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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Actual Super Tuesday Story Lines

So the big day has finally come and gone, and the short interpretation of the results is that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama remain locked in a tight competition that will continue for at least a month or two, while John McCain’s nomination appears increasingly certain, though accompanied by a notable lack of enthusiasm.
There’s enormous confusion today about the delegate count on the Democratic side, primarily because actual delegate awards in many states await final certified returns. One objective estimate has Obama slightly ahead in terms of pledged delegates won yesterday; another gives Clinton a tentative lead. Overall, her significant lead among superdelegates ensures that she does indeed lead Obama in total delegates to date. RealClearPolitics estimates that Clinton currently has 900 delegates, and Obama 824. That’s without, BTW, any delegates from MI and FL, and with approximately 400 superdelegates remaining undeclared. But want to know how close Super Tuesday really was? A calculation by Tom Schaller (with votes still out, especially in NM) gives Hillary Clinton 50.2% of the total votes cast yesterday, and Barack Obama 49.8%. Now that’s a tie!
On the Republican side, it’s a very interesting situation, that can best be summarized as follows: John McCain looks beatable, but not by either of the actual candidates still in the race. Mitt Romney did well in a handful of western caucuses, but didn’t win a single primary outside MA. And while Mike Huckabee had a very good day, his strength remains isolated in states with large conservative evangelical voting populations. It’s almost impossible to see a “path to the nomination” for anyone other than McCain, though his continuing palpable weakness among self-identified conservatives doesn’t seem to be going away.
I thought it might be useful to look at the results from the point of view of the anticipated story lines I wrote about yesterday:
1) Turnout: Anecdotally, turnout was high yesterday in most of the country, and in both parties, with Democratic turnout once again being far more impressive. It’s difficult, however, to make the sort of comparisons with past turnout levels that were common after IA, NH and SC, for the simple reason that very few Super Tuesday states have had competitive primaries in the recent past. Two that did have significant 2004 Democratic primaries were GA and TN; Democratic turnouout in GA was up by more than 60%, and in TN, by about 50%. BTW, D and R turnout in the Deep South states of GA and AL was roughly even, reversing a recent trend towards much higher GOP turnout.
2) Exit Polls: By the time polls closed in the East, much of the political cognoscenti of the whole wide world had seen early exit polls showing what looked like a very big night for Barack Obama. He appeared to lead in three major states (MA, NJ and AZ) that he ultimately lost, and the margin for HRC in CA grossly undershot the actual vote. Though outside the blogs, political observers were careful not to explicitly report these exit polls, they undoubtedly affected the coverage. Meanwhile, early exit polls for the Republicans appeared to systematically overstate the vote for Mitt Romney, showing him ahead in two states (MO and DE) where he wasn’t ultimately competitive, and suggesting a strong Romney vote in others (e.g., CA, IL and GA) that never actually materialized. This, too, probably influenced coverage as the shank of the evening was dominated by news of one disappointing Romney result after another (indeed, on MSNBC, discussion of whether Romney would withdraw kept getting comically interrupted by “calls” of late caucus states for the Mittster).
3) Expectations: In general, the television networks did a reasonably good job of not letting expectations dominate their interpretation of the results, particularly on the Democratic side. In no small part, that’s because conventional expectations had shifted so rapidly in the runup to Super Tuesday that the media narrative never quite adjusted. Two weeks out, Super Tuesday looked likely to be a Clinton romp, with the big question being whether Obama could win enough delegates to avoid giving HRC a prohibitive lead. But then reports of an Obama Surge in state after state, along with the realization that he would likely win a lot of midwestern and western caucuses, began to shift expectations towards something resembling a draw. A handful of late polls, mostly by Zogby, seemed to suggest the possibility of an Obama “breakthrough,” and that theory was reinforced by the early exit polls. But in the end, a tie was pretty much reported as a tie, with some gabbers viewing this as good news for one candidate or the other. On the Republican side, there was a lot of talk last night about Mike Huckabee’s relatively strong performance, with some suggestions that he had displaced Romney as the main challenger to McCain. But in general, a big step towards the nomination by McCain was the expectation, and nothing happened to unsettle it.
4) Racial/Ethnic/Gender/Partisan Voting Patterns: this was undoubtedly the most complex cluster of story lines for Super Tuesday. The Democratic results, featuring Obama wins in a variety of lily-white caucus states, pretty much reburied the “Obama Can’t Win White Voters” talk that developed just before SC. Obama also appears to have won white voters in CA. There was a burst of early media excitement when the exit polls for GA were released, showing Obama getting over 40% of the white vote there; but right next door, in AL, the vote was more polarized on racial grounds, with Obama’s white vote coming in at 22%. Tons of pre-Super Tuesday buzz suggesed that Obama might be making gains among Latinos, and Clinton’s advantage in that demographic were reduced somewhat in AZ and NM. But in general, she maintained a better than 3-2 margin among Latinos, and attracted a very large Latino turnout in CA, while winning 69% of their votes (an interesting footnote is that a rarely-mentioned racial group, Asian-Americans, went even more heavily for HRC in CA than Latinos, and represented a ;arger percentage of the CA vote than African-Americans). Meawhile, Obama continued to consolidate his hold on African-American voters, scoring in the high 80s among them in GA and AL, and winning more than 60% even in NY, and about 80% in NJ).
Nothing happened on Super Tuesday to disturb the pattern of a sizable gender gap on the Democratic side, with the overall composition of the electorate favoring HRC, or of Obama’s strength among self-identified independents. Obama managed to win the female vote in GA and AL, where he obtained monolithic African-American support, but nowhere else outside of IL in the primary (as opposed to caucus) states. As for the partisan breakdown, Obama comfortably won independents even in states he lost (AZ and CA); in one very tight open primary, MO, Obama won 67% of the indie vote, which made up 22% of the electorate.
Thanks to the closed nature of most of the Republican primaries and caucuses, John McCain continued to overcome the perception that he can’t win without indies. But he also continued to struggle among self-identified conservatives. In IL, which he won with nearly a majority of the vote, he took only 35% of conservatives (Romney won 34% and Huckabee 23%). And in CA, where McCain won 42% overall, he trailed Romney among conservatives by a 39-33 margin.
There are plenty of other dimensions of the Super Tuesday vote I could go into or simply haven’t had time to look at, including age, income, and issue preferences. It’s safe to say, however, that the big story lines: a tie between the Democrats, and slow but steady progress by McCain towards the nomination, are pretty much settled.

