Republican Front-Runner, Democratic Muddle: Super Tuesday and Beyond

Republicans took a giant step toward selecting their nominee on Super Tuesday; Democrats did not. This fundamental fact will define the flow of events in coming weeks.

Not only did John McCain win the bulk of the large states; he virtually swept the states awarding their delegates on a winner-take-all basis, coming away with 301 of the delegates in those states to only 61 for Mitt Romney and 48 for Mike Huckabee. On Feb. 5, McCain had only a 16-delegate lead over Romney; as of the morning of Feb. 6, his lead had swelled to 360, and he had well over half the delegates needed to secure the Republican nomination.

There are some warning-signs for McCain, however. Riding a surge of support among evangelical Christians, Huckabee’s underfunded campaign did surprisingly well, prevailing in West Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas, and coming close in Missouri and Oklahoma as well. Even more ominously, McCain lost the conservative vote in nearly every state.

Huckabee and Romney now have some hard choices to make. Each has a basis for continuing, but neither has more than an outside chance of prevailing. The demographics of the 22 states that will cast their votes between now and June 3 tilt against Huckabee; most of them are outside the South and lack the heavy concentration of evangelicals that form the base of his support. And while Romney can continue his effort to establish himself as the conservative opposition to McCain, he will be hard-pressed to do well enough to close the massive delegate gap that separates him from McCain, especially if Huckabee remains in the race.

A continuing Republican contest will complicate McCain’s principal task, which is to reach out to disgruntled conservatives and unify his party. McCain’s speech on Thursday to a national meeting of conservative activists will surely be closely watched. If McCain can persuade conservatives that he is an acceptable choice, he will have a reasonable chance in November. If conservatives decide to sit this one out and try again in four years, McCain will be fated to run a gallant race in a losing cause.

The Democratic contest is now clear in one sense, muddled in another. Super Tuesday’s results confirmed the demographic divisions that have increasingly characterized the race. Barack Obama continued to do well among voters who are younger, better-educated and wealthier; he solidified his support among African-Americans; and he ran strongly among men, including white men. But Hillary Clinton’s base of women and working-class voters held firm, and Obama was probably disappointed not to have done better among Latinos, who broke strongly for Clinton, especially in California. (Clinton also won massively among Asian-Americans, an important voting block in California.)

So much for clarity; the muddle is over delegates. Yes, Obama won more states. But on the morning of Feb. 5, Clinton held a narrow 71-delegate edge; as of the morning of Feb. 6, by one count, her lead was . . . 76! No doubt these numbers will change as precise totals from congressional districts come in. But the conventional wisdom that the Democratic party’s strict proportional allocation of delegates would yield an even split on Super Tuesday has been vindicated. Nor can Democrats rest their judgment on the popular vote, which split evenly between the two contenders. The race will continue for at least another month, and probably longer.

The post-Super Tuesday Democratic contest will divide into three phases. Between now and the first week of March come states—Washington, Louisiana, Nebraska, Maine, District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Hawaii—in which Obama is likely to do very well. Phase two begins on March 4, with Texas and Ohio—states in which Clinton appears to hold an edge—at stake. This phase will likely end by the first week of May, by which time Democrats in Pennsylvania and North Carolina will have made their choice.

And then the final act of the drama. The nearly 800 “superdelegates"—mainly elected officials and members of the Democratic National Committee—will have it in their power to decide the party’s nominee, and they will have all the information they need to judge which of the contenders would run a stronger general election race against McCain. If they shift decisively in one direction, the race will be over. If they do not, the outcome could be determined by an intra-party fight over contested delegations representing two states—Michigan and Florida—who held their primaries earlier than Democratic party rules allowed and who were deprived of their delegates as punishment.

A credentials fight would be the least legitimate, most divisive way of bringing this exciting race to a close. No doubt party officials are already thinking hard about how to avoid it.