Primaries You Never Knew Existed

When is a primary not a primary?

I feel as if we’ve been asking that question every five minutes. First, the Michigan primary didn’t matter. Then Florida. Today, the state of Washington joins the club as the latest primary to not matter at all .

But, wait, didn’t Washington vote already? Yes, and that’s the point. The state held its caucuses on Feb. 9, when Obama swept with 68 percent to Clinton’s 31 and McCain eked out a victory over Huckabee. But according to state rules, both parties also must hold a primary. The Republicans have chosen to allocate 19 of the state’s 37 pledged delegates in today’s primary; the Democrats have chosen to give zero. So in an ironic twist, the uncontested contest (McCain vs. Huck) has delegates at stake, whereas the contested contest (Clinton vs. Obama) does not. Each contest means nothing in its own special way.

But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from Michigan and Florida, it’s that any contest can be squeezed for meaning, no matter how few delegates are at stake. The Clinton campaign’s strongest argument for having Florida count has been turnout —how can you ignore the wishes of 1.5 million voters? Washington is also expected to have super-high turnout, given that most voters vote by mail and 30 percent of voters in some counties had cast ballots a week before election day. If the primary tally favors Hillary, watch the Clinton campaign use it to try to stanch the bleeding of the past eight contests. A Clinton victory would also boost their claim that Obama can only win caucuses, while giving the strong impression of a reversal.

Only in the most rational, left-brain, up-is-up-and-down-is-down state of mind can you say that the Washington primary means nothing. But this election has been about as rational as a cucumber. At this point, it would almost be more surprising if Washington’s primary didn’t end up deciding the nomination. So maybe that’s a stretch, but keep an eye on the results tonight. If there’s anything there that could stunt Obama’s growth, expect to hear that Washington matters after all.