3 comments on “Actual Super Tuesday Story Lines

  1. Jon on

    A belated followup … the scope of the voting problems keeps growing. The Registrar of Voters in LA County is now claiming [farcically, in my opinion] that it is impossible to determine the intent of 49,500 ballots. There were major problems in New Mexico (privatized voter rolls), Louisiana, and the Washington State Republican caucuses (Huckabee has threatened a lawsuit).
    With voting machine vendors under huge financial pressure this is likely to get worse unless something is done. Right now the California story is the most interesting — there appear to have been problems in Santa Clara as well, and we’re still waiting for the results on 800,000+ provisional ballots.
    Even with just the confirmed disenfranchisement, though: 49,500 … wow.
    More here.

  2. edkilgore on

    Thanks; I hadn’t heard about this when I did my post; it was hard enough to track down the basics from all those states and their exit polls.
    I personally hate all forms of disenfranchisement, though I tend to attribute them to incompetence rather than malice on most occasions. If your estimate of the effect is right, it’s hard to say whether or how much it might have changed the ultimate delegate count (assuming that Clinton as well as Obama voters were affected, and given the relatively low number of delegates being apportioned in each congressional district).
    Still, it’s worth noting, and as we learned in 2000, a lot of small things sometimes add up to big consequences.
    Ed Kilgore

  3. Jon on

    What about the “Double Bubble Trouble” disenfranchisement in California? It looks like hundreds of thousands of people may be affected.
    The first estimate I’ve seen (which may well be low) is that this has a 1.5-4% effect in LA County, and .5-1% statewide. They’re considering a recount; no word yet whether this will get broadened into investigation of other kinds of disenfranchisement.


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