Super Tuesday was a landslide. Not, I'll grant you, for any Democratic candidate, nor even for John McCain, the Republican front-runner. But among the political reporters and TV talking heads who interpret elections, it wasn't even close. The arithmecrats routed the momentucrats.
Momentucrats interpret primaries and caucuses not by carefully counting accumulated delegates but by reaching consensus with other momentucrats about momentum, a somewhat imprecise concept measured through polls, funds raised, expectations met or unmet, and other ephemera. For the past two decades, momentum was the dominant paradigm for political analysis, and primary candidates routinely were declared putative nominees well before they'd acquired the necessary number of delegates. Here's how Ron Brownstein, political director of Atlantic Media and a former political columnist for the Los Angeles Times, explained it to me just two months ago, when momentucrats still ruled the roost:
We don't nominate presidents anymore by getting to the point where somebody has a majority of the delegates. We nominate someone when we get to the point that there is a communal sense that one of the candidates has effectively won the nomination and the race is over.
That was then. What Brownstein couldn't have known was that the arithmecrats were about to stage a comeback.
Arithmecrats interpret primaries and caucuses the old-fashioned way, i.e., by counting the number of delegates each candidate accumulates during the primary season. For arithmecrats, it ain't over till the fat lady sings—though, being a literal-minded bunch, arithmecrats might bristle even at that familiar metaphor. Arithmecrats were all but extinct until late January, when a disquieting lack of clear direction in primary voting put them back in the game. The arithmecratic paradigm was truer for the Democratic contests than for the Republican, largely because the former tend to distribute delegates proportionally while the latter tend to distribute them on a winner-take-all basis. But on Super Tuesday, neither party produced a decisive trend. Super Tuesday was the momentucrats' Waterloo. They got whupped.
A Wall Street Journal headline says it all: "McCain, Huckabee Take Key States; Clinton and Obama in Close Fight." According to Josh Marshall on Talking Points Memo, last night the New York Times headline was "Clinton and McCain Win Big Victories," or something to that effect. But by this morning, the editors had toned down their paper's description of the Democratic race to "Clinton and Obama Battle." The Washington Post similarly bannered, "Clinton and Obama Trade Victories."
Dan Balz of the Washington Post was until recently an ardent momentucrat. (Headline over Balz's Jan. 8 story: "Little New Hampshire Could Hold Big Significance for Both Parties.") Now, however, Balz is predicting that the primaries won't decide the Democratic nominee:
Unless one of the two candidates starts winning consistently and by substantial margins, it seems unlikely that either can accumulate the 2,025 delegates needed for the nomination by the time Puerto Rico casts the last votes of the primary-caucus season on June 7.