8 Questions Super Tuesday Could Answer

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Will Either Race End Today?

1) Democratic strategist Bill Carrick put it best: "To paraphrase Churchill," he wrote in an e-mail, "the Democrats are at the end of the beginning and the Republicans are at the beginning of the end."

The Republican race is on the brink of ending, unless John McCain stumbles badly. GOP rules mean he should win a big batch of delegates by carrying such winner-take-all states as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Missouri. California has become more competitive, which prompted Mitt Romney to return to the state for a late rally. He hopes a win there will trigger a conservative backlash against McCain.

Even if McCain has a good night, 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.

The Democratic race will not end today and may not end for another two months. Today's contests will end up awarding more than 1,800 delegates -- half of the pledged delegates going to the national convention in Denver in August -- but 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.

What Constitutes Victory?

2) This is obviously easier to answer on the Republican side: The candidate who wins the most states and the most delegates will be today's winner, and that is expected to be McCain. On the Democratic side, party strategists say some combination of popular vote, states won and delegates accumulated will figure into the assessments of who won.

History suggests that winning states creates psychological success, which is to say that if either candidate wins a clear majority -- say, 14 or 15 of the 22 at stake -- that would be seen as a big night, even though the delegate count will probably show a very close race.

There will be a major spin war by the Clinton and Obama campaigns in what may be the most consequential such public relations battle since Walter Mondale's campaign spun itself out of a weak performance on Super Tuesday 1984. But there are reasons to be cautious about declaring winners and losers. Nevada is an example: Clinton had a higher percentage of voters in the state's Democratic caucus, but Obama may emerge with one more delegate. Polls in California do not close until 11 p.m. Eastern time, and late-arriving absentee ballots may not be counted until tomorrow.

What States Bear Watching?

3) In the Democratic race, California always merits watching, and all the more because of polls showing what was a healthy lead for Clinton shrinking on the final week. Clinton would have trouble recovering if Obama wins the popular vote.

Missouri is usually a general-election bellwether, and the two candidates have appeared evenly matched there. Keys there will be winning union voters and whether Obama's support from Sen. Claire McCaskill cuts into Clinton's strength with women.

Arizona is worth watching to see whether Gov. Janet Napolitano's endorsement of Obama can overcome Clinton's strength among Hispanics. In Massachusetts, Obama has the support of Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry and of Gov. Deval L. Patrick, but Clinton is very popular there.

New Jersey has lots of delegates, and its proximity to New York makes it Clinton country, but as in California, polls show the race tightening.

In the Republican race, California is worth watching, as are such Southern states as Georgia and Tennessee. The Southern states will tell two things: how much Huckabee is hurting Romney, and how well McCain can consolidate conservatives. "Significant wins in [Tennessee and Georgia] will signify an embrace by GOP conservatives -- critical if he's going to win in November," wrote Republican pollster Neil Newhouse.

Finally, as one GOP strategist put it, if Romney loses Massachusetts, "head out to dinner and take your time. It's over."

Where Will Edwards's Voters Go?

4) Before he ended his campaign, former senator John Edwards (N.C.) liked to say there were two candidates for change in the Democratic race. That would suggest that his supporters are more likely to shift to Obama than to Clinton. But strategists say the reality is more complicated.

Edwards had multiple constituencies, including loyalists from 2004, economic populists and anti-establishment voters. Clinton will draw more conservative and downscale Democrats because of her economic message. Obama will get antiwar, change-oriented Edwards voters and those who already had decided on Anybody But Clinton. Some may go into the undecided column or just stay home. Clinton will draw more of them in the South, and Obama may do better with them in California.

Whether Edwards's constituency will be critical in affecting the outcome of the Democratic race is an entirely different question. "The big waves affecting Obama and Clinton are going to prove more important than the ultimate decisions of the small group formerly committed to Edwards," wrote Democratic strategist Mark Mellman.

Can Obama Win Latino Votes?

5) Clinton won 64 percent of the Latino vote in the Nevada caucus two weeks ago, and her popularity with Hispanics is considered an obstacle to Obama's hopes of winning Arizona, New Mexico and California -- states with large Hispanic populations.

Obama is not well-known among Latino voters, and there have been suggestions of black-brown tensions that could complicate his efforts to cut into Clinton's margins. Democratic strategists say lack of familiarity is a bigger problem than racial tensions, and Obama's advisers point out that when he ran for the Senate, he did well among Hispanic voters.

Obama's advisers also hope that Kennedy's endorsement will influence Latinos, and the senator from Massachusetts campaigned in New Mexico and in Latino areas of Los Angeles late last week. The question is whether Obama can cut into that lead enough to win those states or keep Clinton's margins low enough to split the delegates.

Will Women Continue to Be Clinton's Secret Weapon?

6) By now, there is nothing secret about Clinton and women: She has relied on them everywhere. But they are her most important assets. Women made up 57 percent of the Democratic electorate in Iowa and New Hampshire, 59 percent in Nevada, and 61 percent in South Carolina.

Over the past month, Clinton has increased her margin over Obama among women in Washington Post-ABC News national polls. Right after New Hampshire, she had an 11-point lead. As of this weekend, it was 15 points.

Advisers in both campaigns will be carefully analyzing the exit polls tonight to see whether they continue to make up more than half the Democratic electorates and whether there is any slippage in Clinton's support. In reality, she may need to increase her percentages among women now that it's a two-person race in order to win a decisive edge in delegates.

Clinton won where she had a decisive margin among women and lost where she did not. As one Democratic strategist wrote, "If she doesn't win big with women, she doesn't win."

Can McCain Win Conservatives And Pro-Bush Republicans?

7) This is probably the week in which McCain starts winning Republicans in bigger numbers.

McCain lost them in his 2000 campaign against George W. Bush, and he has yet to win self-identified Republicans in any contest this year -- despite becoming the clear front-runner for the nomination.

McCain has also done better with Republicans who have a negative view of President Bush than among the majority of Republicans who still have a positive impression of the president.

But winning begets winning, and since Florida there are signs that McCain is beginning to attract more support from the base. "Rank-and-file Republicans will rally behind John McCain once the nomination is secured," wrote his former chief strategist, John Weaver. "Will there be some who have to enter a 12-step program before they can see their way? Sure. But they'll come along over the next several months."

Which Democrat Is Positioned for A Long Campaign After Today?

8) Obama may have the edge on this. His $32 million fundraising record in January shows that he will have more money than Clinton to wage a long campaign. He will also have more time to become better known in upcoming states than he did in the 22 states in which he is competing today.

The next round of primaries and caucuses this month tends to look better for him than for Clinton. Her strategists are pessimistic about her chances in Washington, Louisiana, Wisconsin and Maryland, as well as in the District. But they see Ohio and Texas on March 4 as critical states in which she has a foundation of support and could add to her delegate strength.

Rules for selecting delegates are structured in a way that makes it difficult for candidates to gain a decisive advantage unless they begin winning by margins approaching 20 percentage points. In this race, that could be difficult. At the same time, if one candidate falls behind in the count by as many as 200 pledged delegates, making up that deficit will be extremely difficult, given the rules.

Clinton's strategists are counting on the support of "superdelegates" -- those party leaders and elected officials who automatically have seats at the convention -- to build her delegate lead. In the early stages, she has such an advantage. But in the past, superdelegates tended to follow election returns. If Obama wins primaries consistently, he is likely to attract more and more superdelegates.

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.

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