Wednesday, February 06, 2008

What happened on Super Tuesday ... and what happens next?

Yesterday was the closest approximation to a national presidential primary that we have ever had here. There has already been such a flood of commentary, analysis, and speculation, along with competing spin from the different campaigns, that I hesitate to add to it. But here are a few offhand observations.

=> On the Democratic side, Clinton and Obama broke about even. Compared to the situation a month ago, that looks like a remarkable achievement for Obama and his campaign (and it is). Compared with some of the more giddy expectations of Obama enthusiasts (and Hillary-phobic pundits) over the past few weeks, it looks like a solid achievement for the Clinton campaign (and it's that, too).

Obama came out ahead in more states (several of which, one should note, were states with caucuses rather than primaries), whereas Clinton carried the biggest states--above all New York and California. But since Democratic delegates from each state are distributed more or less proportionately (using complex rules that only the most expert understand fully), 'winning' a state doesn't have the same significance it does in the Republican primaries, in which most states award delegates on a winner-take-all basis. (The Republican Party has its own arcane rules for apportioning delegates between states, but that's a different matter.)

In the end, the striking fact is that the total numbers of delegates picked up by the two campaigns on Super-Duper Tuesday were roughly equal. And the same is true for the overall numbers of delegates that each campaign can claim so far.

One has to add that these figures are a bit approximate. For those of you who don't already know why, explaining the details will take a few steps.

There will be a total of 4,049 delegates at the 2008 Democratic convention, and 2,025 delegates (a simple majority) are required for nomination. But only 3,253 of these delegates are chosen by the various primaries and caucuses. (We can call those "pledged delegates" or "ordinary delegates.") The other 796 (slightly less than 20% of the total) are so-called "superdelegates" (or "unpledged" delegates) with an automatic right to participate in the convention. These include elected officials, such as Democratic governors and members of Congress, as well as Democratic Party officers and other notables--members of the Democratic National Committee, state party chairs, big-city mayors, former Presidents & Vice-Presidents, and so on. (For the curious, all the details are here.) A few hundred of these superdelegates have publicly committed themselves to either Obama or Clinton, but most have not--and even the ones who have can always change their minds if they want.

Meanwhile, to add another layer of complication, the apportionment of delegates from Tuesday's primaries is still being figured out. Earlier today Eric Kleefeld (at TPM) summed up the interim calculations offered by a range of news organizations. Basically, most agree that (a) Obama and Clinton command roughly the same numbers of pledged delegates (i.e., primary-&-caucus delegates), with Obama probably very slightly ahead, but that (b) when committed superdelegates are taken into account, Clinton is about 100 delegates ahead, more or less. NBC, for example, calculated an approximate overall tally of 1,145 delegates for Clinton versus 1,082 for Obama. (And, by the way, there are 26 delegates still pledged to Edwards.)

So far, in short, the two candidates have pretty much fought to a draw.

=> And it is quite possible that this standoff will continue through the remaining primaries and caucuses. (I think Puerto Rico's, in June, is the last one.) It is certainly safe to expect that Obama and Clinton will continue slugging it out all the way the convention.

As Dan Balz plausibly argued today (in his Washington Post election blog):
Both Clinton and Obama have solid coalitions that have put them at parity in the race.

Clinton's is the more traditional coalition: women, working-class Democrats, party regulars, Latinos. In past races, that collection of constituencies has proved superior to anything an insurgent candidate could muster. That coalition helped Walter Mondale defeat Gary Hart, helped Bill Clinton defeat Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown, helped Al Gore defeat Bill Bradley.

Against a traditional insurgent, that coalition likely would prevail again this year -- and still might. Obama enjoys the support of the kinds of people who have backed the Harts and Bradleys in the past: upscale, well-educated Democrats, liberals and independents. But to that he has added two important elements. One is a more energized cadre of young voters than has been seen in recent elections. The other and more significant part of his foundation is overwhelming support from African Americans, something that Hart and Bradley never had.

The departure of John Edwards, far from tipping the balance in one direction or another, seems to have made the respective coalitions even more solid. Both Clinton and Obama appeared to have picked up parts of the Edwards coalition that included antiwar, change-oriented Democrats and working-class whites concerned about the economy.

