At past opportunities in the primary season, I’ve made attempts to guess who would win various primaries, with some success and some failure. I’d love to do it again, but Super Tuesday involves too many variables for me to absorb, process, and use to produce any kind of meaningful conclusion. All I can do is look at the whole situation and point to some trends which may not be reflected even in the latest polls but which I think will make a difference in the outcome. So here’s your viewing guide for the Super Bowl of America’s real favorite sport — and it’s a blood sport, so enjoy.
The Republican Scenario
McCain’s lead has been widening so fast in the past week that the other candidates are being tossed around like cows in a tornado. Right now, of the 21 Super Tuesday states, most of the polls have Romney winning only his home state of Massachusetts and Mormon-packed Utah. I think even that’s questionable. Who knows Romney better than people in Massachusetts? And knowing him I can’t see how they would vote for him. I’ll give him Utah, though. The pollsters are predicting California and Georgia will be close. They’re wrong. McCain will win California by at least 8 points and Georgia by at least 5. The Schwarzenegger endorsement is worth more than people realize in California.
If anything interesting is going to happen for Republicans it’s likely to be in the small states that are being largely ignored by the media and the pollsters. Ron Paul might very well win Alaska as some have predicted. Hell, he might even win North Dakota and Montana while he’s at it. Huckabee might have some surprises left in him. If he’s going to win anywhere I’d put my money on Arkansas and Oklahoma.
By my count there are 1081 Republican delegates at stake on Tuesday, almost half of the total, but not quite enough for any candidate to actually win the nomination, which takes 1191 delegates to win. Even if every delegate today went to McCain he’d be about 30 short, and there’s no way for one candidate to get all the delegates anyway. In my opinion the absolute best aspect of this particular primary season is that it won’t end on Super Tuesday, and for the first time in decades my primary vote here in Texas might actually make a small difference.
A big factor for the Republicans is that eight of the states have winner-take-all primaries, with a total of 373 delegates, almost all of which will probably go to McCain, giving him a big boost. It seems wrong to me for New York, which is the second largest of all the states and has 101 delegates, to be winner-take-all, and now McCain will benefit from what was basically set up to help out Giuliani. Nonetheless, the way things are structured, every candidate is going to come out of the day with some delegates. My guess is something like this: McCain +545 (642), Romney +220 (312), Huckabee +125 (154), Paul +90 (96).
The Democratic Scenario
The situation for the Democrats is a bit different. Hillary still has a lead in already won delegates, but Obama is coming up with momentum so strong that it’s hard to judge how much it will shoot him ahead of her. Will it be enough to take the lead decisively, or just enough to keep it a real horserace? With only two candidates left, there’s more chance for one to pull ahead and get an early win, but despite what appears to be a turning tide, the Obama wave still hasn’t crested, so Hillary may win a lot of delegates, and with the advantage she has in ‘superdelegates’ all she might have to do is hold out and coast to victory.
The Democrats have 22 states up for grabs on Tuesday. None of them is winner-take-all, and nine of them are closed primaries, which gives Clinton an advantage by excluding independents who might vote for Obama. Because the demographics of the Democratic Party skew more urban than the Republicans, their big states are bigger and their small states are smaller, so their top few states have huge numbers of delegates (CA-441, NY-281, IL-185) while their small states have just a handful. For the Democrats it matters a lot more which states you win, rather than how many you win. You could lose 20 states and win California and New York and be in great shape, and that may be exactly what Hillary Clinton is looking at.
The big factor here is the Obama surge and what it means. If you look at a graph of the polls since the start of the election, Obama’s line has virtually gone vertical in the last month, while Clinton’s popularity remains pretty stable. Clearly she’s feeling some pressure and maybe even desperation. She may have reigned in Billzilla, but during a visit to Yale University she teared up again. The question is whether that show of emotion will endear her to people, or whether two times with that particular strategy is too many. If it backfires Obama is likely to flatten her like a steamroller.
The polls currently have Obama winning only a few small states, led by Illinois and Georgia, while Hillary wins the rest, including delegate-rich New York and California. I think the polls are lagging behind Obama’s momentum, and that he’ll do better than expected. I see him winning 14 or 15 out of 22 states and losing by a smaller margin than expected in the other states, resulting in a surprisingly even split of the total delegate count. By my count 2062 of the total of 4049 delegates are at stake. It would take 2025 delegates to secure the nomination, and there’s no way either candidate is getting that many out of Super Tuesday. Even with 232 delegates going in, Clinton is not going to pull the 1800 or so she needs to end it. She won’t even come close.
I think the shocker here is that when it comes to total delegate count it’s going to be much closer than expected. I see Clinton taking about 1100 delegates and Obama getting about 950. Although that would leave Clinton ahead in the total delegate count, it would essentially be a resounding defeat. If Clinton cannot clear at least 1200 delegates on Super Tuesday her campaign is in serious trouble. Watch for the results from California, New Jersey, Missouri, and Alabama. If those four states go for Obama by even a narrow margin, it’s curtains for Clinton.