Among the national political reporters and TV talking heads who deliver and interpret news about the political primaries, there is a schism.
On one side are the momentucrats, who look for evidence that voters are rallying around a particular nominee. For the past couple of decades, momentucracy has ruled the day, and putative nominees have been named before any candidate has formally acquired the necessary number of delegates. In 2004, for instance, President Bush phoned John Kerry on Super Tuesday to congratulate him on securing the nomination, even though Kerry remained nearly 1,000 delegates shy of the magic number, and even though Kerry's chief remaining opponent, John Edwards, had not yet dropped out. Bush did this because the momentucrats had declared Kerry's nomination a fait accompli.
On the other side of the schism stands a new tribe of arithmecrats, who eschew trend-spotting based on popular-vote wins and losses, or money raised, or endorsements, or anything else except the slow and steady accumulation of convention delegates. The arithmecrats are a throwback to the days before 1972, when the majority of convention delegates were selected by means other than primary or caucus, and candidates had to count their delegates very carefully.
The momentucrats (for example, Dan Balz of the Washington Post) operate on the assumption that primary voters will snowball toward one Democratic and one Republican candidate on Super Tuesday (Feb. 5), or very soon thereafter. There is some danger that whatever trends emerge from Super Tuesday will be exaggerated by the momentucrats to the point where it will be hard to discern whether they are predicting winners or actually determining them. The arithmecrats (for example, Susan Milligan of the Boston Globe) operate on the assumption that Super Tuesday will decide nothing, and they entertain the thrilling possibility that we will witness the first brokered conventions since 1952. There is some danger that whatever trends emerge from Super Tuesday will be ignored by the arithmecrats in favor of entertaining implausible scenarios based on cockamamie delegate-selection rules that almost no one understands.
In my last installment, I examined the dueling momentucratic and arithmecratic paradigms as applied to the Democratic primaries. Today I turn to the Republican primaries.
John McCain's Jan. 29 victory in the Florida primary got him declared the GOP front-runner just about everywhere, from Reuters to Slate. This seems fairly legitimate. McCain now has more convention-bound primary delegates (95) than Mitt Romney (67); McCain beat Romney by a respectable five points, 36 percent to 31 percent; and this was a closed primary (that is, no independents—who tend to favor McCain—were permitted to vote).
On the other hand, prior to Florida, when Romney had 67 delegates to McCain's 38, and three primary or caucus victories to McCain's two, and a personal fortune to draw on for campaign expenses, which McCain lacks, one heard little talk of Romney being the front-runner. There's a simple explanation for this. Romney is a twerp and a fraud, and no one can stand him. Even Romney's former volunteer driver in his 1994 Senate race against Ted Kennedy wrote on the New York Times op-ed page that due to the phoniness of his presidential campaign, "the Mitt Romney I know is sadly unrecognizable to today's voters." A Jan. 24 piece in the New York Times carried the extraordinary headline, "Romney Leads in Ill Will Among GOP Candidates." Romney's fellow candidates don't like him, and neither does the press. The only reason he's made it this far (apart from that personal fortune) is that a sizeable number of conservative Republicans see Romney as the only candidate who can stop McCain, whom they view (with some justification) as a crypto-liberal.
McCain, on the other hand, has long been viewed as likable and sincere. Bill Clinton recently observed that his wife is "very close" to McCain and that the two candidates have joked that if they face each other in the general election, "they're afraid they'd put the voters to sleep because they like and respect each other." McCain got some bad press last spring for backing off his earlier criticism of the Christian right and the Bush tax cuts in an attempt to shore up his conservative bona fides, but lately McCain's comeback status and his greater accessibility to reporters (not to mention the apparent success of the military surge in Iraq, which McCain backed enthusiastically) have put him back in media clover. Consequently, when McCain engaged in some dirty (even gay-baiting) tactics against Romney in the Florida race, the press downplayed it.
The press's distaste for Romney and its affection for McCain create a strong likelihood that it will magnify in importance whatever gains McCain may achieve on Super Tuesday. Should Romney make a strong showing, however, momentucrats will be sorely tempted to defect en masse to the arithmecracy and declare (with New York Times arithmecrat Adam Nagourney) that this battle is being fought not at the state level but at the congressional-district level. There may even be premature predictions of a brokered Republican convention. The momentucracy's bias in favor of momentum is strong, but its bias against Romney may well be stronger.
Momentucratic analysis will be a more plausible tool for interpreting the GOP's Super Tuesday results than it will be for interpreting the Democrats' Super Tuesday results. That's because eight of the GOP's Feb. 5 primaries will allocate delegates on a winner-take-all basis, including two of the delegate-rich "big six" states, New York and New Jersey. All of the Democratic primaries will allocate delegates proportionally.
After Super Tuesday, however, GOP delegate accumulation will resume its previous pokey pace, with only two of the remaining 21 primaries and caucuses (Virginia and Vermont) awarding delegates on a winner-take-all basis. If no real trend exists (or if the media is unwilling to recognize any), arithmecratic analysis will come to the fore. Should this come to pass, arithmecrats may eventually achieve the Holy Grail of a brokered convention. But between today's numeric reality and that glimmering possibility stands a chain of ifs too long to consider.