Clinton and Obama have split the Democratic coalition -- not in an angry or bitter way and not along clear ideological fault lines, but in the literal sense. Each now seems to have about half of the Democratic electorate lining up behind their candidacies. "The grand prize on the Democratic side will go to whichever candidate finally figures out how to transcend the current demographic niches and make headway on the other side's turf," Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin wrote in an e-mail as the results were coming in Tuesday night. "But it's possible that neither one will accomplish that feat."
=> It is also possible, of course, that developments over the next few months may upset this balance and give either Obama or Clinton a substantial edge in support among Democratic primary voters. But even if that does happen, it is still pretty safe to predict (1) that neither candidate will collect enough delegates from the primaries and caucuses to win the nomination, and so (2) we will probably see a genuinely contested Democratic nominating convention for the first time in over four decades, and (3) the so-called "superdelegates" will play a decisive role in the final choice (which is to say that we may see, not only a contested nominating convention, but a good old-fashioned brokered convention).

This whole package of outcomes was forecast by my cousin Hal Plotkin, with what now looks like considerable prescience, back in early January (Return of the nominating convention in 2008?). At that point it still seemed likely that Edwards would stay in the race for the duration, but his dropping out hasn't altered the basic dynamic. I suppose it's possible that, in the unlikely event that either Clinton or Obama establishes a commanding lead in pledged delegates during the next several months, a decisive majority of superdelegates might rally to the front-runner in order to forestall a fight at the convention. But the chances of that happening strike me as slim.

And if there is a contested convention, then of course the question of what to do about delegates from Michigan and Florida--currently excluded because those states jumped the gun on the officially approved primary-&-caucus schedule--could be a real nightmare.

=> Aside from that last point, things continue to look good for the Democrats this year. In every state with primaries or caucuses so far, Democratic turnout has significantly exceeded Republican turnout, often massively so. And while Democratic primary voters are split between two candidates, opinion polls and other evidence indicate that the great bulk of them will be happy to vote for either one in November.

Some Democrats worry that the party's chances will be damaged if the Republicans coalesce around McCain pretty soon while the Democrats spend several more months tied up in an expensive and increasingly bitter primary fight. That's conceivable, but I suspect that in this case Matthew Yglesias's pre-emptively dismissive response is probably on-target:
One thing I can predict is that you'll see a lot of handwringing about how this fight is dooming the Democratic Party. It's all, as best I can tell, total nonsense. Disagreeing about which of two strong leaders should go try to implement a pretty widely agreed upon vision of national policy is a healthy thing to do.
=> And what about the Republicans? One lesson I draw from Tuesday's results is that the Republican civil war continues.

That may look like a perverse conclusion at first glance. At this point it appears likely that John McCain will get the Republican nomination (something that seemed highly implausible to most people, including me, as recently as early January). After Tuesday McCain has 680 delegates (out of 1,191 needed for the Republican nomination), which easily beats Romney's 270 and Huckabee's 176 combined. But McCain has been piling up his big delegate lead only because of the winner-take-all structure of the Republican primaries, combined with the fact that Romney and Huckabee are splitting the anti-McCain vote. (For example, McCain 'won' South Carolina, Florida, Missouri, and New Hampshire with 33%, 36%, 33%, and 37% of the votes, respectively.) Furthermore, while a lot of the right-wing hostility to McCain is pretty irrational, his Republican opponents are not entirely off-base when they point out that his strongest showings have been in states which the Republicans have little or no chance of carrying in November (e.g., New York, New Jersey, and California).

The real surprise yesterday was that Huckabee (who has spent about 10% of what Romney has spent) came out ahead of both Romney and McCain to win several southern states. This made the overall outcome even more of a disaster for Romney (and his backers in the Republican establishment) than it would otherwise have been, but it also complicates McCain's position.

Whatever national polls may say, it's hard to avoid the impression that most Republican primary voters still don't want McCain for their candidate (especially in states that the Republicans have the best chance to carry in November). In order to unify the Republicans for the November election, McCain will probably have to make more conspicuous public accommodations to the know-nothing wings of the party than he has done so far ... and my guess is that this will hurt his support among independents in the general election. (I would hope so.)

But, again, all that is speculation ...

--Jeff Weintraub