February 7, 2008

No full stops on Tuesday

This article originally appeared in The Indian Express on February 7, 2008.

As presidential contender John McCain has repeatedly pointed out, February 5, or ‘Super Tuesday’ — when several state-level party elections for US presidential nominees were held — was the closest thing to a national primary that the United States had ever experienced. Yet given its unprecedented importance, Tuesday’s manic electoral exercises did little to winnow the presidential field, as in elections past.

The biggest surprise, possibly, was former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s strong showing. Huckabee swept the conservative, and mostly southern states of Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, West Virginia and his home state of Arkansas. The major loser from Huckabee’s unexpected performance was former governor Mitt Romney, who had hoped to secure the conservative vote in his bid for the White House. Romney had been calculating on several major victories over the more moderate McCain, including in California, but managed wins only in Minnesota, Utah, Colorado, North Dakota, Montana and his home state of Massachusetts. More critically to Romney, Huckabee took away enough conservative votes to grant victory in many key states to McCain, who cemented his status as Republican frontrunner.

Arizona senator McCain won the big states of New York, New Jersey, Illinois and California, along with other key states such as Missouri, where he benefited tremendously from Huckabee’s presence. McCain was also assisted by the Republicans’ winner-takes-all system, which enabled him to win all of a state’s delegates, despite garnering as little as one-third of the state’s vote. There is now an overwhelming likelihood that McCain will be crowned his party’s nominee at September’s national convention, especially if he were to win significant victories in a handful of subsequent primaries.

While Super Tuesday cleared up the Republican race to some degree — mostly by upending Romney’s campaign — the Democratic race was only muddled further. At the time of this writing, Senator Hillary Clinton, the former first lady, had been projected the winner in eight states, including the major delegate-rich states of New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and California. Her victory in Massachusetts was one of Tuesday’s biggest surprises, as her chief rival Barack Obama had received several high-level endorsements in that state, including those of Senators John Kerry and Edward Kennedy, and Governor Deval Patrick.

Despite these significant wins, Clinton’s control over the Democratic nomination remains far from secure, as Obama won an estimated 13 states, and the two were essentially tied in a 14th, New Mexico. However, most of Obama’s wins — with the exception of his home state of Illinois — were in smaller states with fewer delegates: his most significant victories were in Missouri, Georgia, Colorado, Minnesota and Connecticut. Yet his performance was credible enough for him to remain a major contender on the Democratic side.

The Democratic race will likely be decided only in subsequent contests. Primaries or caucuses will be held in eight states, including Washington, Louisiana, Wisconsin and Virginia later in February; six states, including the large, delegate-rich states of Texas and Ohio in March; and the final eight states, including Pennsylvania and North Carolina between April and June. Should the nomination process carry on that long it will not only tax the Clinton and Obama campaigns’ admittedly enormous financial resources, but may also threaten the party’s sense of unity. More likely, a series of significant wins for one candidate by early March will force the other to throw in the towel.

This year’s Super Tuesday did not correspond to recent historical precedents. At the same stage in 2004, John Kerry all but wrapped up the Democratic nomination, while in 2000 both Al Gore and George W. Bush had effectively sealed their nominations. In the latter contest, the relatively early South Carolina primary proved crucial. Despite some initial setbacks, Bob Dole won the vast majority of state-level contests to clinch the Republican nomination in 1996, while Bill Clinton’s securing of the nomination came with victory in New York.

In short, the 2008 presidential primary season is destined to be one of the longest and most competitive in decades. On the Democratic side, the seeming inability by either major candidate to clinch the nomination stems from the presence of two well-funded, popular and powerful contenders. On the Republican side, the cause is the exact opposite: widespread discontent with the field of candidates.

Despite the relative lack of clarity in both nomination races at this juncture, speculation has already begun on potential vice-presidential nominees. Hillary Clinton is widely expected to offer the vice-presidential nomination to Obama, should she win. There has been a groundswell of popular support for Obama, especially among young, independent and minority voters, many of whom would be alienated should Clinton snub him. Other candidates frequently mentioned as potential Democratic running mates for either Clinton or Obama include Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, Governor Ted Strickland of Ohio and former governor Mark Warner of Virginia. All are Caucasian males from traditionally Republican or ‘swing’ states, whose presence on the ballot could prove crucial for Democrats in November’s presidential election.

Among Republicans, the picture is less clear. Some have speculated that Huckabee may join McCain’s campaign as a running mate, to boost McCain’s weak conservative credentials. McCain and Huckabee reportedly have great respect for one another personally. Others frequently mentioned include conservative Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and, rather surprisingly, Senator Joe Lieberman, an Independent-Democrat, who ran as Al Gore’s running mate for vice-president in 2000. Lieberman surprised many in Washington by crossing the political aisle to endorse McCain’s campaign, which was then in the doldrums.