama Campaign alleged that Clinton supporters suppressed participation in 200 incidents at Nevada Caucus sites on Saturday afternoon, in violation of party rules. The Clinton Campaign denied the charge and criticized the Obama campaign for peddling "false claims," and there were also reports of Obama backers pressuring voters in Nevada.
Modern Democratic presidential primaries do not usually devolve into allegations of voter suppression. And it's particularly rare for a former U.S. President to flatly defend a lawsuit designed to disenfranchise voters – a nasty tactic so baldly undemocratic that it is usually pushed solely by lawyers and surrogates, while the potential beneficiaries remain silent.
But at bottom, these disputes also reflect the campaigns' drastically different orientations.