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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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How To Read the Early Results

The following is an email I received last week from a Romney supporter:

How do you call McCain the front runner when Mitt Romney has more delegates and has won more republican votes in all the primaries?

That's a good question, one that several emailers have asked me. To be fair, I have been very cautious in my approach to McCain's candidacy. I think he faces some serious opposition in the Republican Party. Unlike previous nominees, McCain is not a consensus candidate. Instead, he has inspired a faction of the party to oppose him. And in a system like ours, factions are often able to prevent things from happening. So, they might be able to stop him.

Beyond this, I think the emailer asks a fair question. After all, this is a race to win a party nomination. This means it is about delegates. So, shouldn't they be our focus? Aren't we wrong to focus so relentlessly on who has won which states? Doesn't that obscure the true dynamics of this race?

Well - yes and no. I think that the proper way to look at the race is somewhere in between. Yes, the delegate count is important. But who is winning and who is losing is important, too. What we need to do is find a mode of analysis that integrates each into a coherent scheme.

But first we should define our terms. We are contrasting two different ways to look at the nomination process. The first is the competition for delegates. This is what Giuliani was stressing prior to his December collapse. His campaign was saying something like, "It's all well and good who wins Iowa, but the fact of the matter is that Iowa's delegates to the convention will not be chosen until the summer." This was similar to the Romney camp's basic line after Michigan - "We are focusing on Nevada more than South Carolina because Nevada has more delegates."

The second is the "beauty contest." Up until the 1970s, that is all that primaries were good for. They did not factor into delegate allocations. They were used simply to get a read on the preferences of the party rank-and-file. So, those who view these early elections as beauty contests care only about who wins and who loses. At its extreme, this form takes primary elections like general elections. The winner is the candidate who wins the most votes. The rest are losers.

So, which of these is the better way to look at these early contests? I think both of them are insufficient. Both miss a big part of what is happening.

On the one hand, it is too hasty to start looking at delegate counts. Doing this is like identifying a vote leader after 6% of precincts have reported. Right now, Romney has a 19-delegate lead. However, there are 2,380 delegates who will decide the Republican nomination. So, Romney has 2.48% of the total delegates. Huckabee has 1.6%. McCain has 1.35%. This is a negligible lead - especially in light of the fact that Super Tuesday will allocate about 39% of all delegates.

What is more, following the delegate count is simply not the way the press looks at these races. And, regardless of how narrow its view of things is, the fact is that the press' perspective matters. When you get right down to it, many voters are essentially ambivalent when it comes to the candidates. They can be swayed by positive or negative media coverage, which almost always follows a win or a loss. We call this momentum, and its presence can make a state more important than the delegates it offers. New Hampshire is a great example. The Granite State has just 12 delegates at this year's GOP convention - but the way the results were covered launched John McCain to the front of the national polls. We can debate whether or not it should be this way; but the fact remains that it is this way.

On the other hand, looking at these early states just as beauty contests - with one candidate deemed the winner and the rest deemed losers - brings a different set of problems. Focusing exclusively on who won a plurality of votes obscures two important features. First, it matters how a candidate wins the votes he wins. What was the voting coalition that he put together? This is an important feature to know before we generalize from the state in question to the nationwide electorate, which is what is really important. Second, it also matters who he ran against. It might be the case that Candidate A beat Candidates B and C - but by the time the next state rolls around, C will have exited the race, giving B an advantage over A.

These considerations point to how we should examine the early contests. We alter the metaphor a little bit: we take the early states not as beauty contests, but as exhibition games. We look at the voting coalitions the candidates are forming in the early contests, and infer how they will factor when delegates are awarded en masse on Super Tuesday. This means that it matters who wins a plurality of votes, but this is surely not all that matters. Candidates can lose and still show signs that they are putting together a voting coalition that will deliver the nomination. This also means that we take the early contests seriously, but we do not make them out to be more than they are. When they are properly understood, they are our best indications of how candidates will do on Super Tuesday. No more, no less.

On the Republican side - this helps answer the emailer's question. As of today, Romney simply cannot be seen as the GOP frontrunner. Though this might change tonight, John McCain is currently the candidate who has put together the larger voting coalitions in more competitive states. Romney essentially bowed out of South Carolina - where three other Republicans were competing. He won Michigan, but it appears that his victory was based in part on his deep roots with the Wolverine state. On the other hand, McCain is at best a tenuous frontrunner. His voting coalitions have sampled heavily from Independents. Without them, it is questionable whether he would have won New Hampshire or South Carolina. In many Super Tuesday states, he will not be able to rely on them. And, while he has great appeal with moderates and some appeal with conservatives - he has failed to win a plurality of strong conservatives in any state. Whatever happens today in Florida, the results will probably be too close to be determinative. So, the five states to date indicate that no candidate has yet won a sustained voting coalition that could carry him to victory on Super Tuesday.

-Jay Cost