February 11, 2008
by Charles Bierbauer
Super Tuesday did what we thought it could. And, then again, it didn’t. It sorted out the Republicans and stretched out the Democrats.
Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama are in a race that could run right up to the Democrats’ summer convention if the Democrats want to risk the bloodying that might entail. Mitt Romney has bowed out, as much to avoid the continued bludgeoning Republicans might endure had he stayed in. John McCain is the nominee apparent. Mike Huckabee will eventually fold his evangelical tent. He has made his point that the conservative Republican right is uneasy with McCain, perhaps enough to get Huckabee a spot on the McCain ticket.
The good news for McCain is that he can anticipate some rest and replenishment, though there are still primaries and delegates to be won before the nomination is a lock. But in McCain’s experience, Super Tuesday may have only been surpassed by the day he was freed as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. This is a different kind of relief, but again a measure of vindication for McCain’s perseverance just months after his campaign appeared to be dying.
The bad news for Clinton and Obama is that there will be little rest, and the need for financial replenishment won’t go away. There are more primaries this week and next. Texas and Ohio in March. Pennsylvania in April.
What do we know that we didn’t know before Super Tuesday?
The Democratic Party has some real rifts in the appeal of its candidates along ethnic and gender lines. Obama can attract white votes, especially now that John Edwards is out of the race. He’s still dominant with African-Americans. Clinton has an edge with women, and since women are a majority of all voters, that edge is critical. She is strong with Hispanics who don’t line up with African-Americans. Broad strokes, of course, but sharp enough to suggest that each state presents unique challenges based on its demographics. Note how many Super Tuesday states were won by wide majorities.
The Republican Party has a gulch between its very conservative wing and its moderate middle. Romney could not buy enough votes with all the money he pulled out of his own pocket. Huckabee did not need much money to appeal to the evangelicals and didn’t have much to broaden his appeal. McCain is on his way to the nomination because he was the only Republican acceptable to moderates and independents and, therefore, the only candidate with a chance of a November victory.
What did we know that Super Tuesday confirmed?
The primary calendar always favors those who can make the long haul. A candidate first has to get noticed—the retail politicking of Iowa and New Hampshire facilitates that. A candidate needs to gain traction—the elder George Bush called it the “Big Mo” of an early caucus or primary victory. Momentum brings money for the long haul. In the long haul, delegates are what matters.
It is much easier to win—or lose—delegates on the Republican campaign where winner-take-all or winner-take-most states abound. It is a much longer slog on the Democratic campaign where delegates are mostly apportioned according to the actual vote. If Obama and Clinton continue to divvy up the primaries, the uncommitted party officials who are “super delegates” become the critical deciding force.
The calendar, of course, is brutal. It begs reconsideration. The states’ mad competition to be among the first to cast votes created the Super Tuesday dash through more than 20 states. Ironically, the states that abandoned March or even April dates may wish they’d held what may turn out to be a more decisive place in the process.
Michigan and Florida especially jeopardized their impact by defying Democratic Party rules in order to leap to the head of the queue. The party retaliated by stripping away the two states’ convention delegates. We’ve undoubtedly not heard the last of that action if the Clinton-Obama race remains so tight that Michigan and Florida delegates would be decisive. Al Gore’s Florida lawyers must already be preparing their legal briefs.
Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns for CNN from 1984 through 2000.
He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.