Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Setting the Stage for a "Better than Expected" Moment?

I prefer the moniker Potomac Primary to the alternate Chesapeake Primary, so I'll go with the former as I discuss the delegate selection events in Maryland, DC and Virginia over the next few days. As we've learned during the course of the delegate phase of these nomination contests, nothing can be taken for granted. A quick glance at the Real Clear Politics average of polls in Virginia (Dems/GOP) and Maryland (Dems/GOP) on both sides paints a seemingly clear picture: McCain and Obama should do well today.

However, that opens the door to the inevitable discussion of expectations. Bill Clinton was expected to finish back in the pack in New Hampshire in 1992. His better than expected second place showing though bolstered support for him as the next series of contests approached; helping to catapult him to the lead in the race for the nomination that year. That is probably the most famous (or oft-cited) example of the phenomenon, but gives pause to the idea of handing today's contests to either McCain or Obama. It never is completely about winning. The margins matter. This fits the Democratic contest better than the Republican race, where Huckabee can hope that evangelical conservatives can keep him competitive in Virginia and that's pretty much it (*The two recent Survey USA polls cited on RCP (see above links) show the gap closing in Maryland but is still double digits for McCain.). For the Democrats though, all is doom and gloom for the Clinton camp...if you read the media accounts of the race. The New York Times has her shifting the focus to Ohio and Texas; drawing a line in the sand on March 4. One superdelegate supporting Clinton was quoted in the article as saying:
“'She has to win both Ohio and Texas comfortably, or she’s out. The campaign is starting to come to terms with that.' Campaign advisers, also speaking privately in order to speak plainly, confirmed this view."
On the flip side, Obama is garnering headlines like: Obama Hopes to Rout Clinton in Primaries. I don't know, but titles like that seem to build the perception that today's events are over before they start; potentially laying the groundwork for a better than expected showing for Clinton. POTENTIALLY. There is a precedent this cycle to back me up on this. Anyone remember New Hampshire?

The Washington Post pens a slightly rosier story in answering a series of eight questions about the potential impact of region's contests today (The Post also has a nice rundown of what the candidates were up to on the last day of campaigning in the region.).
There are good reasons to avoid slapping [the frontrunner] label on Obama. One is that his margin in delegates will be far smaller than the number of superdelegates still undecided, and it is still assumed that the Clinton camp will be ferocious in its pursuit of those still undeclared. Another reason is Obama himself, who is likely to prefer to continue running as an outsider and an underdog.
Despite the naysayers, Clinton could still do better than expected today and ward off the momentum talk in relation to Obama's post-Super Tuesday performances. Winning one contest would be ideal (if unlikely), but keeping things in the single digits would go a long way toward shaping perceptions coming out of the today's elections (if only to keep the delegate allocations even). I should go ahead and caution everyone that these are completely arbitrary thresholds. The alternate take from the media could be that, no matter what the margins are, an Obama sweep is the story of the night. Further, we could begin to see some discussion of the "big mo'" with Obama-favorable contests in Wisconsin and Hawaii next week. One last thing that could bode well for the Clinton campaign is that all the contests today are primaries and not caucuses. Does that insure success for her? No, but the fact that these are not caucuses has not escaped anyone and it can't hurt.

I'll be back later in the day with a post updating the vote counting situations in Washington and New Mexico and with a results post tonight. In the meantime, the comments section awaits.

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