Super Tuesday, on March 2nd, suggests the Tuesday to end all Tuesdays,the most important of all the Tuesdays in the presidential primaries.
And, in some ways, it is. Super Tuesday is the traditional “big payoff” day in the primary schedule, when this year, ten states are up for grabs in the contest for the Democratic nomination, and a grand total of 1,151 delegates. That is more than all the delegates awarded to all the candidates in all the primaries and caucuses held to date. New York and California are the two biggest prizes, with California’s 370 delegates and New York’s 236 delegates.
Much has been written about the seeming incongruity of small states getting all the initial attention; about the squabbles between states wanting more of the early attention; about how adamant New Hampshire is in keeping its primary primary status. But there is a certain rationale to the schedule of primaries and caucuses, which provides the small states with all the initial fun, but gives the big states the last word.
Or put another way, if this were the Academy Awards, Iowa and New Hampshire would pick the pool of four or five nominees, and New York and California would pick the winner.
The Presidential primary system isn’t a race to the finish line, with the fastest, fittest, best trained candidate winning by a nose. It’s an endurance contest. It’s a system designed to identify the sole survivor, the last one standing, the one who can take the most punishment over the longest period and still emerge ready for another round.
The New York Times website has a list of all the candidates who have ever been in the 2004 Democratic Presidential race. When one of them drops out, their name is literally crossed off the list. This process of elimination not only forces candidates to display perseverance and unwavering commitment, it has the slightly sadistic aspect of getting harder as it goes on, because as each name is crossed off, the white hot buzz of scrutiny and attention readjusts and redistributes itself among those still in the race.
By the end of February, the Democratic Presidential contest had resolved itself into a two-man race between John Kerry and John Edwards, though Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton were officially sticking around.
In theory, the New York primary could have been a time when Howard Dean blasted past his opponents and reinvigorated his national followers using the base of young New York liberals and anti-war activists who had been the beginning of his national Meetup.org successes. But instead, Howard Dean blasted through more than $40 million in campaign funds and withered under the mounting pressure to win something, somewhere.
Howard Dean is gone, but his supporters are still around, and they may not be as fired up about Kerry and Edwards as their one-time leader was about, well, about everything. But they are still in play, and they are being courted by both camps. Edwards seems to be concentrated more on Dean's grassroots supporters, while Kerry went after the traditional Democratic political clubs and the endorsements of Democratic elected officials.
And so, as I write this, when New York Democrats go the polls the first week in March, they will have the opportunity to cross Edwards off the list and send Kerry on down the pike with an insurmountable lead, to a series of now ceremonial primaries. Or they could reward Edwards for his tenacity and put him in a virtual dead-heat with Kerry on the delegate count. (Although Kerry is being talked about as the all but certain nominee, his lead in the delegate count at the end of February was just over 300, less than a third of the delegates that will be chosen on March 2nd).
New York State is, in many ways, a political dichotomy: a big state, with a diverse population, containing both the nation’s largest city and biggest media market. But particularly in New York City, it is also home to old-school politicking, traditions and sensibilities that date back to the days of ward bosses. Unlike California, where all campaigning is done over the airwaves (even rallies are only staged so they can be shown on the six o’clock news), New York voters still expect to see their candidates face to face. And unlike New Hampshire where candidates have been known to go door to door, New York has enough delegates to not just pick a winner, but choose one.
Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.