Ten Tips for Sorting out Super Tuesday Spin

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The Nation

Ten Tips for Sorting out Super Tuesday Spin

by
John Nichols

Super Tuesday is such a monumental moment on the 2008 political calendar that the big day's voting actually voting began when it was still just ordinary Monday in America.

And the first ballots weren't even cast on U.S. soil.

As part of the Democrats Abroad primary, voters went to the polls in Jakarta, Indonesia--where Super Tuesday arrived a full twelve hours earlier than it did in the U.S. -- and voted for a native son. Illinois Senator Barack Obama, who spent a portion of his childhood in the city, won 75 percent of the vote to 25 percent for New York Senator Hillary Clinton.

The Democratic Party treats its expatriate branch as a state - with 11 delegates to this summer's national convention in Denver - and its round-the-world voting is just one piece of the giant puzzle of delegate selection that will begin to be put together on Super Tuesday.

Twenty-two states, American Samoa and Democrats Abroad will hold Democratic primaries and caucuses today. They'll select more than 1,600 delegates to the party's national convention in Denver.

Twenty-one states will hold Republican primaries and caucuses today. They'll select roughly 1,000 delegates to the party's national convention in the Twin Cities.

This is the busiest day of presidential nominating contests in American political history. And one thing is certain: The campaigns of Democrats Obama and Clinton and Republicans John McCain, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul are all looking to spin some kind of "win" out of the results.

It is entirely possible that every one of these candidates -including Paul, the anti-war libertarian who has traveled to Alaska and poured considerable resources into a targeted attempt to prevail in that state's Republican caucuses - could win somewhere.

So how can anyone cut through all the spin?

Here are ten tips for sorting Super Tuesday facts from fiction:

1. Remember what the expectations were going into today's voting. Super Tuesday was supposed to "seal the deal" for Democrat Clinton. Barely a week ago, she was still far ahead in the polls nationally and in most of the key Super Tuesday states except Obama's Illinois. If Clinton does not finish the day at least marginally ahead of Obama in key states won and delegates totals, it'll be a setback for the former First Lady. Similarly, McCain has been pegged as the Republican to beat. If his chief rival, Romney, wins more key states - especially California, where he has been surging in late polling - and more delegates, McCain's standing will suffer. Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan is right when he says that, "If Romney wins California, it's the comeback story of the night."

2. Delegates matter. While the states may break in a variety of directions, the delegate totals don't lie. The first caucuses in Iowa and the first primary in New Hampshire awarded only handfuls of delegates; they really were about momentum. Super Tuesday is different. By the time today's primaries and caucuses are finished, 52 percent of Democratic convention delegates will have been selected; on the Republican side, the figure is 41 percent. So it is fair to look at the raw numbers. The races are competitive enough so that no one will "close the deal" today. But it is imaginable that a particular candidate - especially McCain on the Republican side -- could emerge as prohibitive favorite. On the Democratic side, if Clinton has a very good day, the combination of the fresh delegates she wins on Super Tuesday with her advantage among so-called "super delegates" (elected officials and party leaders who are assured places at the convention) could give her enough of a "cushion" to survive later losses to Obama and still prevail.

3. The Democratic and Republican races are different. Under Democratic Party rules, each state's delegates are awarded based on a proportional-representation model that is further complicated by the fact that most of those delegates will be allotted at the congressional district level. That means that a candidate can win as little as 15 percent of the vote in a particular Democratic primary or caucus and still secure delegates. As such, just winning any individual state counts for less than doing well everywhere. It is different on the Republican side, where ten states use winner-take-all systems. A one-vote Republican primary win in New York gives the state's convention delegation to the candidate who comes out ahead - probably McCain - as is the case in Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota, Utah and West Virginia. What this means is that it is much more likely that a Republican - again, probably McCain - gains a big win than a Democrat.

4. The big story may not be who wins but who lives to fight another day. On the Democratic side, Obama and Clinton are both likely to survive. On the Republican side, a bad day for Mitt Romney could mean that the self-financing candidate will finally fold up his checkbook and go home. Expectations are lower for Mike Huckabee, but the candidate who has been on a losing streak since his Iowa caucus victory of early January really does need to win some primaries today. (His best bets, aside from native Arkansas, are in Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.)

5. Remember that results from relatively low-turnout caucuses tend to measure the sentiments of the party faithful. As veteran Democratic aide Lawrence O'Donnell notes, "Activists go to the caucuses." And the activists tend to be more liberal on the Democratic side, more conservative on the Republican side. As such, watch for an Obama sweep of the caucus states of Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota and North Dakota. Only in New Mexico could he lose to Clinton. On the Republican side, the caucuses and West Virginia's unique Super Tuesday state convention look to be more likely to favor the aggressively conservative candidacy of Romney over McCain. The most interesting exception is Alaska, where Ron Paul's making his play.

6. Some states are more equal - or, at least more meaningful - than others. Sure, Obama gets some bragging rights if he wins the Democratic caucuses in Idaho but don't look for any Democrat to win there in November. Similarly, the Republican primary winner in Massachusetts is unlikely to take the state in the fall. Of far more interest should be the results from the swing states that will be voting today: Missouri, Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico and Tennessee. Winning Missouri really ought to count for something; the state has picked the November winner in every election since the days when Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson were competing in the 1950s.

7. Super Tuesday will tell us whether the candidates are popular with the people who know them best. Remarkably, Obama's home state of Illinois, Clinton's home state of New York, McCain's home state of Arizona, Romney's home state of Massachusetts and Huckabee's Arkansas will all be voting. Even Democratic also-ran Mike Gravel is a former senator from Alaska, where his fellow Democrats caucus today. Any candidate who loses his or her own state will have some explaining to do. And on the Democratic side, watch for whether Obama does better in New York than Clinton does in Illinois. Here's a hint: He will.

8. Keep an eye on who wins the "live" voting on Super Tuesday. Many of the states voting today - including California, Illinois, Arizona, Georgia, New Jersey, New Mexico and Utah - allow "no excuses" early voting. That means that millions of ballots were cast before Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama or California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed John McCain. Exit polls will provide indications of the sentiments of people who actually vote on Tuesday, which will tell us more about where the race stands right now than official results that are warped by early-voting patterns. Of particular interest on the Democratic side is the question of whether Obama's post-South Carolina primary surge, which seems genuine, came too late to provide him with a Super Tuesday advantage. Another interesting measure of the early voting effect will be the support for John Edwards. Millions of Super-Tuesday state voters cast their ballots before the populist Democrat left the race and there is at least an outside possibility that Edwards will win enough "wasted" votes to secure delegates from some states.

9. Do endorsements matter? Arguably, the best test will come in Massachusetts. A few weeks ago, every poll had the state solidly supporting Hillary Clinton. Now, Massachusetts Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry have endorsed Obama. If Kennedy's still got clout, it should turn the tide in the Bay State. The best indication of whether Kennedy's campaigning for Obama in Hispanic communities will matter should come from New Mexico, the state with the largest Latino voting bloc.

10. Dig deeper. Don't be satisfied just with the raw vote totals, the tally of state wins or delegate lists. Keep an eye on the exit polls. Did the withdrawal of John Edwards help Obama or Clinton? How is the Hispanic vote breaking? Who is running strongest in cities, suburbs and rural areas? Is McCain finally winning over conservatives? Is Clinton winning white women but losing white men? These are the details that will tell the full story of Super Tuesday and, more importantly, the story of where the Democratic and Republican presidential races are headed on the super Tuesdays that are yet to come.

John Nichols' new book is The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Copyright © 2008 The Nation

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