The “Potomac Primary”: Surprisingly Consequential

William A. Galston
Bill Galston
William A. Galston Ezra K. Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

February 13, 2008

For months, the so-called “Potomac Primary” (Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia) on February 12 languished in the shadow of the previous week’s Super Tuesday, when more than 20 states made their choices. In the end, though, the Potomac voters in fact clarified the challenges facing the remaining candidates.

On the Republican side, John McCain’s three victories put an end to any lingering hopes by his adversaries that the Arizona senator could be stopped short of the majority he needs for the nomination. At the same time, the pattern of his support shows that many elements of his party are not yet reconciled to his candidacy. In both Maryland and Virginia, Mike Huckabee prevailed among voters who are strongly pro-life, very conservative, or regular church-attendees. Among voters who said that McCain was not conservative enough (41 percent of the primary electorate in Maryland and 49 percent in Virginia), Huckabee ran up margins of 43/30 and 61/25, respectively.

McCain now faces a delicate balancing act. He is competitive in head-to-head matchups with the two Democratic front-runners on the strength of his appeal to independent voters. Yet, it is hard to see how he can win in November without solid support from the conservatives who are the heart and soul of his party. He faces two defining choices—how he presents himself to the American people, and whom he selects as his running mate. To maximize his appeal to the electorate as a whole, he would probably prefer to emphasize his credentials as a maverick reformer as well as national security hawk. And for vice-president, he would probably prefer to look toward officials–such as Florida’s moderate conservative Gov. Charlie Crist—who could help secure a crucial swing state. But movement conservatives have already made it clear that they expect very different kinds of choices.

On the Democratic side, Barack Obama’s smashing victories have broadened, at least for now, his coalition of supporters. He ran strongly among all age groups and income levels, and among women as well as men. And his string of victories since Super Tuesday has added to the sense of excitement and momentum that surrounds his campaign.

There were some bright spots for Hillary Clinton, however. Despite the powerful Obama tide, she carried white Democrats in Maryland, 55/42, and in Virginia, 56/44. She prevailed among Latinos in Maryland, 56/44; there were too few in Virginia to allow reliable statistical measures. She beat Obama among Catholics in Maryland and lost them narrowly in Virginia while running 13 points better among Catholics than among Protestants. In principle, these pockets of strength should enable her to do much better in Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island on March 4 than she did in Maryland and Virginia.

Clinton’s problem will be to get to March 4 in a vigorous competitive posture. It has become clear that, unlike Obama, her campaign had no plan for the states, territories, and other entities making their choices between February 5 and the end of the month. This has enabled Obama to rack up a string of victories, many by super-majority margins that have fattened his delegate count and allowed him to take a clear lead among pledged delegates. Clinton might well have been competitive in Wisconsin, but tellingly, while Obama staged a huge February 12 rally in Madison, she flew to El Paso.

Sixteen states and Puerto Rico have yet to decide, and the last contest will not occur until June 7. But Clinton’s time-horizon is much shorter than that. If she does not win both Ohio and Texas—and do so by margins convincing enough to reduce Obama’s growing margin among pledged delegates—many of the nearly 400 superdelegates who have not yet made a public choice will likely begin to declare for Obama. Some will do so because they believe that he will inevitably become the nominee; some because they conclude that he would be a stronger general election candidate, and some because they do not think it wise (or legitimate) to overturn the expressed preferences of rank-and-file voters. For Democrats, the next three weeks may well prove conclusive, and they surely will not be dull.