Blogs > Cliopatria > Super Tuesday Reflections

Feb 6, 2008 10:47 am

Super Tuesday Reflections

Michael McGerr’s The Decline of Popular Politics is a remarkable work of political history, showing how seemingly unrelated technical changes in ballot and election codes, as well as a politics that stressed issues over symbolism, had the effect of depressing voter turnout. Even seemingly innocuous tinkering with the political system can have far-reaching, and often unintended, consequences.

One event from last night’s elections reminded me of McGerr’s thesis. The John Edwards candidacy experienced its final gasps of life last night in two states—Arizona and California. In both states, Edwards took five percent of the vote. Among Republicans, six percent of California voters cast ballots for another withdrawn candidate, Rudy Giuliani. Neither man received more than two percent of the vote in any other primary.

Arizona and California were the only two states in last night’s balloting that allow unlimited early voting, a West Coast trend more widely employed in Washington and Oregon (the latter has mail-only elections). The good-government theory behind early voting: make it easier for people to vote, especially for people who have to work on Election Day. This election, however, revealed an unintended consequence: in fluid presidential primaries—as opposed to general election contests—the list of candidates can change between the time ballots are mailed out and the actual vote. Early voting, in short, allowed one in 20 people in two states’ primaries to effectively waste their votes.

Don’t expect a change in the procedure: early voting also favors incumbents, by shortening the election season (at least for some voters). The process certainly helped Hillary Clinton, the Democratic race’s quasi-incumbent, to blunt the Obama momentum in California.

Some other thoughts on yesterday’s voting:

1.) Will there be a third chance for Obama? Insurgents usually only get one chance to deliver a knockout blow to a highly favored adversary. Obama had such an opportunity in the New Hampshire primary, but fell short. He had another such opportunity yesterday—as Noam Scheiber pointed out in the New Republic blog, in the last few days it appeared as if Obama might win New Jersey or California or even both, which would have established him as the clear frontrunner.

Having withstood the Obama surge yesterday, it would seem as if Clinton should be able to prevail, and I suspect that she’ll do so. Three caveats, however. One, Obama has much more money, and more future fundraising potential for the primary. Two, the next several states seem to favor him.

Three, Clinton is losing a key portion of her demographic strength. To date, she’s been strongest with white women over 45 and Hispanics. White women over 45 will remain disproportionately important (given the demographics of any Democratic primary), but Hispanics will not. Looking over the remaining primary states, it seems as if there’s only one (Texas) in which Hispanics are a significant voting bloc.

Without Hispanics, Clinton last night would have lost California and possibly New Jersey. She won’t be able to count on them to rally her to victory in Wisconsin, Ohio, or Pennsylvania.

2.) The most exciting race of the evening came in Missouri, where Clinton led until 97 percent of the precincts had reported. Obama wound up prevailing by around 10,000 votes, in an outcome that almost directly paralleled the 2006 Missouri Senate race. With around 93 percent of the vote in, the AP prematurely called the race for Clinton, which prompted what turned out to be a premature victory declaration by the campaign.

3.) The worst-run contest of the evening: the New Mexico caucus. As of this writing (around 5AM New Mexico time), all results still haven’t been reported. In the city of Rio Rancho, people waited as long as three hours to vote, because the state party had set up only one polling place. In Albuquerque, some voters waited an hour to cast their ballots. The state party chair projected a turnout of between 30,000 and 40,000—instead, around 150,000 people voted.

With a margin of 117 votes between Obama and Clinton, the state party now has to go through a bizarrely large 16,871 provisional ballots.

4.) The Clinton campaign sent out e-mails hailing the Massachusetts victory as a great upset. While the margin (around 15 points) was surprisingly large, Clinton had led in every pre-election poll but one. Normally, an upset requires a candidate to actually have been behind.

