January 9, 2008

An Early Call Perhaps Too Early to Call

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John Edwards noted that over 99 percent of people have not yet voted. Lou Dobbs blasted the media and its pundits for extrapolating the fate of the race so far ahead in time. Mitt Romney leads the Republican race by the one statistic that counts. For the many battles the candidates have fought so far, they still have a large war to wage. Although Iowa and New Hampshire will always hold a special place at the front end of the Presidential primaries, with both contests settled and done, have too many pundits overemphasized the influence of these and other early states?

Many times, both the pundits and polls have proven wrong. Clinton’s surprising comeback in New Hampshire completely caught the media off guard. With some polls predicting double-digit leads for Obama, and everybody talking about the disintegration of the Clinton campaign, Obama’s victory, the final nail in Clinton’s coffin, was inevitable—just as inevitable as Clinton’s victory was back in the summer. For Republicans, the biggest flip-flopper has been the voters, who now seem to have a new national favorite every day. Some proclaim Romney’s campaign dead after two second-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, but on the same token, McCain, who came out of nowhere to win New Hampshire, had been left for dead when his campaign imploded over the summer.

Perhaps the race may be more complicated than initially thought. After all, only two states and a tiny fraction of voters have participated, yet the media seems to determine an awful lot about the status of the top tier candidates from these preliminary results. In the end, the media does not decide the primaries, and even the voters do not decide it. Ultimately, delegates elected to each party’s nominating convention decide the race. They include a combination of regular delegates elected in the primaries and caucuses and also delegates not tied to any election result, the unpledged delegate for the Republican or the superdelegate for the Democrats.

So who is winning the race for delegates? On the Republican side, it actually is Mitt Romney. Even though he finished second in Iowa and New Hampshire, both times he found himself much closer to the frontrunner than to third place. Add to that his victory in Wyoming, giving him more delegates than McCain received in New Hampshire, and a slight edge in unpledged delegates, and Romney leads the pack with 30 delegates (using CNN’s projection), only one less than McCain and Huckabee combined. However, that hardly equates to a mandate for Romney. After all, Giuliani, who led the polls nationally for a sizable portion of the race, has as many delegates as Duncan Hunter, who virtually has no chance of winning.

As for the Democrats, Clinton only trails Obama by one among regular delegates. She received 15 delegates to Obama’s 16 and Edward’s 14 in Iowa in spite of her third-place finish. And as strange as the esoteric Iowa caucus rules (and math) may seem, at least Obama gained the most delegates when he won; Clinton, despite her stunning comeback in New Hampshire, won as many delegates as Obama. Actually, when New Hampshire’s superdelegates are included, Obama actually defeated Clinton in New Hampshire, but Clinton holds a commanding lead nationally thanks to the superdelegates. Her decisive edge among the superdelegates additionally points to the strength of her organization, one that no one should ever count out until at least Super Tuesday.

By any count, however, the number of delegates chosen so far proves quite miniscule compared to the total number of delegates elected. For Republicans in particular, any state holding a primary before Super Tuesday on February 5th was stripped of half their delegates, except for Iowa and a few other states whose caucuses are technically non-binding. Thus, even though many have doubted Giuliani’s strategy of ignoring the early states for delegate-rich states later in the primary, his strategy probably will work better than most media pundits will expect. For Democrats, Edwards only trails by seven regular delegates overall, a margin which he can quickly make up with a victory in South Carolina, where his odds look much better.

With that said, the delegate count does not account for the campaign’s momentum. It does not account for the money and resources the campaigns currently possess. It does not account for the poll numbers in states which have not yet voted. And even though the delegates have the final say on who wins the nomination, the current delegates counts themselves are projection, and CNN and AP differ considerably in their projection for Republicans in the Iowa caucus. So how does one determine who will win? Perhaps one important lesson can be learned from the early states. In New Hampshire, as Obama and Clinton remained neck-and-neck for hours on end, the projections of Clinton’s victory did not come until most of the votes had been counted. People had to wait the old-fashioned way in this contest, and they may have to do the same in the national one as well.

Mike Wacker is The Sun’s Assistant Web Editor. He can be reached at [email protected].