Welcome to the most historic primary day in American political history. That's no hyperbole.
Consequential contests are being staged from coast to coast, two dozen in all, featuring three of the five biggest states (California, New York, Illinois), featuring tossup races in autumn bellwether states (Missouri, Arizona), with a passel of questions begging to be answered (will the large pool of undecided Democrats break for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton? will conservative Republicans slow the John McCain bandwagon and breathe life into Mitt Romney?), with roughly 40 percent of the delegates in each party slated for allocation, and with both nominations still hanging in the balance.
To make sense of the multi-dimensional maze, here's what I plan to track tonight (more specifically, here's what I plan to track in the wee morning hours, with caffeine administered via an IV line):
Cahleefoneyuh (to use Arnold Schwarzenegger's pronunciation). The land of milk and honey is the linchpin of Tsunami Tuesday - no other state awards as many delegates - although easterners will have to burn the midnight oil to find out what happened in the popular vote.
The California stakes are huge in both parties. On the Republican side, Romney's candidacy is probably doomed if he loses to McCain. Unlike the Democrats, the GOP awards all its delegates to the winning candidate. Unfortunately for McCain, however, the California GOP primary is open only to Republican voters; they're traditionally a very conservative crowd, and, given all the time spent in traffic, they listen to talk radio. That electorate drove a stake into McCain's first candidacy eight years ago. California's talk-radio conservative hosts are currently agitating against McCain, and the late polls suggest that Romney has a real shot. If Romney can win California, he'll be tempted to keep writing himself checks.
But the real drama is on the other side. The Clintons have been working California successfully since the '92 campaign, schmoozing with Hollywood big shots and Silicon Valley entrepeneurs. When Bill was president, the care and feeding of California (and lifting it out of its early-'90s recession) often seemed to be his first domestic priority. Hillary was ahead in the polls by double-digits not long ago; now she is reportedly tied with Obama, and perhaps even trailing in the wake of his late surge. (Is this due to voters people switching over? Undecideds breaking for Obama? Latinos being swayed by the Kennedys?) If Obama wins here, as a "change" candidate in the state where "change" often starts and then rolls eastward, the symbolic message will be huge.
It's a complicated situation - the delegates are awarded in accordance with how the candidates perform in each congressional district, and those results won't be known right away - but the winner of the popular vote will attain what I call 7-Eleven clout...meaning, what Obama wants is to have Americans drop by their local 7-Eleven for coffee and a newspaper, and see a giant headline announcing, OBAMA WINS CALIFORNIA. Needless to say, it's the same for Hillary, and, as I mentioned yesterday, she may have an advantage with the early-voters (an estimated 33 percent of the primary electorate) who cast their ballots before Obama took off.
Illinois and New York. The latter is Hillary's base, the former is Obama's base. I'll want to know which candidate is more succcessful in winning at home. For instance, will Obama's victory margin in Illinois exceed Hillary's in New York (or vice versa)? Right now, the polls suggest that Obama will win bigger in Illinois than Hillary in New York. This is important because of the way delegates are allocated, basically in proportion to how the votes are cast. If the polls are right (a big if, these days), then Obama will pick up more delegates on Hillary's turf than she will pick up on his turf. Whoever invades more successfully tonight will have some bragging rights tomorrow.
Missouri. Another state with strong symbolic value for the Democratic candidates. The state borders Arkansas, where Hillary once reigned as First Lady; on the Democratic side, it also has a mix of black voters (in the cities and suburban St. Louis County) and rural white conservative voters. The polls are virtually even. Whoever wins this high-turnout affair will probably spin the victory as a statement of autumn electability, because Missouri is one of our most durable bellwethers. In the last 104 years, it has voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election, with the sole exception of 1956.
Republicans in this primary season have lagged behind the Democrats in turnout, but the GOP race in Missouri is hot enough to bring people out. Romney needs to stop McCain here, because the state awards 58 delegates to the winner (a larger number than Missouri normally gets; the national party has given Missouri extra clout because it voted for Bush in 2004). The problem for Romney, however, is Mike Huckabee, who, according to the polls, is swiping religious conservatives away from Romney in southern Missouri, depriving Romney of the chance to unite all anti-McCain conservatives under his banner. (If this happens tonight, Huckabee will have further polished his political credentials to be McCain's running mate).
New Jersey. The nation's most suburban state, which has become fertile turf for Democrats in autumn elections, was once assumed to be strong for Hillary, its neighbor to the north. But polls suggest that Obama has been rapidly ascending here as well. If he can win in her territory - or, more likely, finish close enough to rack up significant delegates - the spin will be big. The same is potentially true in Massachusetts (where Hillary started way ahead, but where Ted Kennedy's pro-Obama clout will be tested), and Connecticut (where 13,300 former independent voters have re-registered as Democrats, and another 17,500 new residents have signed up to vote as Democrats, prompting me to wonder which Democrat has most motivated them to do so).
On the reverse side, Obama is expected to win big in Georgia, where the electorate is expected to be around 30 percent black; but Hillary can spin that state favorably if she does better than expected, and we'll know that early tonight because Georgia will be one of the first states to post results.
Arizona. Obama reportedly has been lagging badly with Latinos nationwide, and Latinos will comprise roughly 25 percent of the Democratic primary electorate. In polls not long ago, Hillary was ahead by a 2-1 margin. But, again, the gap has been narrowing, and this race could be a test of the Democratic governor's powers of persuasion. Janet Napolitano has endorsed Obama, so we'll see whether she has sway with other white women in the Democratic electorate.
All told, McCain seems well positioned to put a headlock on Mitt, notwithstanding the last-ditch opposition on his right flank (indeed, Christian conservative leader James Dobson announced today that if McCain gets the party nod, "I simply will not cast a ballot for president for the first time in my life").
The Democrats seem destined to fight onward. Maybe Obama was lowballing expectations this morning when he predicted "a split decision," and maybe Hillary spokesman Howard Wolfson was lowballing a few hours later when he said, "I don’t think that either side is in a position to win appreciably more delegates than the other." But, considering the way in which Democrats allocate their delegates, in rough proportion to the candidates' share of votes, it appears they are a long way from closure. Which might be good news for the hotels and restaurants in Ohio and Texas, in the first days of March.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. An obsessive evening awaits. And for those of you who are already craving some news, any news at all, here's a hot tip: Some of the earliest Democratic returns should be available by 7 p.m. EST...from American Samoa.