Momentucrats vs. arithmecrats.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Jan. 28 2008 6:58 PM

Momentucrats vs. Arithmecrats

Is the delegate count becoming more important than the big mo?

The front pages of the Jan. 28 New York Times and Wall Street Journal suggest an emerging and perhaps historic fissure within the momentucracy.

Previously I explained (here and here) that the presidential nomination process was governed by an informal network of political reporters and TV talking heads that gropes collectively toward naming the winner before any candidate has the requisite number of delegates. These momentucrats perform their task by interpreting candidate momentum. Because momentum does not yield to scientific measurement, momentulogy is a subjective enterprise that blurs the distinction between predicting an outcome and determining it.

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Over the past two decades, the primacy of momentum has become so great that this year five states—Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Wyoming—defied the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee by moving up the dates of their primaries and caucuses, prompting the national parties to punish them by refusing to seat many of their convention-bound delegates. (The Democrats stripped Michigan and Florida of all their delegates, while the Republicans stripped all five states of half their delegates.) The prodigal states calculated that this disenfranchisement was worth it if, in exchange, they could help influence early voting trends. In effect, they calculated that contributing momentum in January was more valuable than contributing delegates in February or March, when as likely as not the momentucrats would already have designated the nominees.

But is momentum still king? The unpredictability of this year's primary season is creating a crisis of confidence within the momentucracy, and some momentucrats are now reverting to the plodding delegate-counting method of bygone days. They are morphing into arithmecrats.

Case in point: Adam Nagourney of the New York Times. In a Jan. 28 Page One story ("Races Entering Complex Phase Over Delegates"), Nagourney announces that this is "the first time in over 20 years in which the campaign has turned into a possibly lengthy hunt for delegates, rather than an effort to roll up a string of big-state victories." On Super Tuesday (Feb. 5), 22 states will hold primaries, including populous and delegate-rich California, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, New Jersey, and Georgia. Among this big six, only New York and New Jersey will award delegates on a "winner take all" basis, and then only for Republicans. Otherwise, these six states will distribute delegates proportionally. In a race with no clear front-runner for either party nomination, that means candidates will end up battling not at the state level, but at the congressional-district level, where delegates are awarded. Among other things, this means that if you are an Obama supporter who happens to live in Clinton's adoptive home state of New York, where she's heavily favored, your Obama vote nonetheless has a fighting chance of doing your candidate some good.

In a separate story posted online Jan. 28, Nagourney writes that "both [Democratic] campaigns are looking at the contest now" as "a race for delegates." But they aren't necessarily consistent in spinning it that way to reporters. Clinton aides, for instance, are apparently trying to sell reporters on the idea that the Jan. 29 Florida primary will likely create momentum for Clinton, who is expected to win there. Never mind that the Florida primary won't deliver any Democratic delegates. Similarly, the Obama campaign oversold its South Carolina victory—not because Obama's support was disproportionately black, but because the proportional distribution of delegates representing all races still gives Clinton 12 delegates to Obama's 25.

Unlike the newly minted arithmecrat Nagourney, the Wall Street Journal's Christopher Cooper and Amy Chozick remain unreconstructed momentucrats, judging from their Jan. 28 Page One story, "Obama Gains, but Still Lags in Big States" (registration required). Indeed, Cooper and Chozick go so far as to call Obama Super Tuesday's "underdog," a strange designation when you consider that Obama will enter Super Tuesday leading Clinton in convention-bound primary delegates 63 to 48. Granted, when you add in superdelegates (who are not selected in primaries or caucuses), Hillary takes a strong lead. But if Obama continues to outpace Clinton on delegates acquired through voting, these superdelegates will surely transfer their allegiance to Obama.

In a larger sense, the Journal reporters are able to demonstrate that momentucratic analysis maintains considerable relevance to the 2008 election, and may yet carry the day. Obama "trails Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York by large margins in polls in most of the big states" that will vote on Super Tuesday, they note, and the broad dispersal of potential Obama voters in these 22 states makes it both expensive and difficult to reach them in the short time left. Clinton, by contrast, can focus more of her money and attention on the big urban areas, where she has the advantage. The Journal cites polls showing Clinton ahead 43 percent to 28 percent in California (441 delegates), 51 percent to 25 percent in New York (281 delegates), and a somewhat shocking 59 percent to 22 percent in Massachusetts (121 delegates). Of the big six Super Tuesday states, Obama leads only in his home state of Illinois (51 percent to 22 percent; 185 delegates) and Georgia (41 percent to 35 percent; 103 delegates).

On the other hand, some of these polls date back as far as two weeks, which appears to be an eternity in this race. But on yet another hand, it would seem, based on the limited and no doubt faulty polling information at our disposal, that to reap significant benefit from Super Tuesday, Obama will have to generate a lot of, er, momentum from his South Carolina victory.

Momentucrats and arithmecrats have apparently fought each other to a draw. But little-d democrats who don't want Tim Russert choosing their party nominee should take heart. As recently as last month, momentucratic reasoning was the only practical tool to interpret the presidential election. Now we have a dialectic. I call that progress.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.