Super Tuesday: Are you ready for some pinball?

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY)
REUTERS/Mike Segar
Candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton casts her ballot in the presidential primary today at a school near her home in Chappaqua, N.Y.

As candidates’ abused voices frayed Monday night, those of the pundits were just warming up. It’s Super Tuesday, and prognosticators are revved.

They’re also somewhat careful in their predictions, however, clearly remembering their embarrassing New Hampshire missteps on the Democratic side. Besides, it’s a complicated day.

As Walter Shapiro of Salon wrote, “Making sense of Tuesday’s orgy of primaries and caucuses in 24 states (plus American Samoa for the Democrats) will be like watching an old-fashioned pinball game from inside the machine. Lights will be flashing, balls will be whizzing, bumpers will be bouncing, sirens will be screaming, and near-incomprehensible numbers will be exploding on the scoreboard. But what it all means and how we got there will tax the abilities of the TV networks (who are treating it like ‘Primary Night in America’), traditional news organizations, Web sites and armchair analysts around the world.”

Uncertainties include the impact of John Edwards’ exit on Democratic results and the effect of Mike Huckabee’s non-exit on Republicans.

Nevertheless, a couple of predictions seem to have gained fairly widespread traction – notably that today will likely be most decisive for the Republicans, and that the Dems’ ultimate outcome could be elusive for some time. The Washington Post’s Dan Balz, in a handy guide called “8 Questions Super Tuesday Could Answer,” quoted Democratic strategist Bill Carrick: “To paraphrase Churchill, the Democrats are at the end of the beginning and the Republicans are at the beginning of the end.”

Balz added, “The Republican race is on the brink of ending, unless John McCain stumbles badly. … Even if McCain has a good night, (Mitt) Romney and Mike Huckabee may stay in the race, but unless Romney can pick up in the neighborhood of 400 delegates, he may have trouble catching up.” Salon’s Shapiro put it this way: “Unless Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee manages to organize a last-minute McCain Mutiny by winning more than a handful of states, the GOP contest will effectively be over before anyone has to learn the intricacies of Republican delegate-allocation rules.”

Word of the day
Allocation is the word of the day, by the way. In several GOP primaries, all delegates will be awarded to the top vote-getter. But many states have complicated allocation procedures, a phenomenon that will particularly affect the Democratic contenders.

“Since Democrats apportion convention delegates based on vote percentages,” noted Chuck Raasch in a USA Today news analysis, “neither is likely to come out of Tuesday with a prohibitive claim on the nomination — unless there is yet another surprise turn in the nomination road.”

Shapiro at Salon agreed. “All 1,681 pledged delegates (the magic number for nomination is 2,025) up for grabs on Woozy Tuesday will be awarded proportionally,” he wrote, “which means that neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama is likely to score a breakaway victory. (Please remember all the usual caveats about the unreliability of polls, the track record of pundits and the volatility of voters.) As a result, the returns from the 15 primaries and 8 caucuses on the Democratic side should be analyzed both for themselves and for their ability to create — or crush — momentum for the long slog to the nomination.”

In Balz’s view, that slog could go through spring. “The Democratic race will not end today and may not end for another two months,” he wrote, adding that party rules make it difficult for a candidate to emerge with a substantial lead. “Clinton is counting on New York, New Jersey, Arkansas and California as her base. Obama’s strength is in Illinois and the half-dozen states with caucuses rather than primaries, but his campaign predicts neither candidate will emerge with a lead of more than 100 delegates. As a result, both campaigns are looking ahead to contests in the District and states such as Maryland, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, all of which will be held this month, and to Ohio and Texas on March 4.”

Given such dynamics, Balz wrote, “Momentum and psychology therefore will play an important role over the next few weeks. Clinton may be stronger in a war of attrition, particularly if she wins big battleground states in March. But a number of strategists surveyed over the weekend said Obama might have more room for growth in his support, and if he can develop a sense of momentum she would be at a disadvantage.”

In the meantime, presidential-campaign excitement is palpable, and many want it to continue. “I’ve said it before, this is the most fascinating presidential race in a generation,” wrote NBC political director Chuck Todd.

“And much of what keeps it interesting is the fact that so many questions refuse to be answered. Here’s hoping a few questions still remain after Super Tuesday.”

Susan Albright, a former editor of the Star Tribune’s editorial pages, writes about national and foreign developments.

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