Making sense of Tuesday's orgy of primaries and caucuses in 24 states (plus American Samoa for the Democrats) will be like watching an old-fashioned pinball game from inside the machine. Lights will be flashing, balls will be whizzing, bumpers will be bouncing, sirens will be screaming, and near-incomprehensible numbers will be exploding on the scoreboard. But what it all means and how we got there will tax the abilities of the TV networks (who are treating it like "Primary Night in America"), traditional news organizations, Web sites and armchair analysts around the world.
The Republican race should have one dominant story line -- the coronation of John McCain. Unless the polls are grotesquely wrong (and after survey miscues in New Hampshire and South Carolina that remains a slim possibility), the Arizona senator should score a coast-to-coast triumph, sweeping winner-take-all primaries in New York and New Jersey and picking up a lion's share of the delegates in California (which allocates them based on the statewide result and the winner in each of 53 congressional districts).
But unless Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee manages to organize a last-minute McCain Mutiny by winning more than a handful of states, the GOP contest will effectively be over before anyone has to learn the intricacies of Republican delegate-allocation rules. Ron Paul -- talk about a "change" candidate -- does have a snowball's chance of prevailing in the all-important Alaska caucuses.
The Democrats, though, rarely take the easy route in choosing a presidential nominee. All 1,681 pledged delegates (the magic number for nomination is 2,025) up for grabs on Woozy Tuesday will be awarded proportionally, which means that neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama is likely to score a breakaway victory. (Please remember all the usual caveats about the unreliability of polls, the track record of pundits and the volatility of voters.) As a result, the returns from the 15 primaries and 8 caucuses on the Democratic side should be analyzed both for themselves and for their ability to create -- or crush -- momentum for the long slog to the nomination.
This de facto national primary has, in some ways, cheated the voters by giving them a rushed crash course in Politics 2008. A full week-long media buy in the Feb. 5 states would cost in the neighborhood of $35 million. But both Clinton (who has been circumspect about her campaign finances) and Obama (who claims to have raised a stunning $32 million in January) have been cherry-picking media markets. As of last weekend, according to a study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Obama has spent only about $11 million and Clinton $8 million in these states.
Most of the whys and wherefores that will be ballyhooed on television Tuesday night will come from the exit polls. Even when these voter surveys are totally on the money (as they have been so far in the primaries), they remain crude instruments for divining public opinion. The reason: The questionnaires have to be much shorter than standard polls since voters will be filling them out standing up, and sometimes in inclement weather. In South Carolina, for example, 57 percent of Democrats said that Bill Clinton's campaigning in the primary was "important" -- but it is impossible to know for sure from the exit polls whether his aggressive tactics convinced more voters to support or oppose his wife's candidacy.
Another cautionary note is about the dangers in drawing ironclad conclusions from preliminary returns. Democratic delegate-selection rules can lead to counterintuitive results, such as in Nevada where Clinton won the caucuses but Obama came away with one more delegate. A potential cause for delay is that more delegates will be awarded by congressional district than by the statewide results. In California, election officials in 21 counties have warned about overnight delays in tabulating votes because of a change from electronic voting machines to paper ballots. What this means is that Clinton or Obama may have Tuesday night bragging rights to having carried California based on the exit polls, but the purported "winner" could end up with a minority of the delegates at stake.
The Democratic Party has been down this dark and twisty road before. On the first Super Tuesday (consisting of mostly Southern and Western delegate contests) in 1984 -- when political coverage belonged to the broadcast TV networks and the newspapers -- Walter Mondale dominated the headlines by winning two important primaries (Alabama and Georgia) with early poll-closing times. After the anchormen signed off and the papers went to press, the news trickled out that Gary Hart had swept all the Western caucuses and was the overall Super Tuesday delegate winner. But Mondale trounced Hart in the election-night spin contest.
Here are a few things to watch for on the Democratic side early in the evening before everyone starts treading water in the tidal wave of returns.
Georgia -- The first returns of the night will begin to roll in when the polls close at 7 p.m. (EST). While no one will be proclaiming, "As Georgia goes, so goes the nation," it will be illuminating to see if Obama attracts anything like the 78 percent of the African-American vote as he did in neighboring South Carolina. In South Carolina, John Edwards (who has since dropped out) finished first among white men, with 44 percent in a three-way race. It will be worth watching how Georgia now splits in a race between a woman and an African-American.
Alabama and Tennessee -- The polls here close at 8 p.m. (EST) and these states should quickly indicate whether the trends from the Georgia exit polls can be extrapolated through the South.
Illinois -- Obama's home state (8 p.m. EST closing time) should not offer much suspense about the outcome. But this is another place where it would be worth watching to see how white male Democrats split their vote in downstate Illinois.
Massachusetts -- At 8 p.m. (EST) we will also get a quick test of the power of endorsements. From Sens. Ted Kennedy and John Kerry to Gov. Deval Patrick, this state has become the launching pad of Obama campaign surrogates. But Massachusetts also has a vibrant blue-collar Democratic tradition -- and Clinton's performance among lower-income voters could be a bellwether for the evening.
Connecticut -- The candidates' own polls clearly indicated that Connecticut is up for grabs, since both Clinton and Obama were campaigning in the state Monday. (The best way to read a campaign's strategy is to watch where they send the candidate.) With the polls closing at 8 p.m. (EST), we should know fast the power of Obama-mania in Clinton's backyard. Working against Obama is that this is a primary open only to registered Democrats.
New Jersey -- Results from the fourth largest delegate haul of the evening will start coming in at 8 p.m. EST. Since independents can vote in the Garden State (unlike New York and Connecticut), we will soon know whether Obama is demonstrating his crossover appeal to these swing voters.
Arizona -- At 9 p.m. (EST) we will get our first look at the Latino vote in a primary out West. If Clinton does not roll up a large margin among this group in Arizona, it does not bode well for California, where the polls close at 11 p.m. (EST).
Minnesota -- While it is always difficult to draw larger conclusions from caucuses (since only a fraction of registered Democrats participate), Minnesota has perhaps the most vibrant caucus tradition in the Democratic Party, aside from Iowa. The caucus voting should be over by 9 p.m. EST -- and we should get another snapshot of how Obama is doing among party activists.
By the time we finally learn what happened in American Samoa (either Clinton or Obama will presumably come out with a 2-to-1 majority in the caucuses), our attention will probably have shifted to next Tuesday's Potomac primary with Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia all voting Feb. 12. Even though a numerical majority of Democratic delegates will have been selected by the time the final returns trickle in on Wednesday, the real Super Duper Party Pooper Tuesday may come on March 4 when Texas and Ohio hold primaries that could (note the conditional) select the nominee.