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Front-Runners Can't Celebrate Just Yet

By Steven Stark

There's a terrific episode of The Twilight Zone, "The Odyssey of Flight 33," in which a New York-bound jet accidentally travels back in time to the prehistoric age. The pilots rev up the engines to try to return to the present and, after the jet has gained speed, the skyline of Manhattan comes into view. There is exultation for a few moments, until one pilot catches sight of the 1939 World's Fair.

"We came back," he says. "We came back . . . dear God, [but] not far enough!"

That's the situation the Obama campaign hopes it won't be facing as it heads into Super Tuesday, with more than 20 states voting in a kind of national primary that will likely determine the nominees of both parties.

By any objective measure, Barack Obama has run a terrific campaign, coming from nowhere to challenge the Clintons (and that, as we have learned, means both of them). Once faced with Hillary's seemingly insurmountable 30-point leads in both national polls and major states' contests, Obama's now reduced her lead to single digits in many places.

But the problem is that, though he has made impressive gains, Obama has to pass Clinton to win, especially since she has the lead in superdelegates. And as the race goes from a half-court game to a fast-break shootout, he's facing an electorate that, for the most part, isn't paying much attention to national politics.

That's a reflection of the cable and Internet age. In the old network-TV days, even Americans with little interest in politics got some exposure to electioneering from the nightly news or the local paper. So someone with Obama's electoral success would have been able to break through more easily.

But now most Americans get their information from one of the thousands of sources they choose individually, from Facebook to podcasts. The result is that, on the one hand, a small number of voters (including many in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Iowa) are more informed than ever from all the political coverage on the Net and elsewhere. But then, on the other hand, there's a far larger number who rarely, if ever, seek out any political news and have very little idea what's going on.

Even those Democrats who haven't been paying attention, however, have heard of Clinton. In contrast, in many places, Obama is still an unknown quantity, and when so many states will be voting at once, he can reach only very few of them through advertising.

Because the Democrats pick their delegates proportionately by congressional district, even if Obama loses most of the statewide contests this Tuesday, he will probably win almost half the delegates and be less than 200 delegates behind (with around 2000 needed to win the nomination). But the close delegate race will be a bit of a mirage: the flip side of a proportional scheme is that, once you get behind, it's also much harder to catch up.

As of today, here's how Super Tuesday stacks up for the two contenders. Fifteen states are holding Democratic primaries. (Caucuses are also being held in Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico, and North Dakota. Not only are fewer delegates at stake in these places, the media is unlikely to report them heavily.) As a baseline -- not a prediction -- Clinton currently appears to be the favorite in 11 primary states, Obama in four.

CLINTON Arizona (leaning), Arkansas, California (leaning), Delaware, Massachusetts (leaning), Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee (leaning), Utah

OBAMA Alabama, Connecticut (leaning), Georgia, Illinois

If that's the final result, the delegate race will be close, but Clinton will have the momentum and can close in on the nomination. If Obama can win a few of the Clinton states -- especially California, where he can gain anti-Hillary votes from Independents (who can vote in the Democratic primary but not the Republican one) -- it's a fight to the finish. If Obama wins fewer than four primary states Tuesday night, Clinton can probably start writing her acceptance speech.

The GOP Three

On the Republican side, it's a three-way race, with John McCain the front-runner. (Rudy Giuliani, who banked on an idiotic big-state strategy, is done.) For McCain to emerge as the nominee, he has to sweep, as expected, the three Northeastern states -- New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut -- which, delegate-wise, are each winner-take-all. As the hometown favorite, he'll obviously win Arizona (another winner-take-all state).

Mitt Romney can probably count on Utah and Massachusetts, two of his multitude of home states. Mike Huckabee seems likely to do well in the South, and of Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, he can probably count on some, and if he's lucky, all (though Romney or McCain would love to win one or two).

The key, then, is who wins California, Missouri, and Illinois. For Romney to challenge McCain, he has to win two, if not all, of that trio -- especially Missouri and California, since the former is winner-take-all and the latter is winner take-all by congressional district, and, as mentioned above, Independents can't vote in the GOP primary, weakening McCain.

So, by Wednesday morning, we'll also know the likely outcome of the GOP race: McCain (likely), Romney (less likely), Huckabee (even less likely), or a deadlock because none of the contenders could close the deal.

Boston Phoenix


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