In place of Massachusetts, I would nominate Minnesota as the night’s largest upset, even though the state’s caucuses received little national attention. Only two pre-election polls were conducted in Minnesota; both showed Clinton with the lead.

Not only did Obama prevail, however, he did so overwhelmingly, besting Clinton 67 percent to 32 percent.

5.) The Massachusetts result showed that the Kennedy endorsement couldn’t save the state for Obama, and has to be interpreted as a rebuke to Kennedy. That said, it’s also clear that the endorsement helped Obama. CNN’s exit poll showed that 44 percent of the voters in California, 46 percent in New Jersey, and 41 percent in Missouri considered the endorsement important or somewhat important; Obama carried the group in each state.

Other endorsements to help Obama—Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Kathleen Sebelius in Kansas, where Obama won by an astonishing 48 percent. He also racked up large margins of victory in the Alaska caucus (50 percent), Colorado caucus (35 percent), Georgia primary (36 percent), Idaho caucus (62 percent), Illinois primary (32 percent), and the previously mentioned Minnesota result (35 percent). Clinton’s only comparable blowout came in Arkansas, which she won by 42 percent.

Those large margins, of course, were key: because of the Democrats’ complicated delegate allotment rules, which have an anti-majoritarian tendency for close primary contests but less so for blowouts, Obama was able to narrowly win yesterday’s delegate race.

6.) As someone who has written about the now moribund but once powerful Alaska Democratic Party, this item from Barrow was my favorite photograph from yesterday's contests.

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Ed Schmitt - 2/6/2008

Maybe I'm off just a bit on delegate totals - but it is still so close to say that I don't think anyone can, with any confidence, suggest who's going to win. This is fun!

Ed Schmitt - 2/6/2008

Given the fact that Obama has the (albeit razon-thin) delegate lead, the money, and the next couple of weeks of primaries look favorable for him, why do you suspect Clinton will win? The idea "more than two chances" thesis? She has shown surprising resiliency, but where do you assume she will emerge? I haven't seen any polls on Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Texas, and in this year, polls have been shown to be of limited value. Let's just go along for the ride.

Andrew D. Todd - 2/6/2008

I should like to make some observations about the Republican primary. At this stage, enough states have voted that we can, with some confidence, make assertions about states which have not yet voted, based on the votes of adjacent states with similar demographics and culture.

For example, there are about five hundred miles of thinly settled forest separating Oregon from California; the major railroads out of the Pacific Northwest mostly do not run south, but east, to Minneapolis; and, having lived in Oregon, the whole style of life is broadly out of Garrison Keillor (ie. Lake Woebegone, but also the somewhat less idyllic world of WLT: A Radio Romance). That said, it seems safe to say that Romney will pick up Washington, Oregon, Idaho, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and probably Nebraska (265/240 delegates in hand, plus 204 additional delegates expected, for a total of at least 450 delegates).

In the South, Huckabee has won a large section of the "Bible Belt," and seems poised to pick up most of the rest, viz: North Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi, Kansas, and Texas (169/178 delegates in hand, plus 332 additional delegates expected, for a total of at least 500 delegates).

New Mexico, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania probably constitute an undefined ground between Romney and Huckabee (251 delegates). Virginia, with 63 delegates, seems hard to call.

McCain has won New York, California, and part of New England. He has also won the cities of St. Louis and Chicago, as distinct from the states of Missouri and Illinois per se. He has accumulated 559/597 delegates, but very few states in those categories still remain in play, so what does McCain do for an encore? He shows very little ability to attract votes outside of the core "Blue States." The Republican delegate allocation system is set up to favor small "Red States" at the expense of large "Blue States." A Republican Primary vote in Mississippi is worth about two-and-a-half times as much as a Republican Primary vote in California. It seems quite likely that Huckabee, Romney, or both will surpass McCain in total delegate count, with 600-700 delegates each.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/6/2008

Early voting would make more sense in a more structured primary system, with larger blocks of states voting at 2 or 3 week intervals.