Triumph of the Arithmecrats

Who says Super Tuesday produced no landslide?

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.

Balz doesn’t go so far as to predict a brokered convention—we haven’t had one of those since 1952—but he does suggest that the decision about whom to nominate would be left to the Democrats’$2 796 superdelegates—political officeholders and party officials who are free to choose whatever candidate they please. This is what happened in 1984, when the primaries left Walter Mondale roughly 40 delegates short of the necessary total going into the convention. Mondale and his closest rival, Gary Hart, hit the phones to rally superdelegates. Mondale quickly sewed up the nomination. Hart, who’d won 16 primaries and caucuses to Mondale’s 10, was shut out. While Mondale certainly had deeper party ties than Hart, the decisive factor was probably that Mondale had won more delegates in the state contests. Mondale’s delegates trumped Hart’s momentum. It was the arithmecrats’ last hurrah before they went into hibernation.

On the Republican side, Super Tuesday coverage has tended to declare McCain the winner. “McCain Gains Wide Support,” said the New York Times; “McCain Dominates Big States,” said the Washington Post. Even here, though, news of McCain’s victories is tempered somewhat. The Times subhead was a relatively mild “Romney Set back,” and the Post’s was “Huckabee, Romney Stay Alive as They Score Wins in the South and West.” Of the GOP’s 21 Super Tuesday states, McCain won not quite half, a strong showing but not an overwhelming demonstration of the big mo. McCain has now won 12 states to Romney’s 11. To get the real picture of who’s winning the GOP race, you have to count delegates. According to the Associated Press, McCain has 694 primary delegates to Romney’s 253. Ergo, McCain is winning.

In theory, the arithmecrats’ triumph should mean that our understanding of who’s winning, who’s losing, and by how much should be much more precise than it would be if we were dependent on the momentucrats’ more subjective methodology. In practice, that is only intermittently the case. As Christopher Beam points out in Slate’s “Trailhead” blog, news organizations’ calculations about delegate allocation are all over the map and have been changing throughout the day. This is partly because different news organizations come to different conclusions about whether to include delegate estimates from caucus states where subsequent state meetings may alter the totals; or about whether to include delegates whom the Democratic and Republican parties say (as of now, anyway) won’t be seated at the convention because their states disobeyed party rules by scheduling early primaries or caucuses; or about whether and how to count superdelegates, whose loyalties are often vaguely expressed and constantly in flux. But, apparently, there is also some disagreement simply about how to count primary delegates, period. Presumably, this more basic uncertainty will be resolved in a day or two as vote totals are refined. In general, delegate counts tended to favor Obama earlier today, but drifted toward Clinton as the day progressed, though the differences between the candidates remained small. The AP’s count, for instance, is 787 for Clinton to 763 for Obama, while CNN’s count is 625 for Clinton to 624 for Obama. These numbers will probably have changed yet again by the time you read this.

The question now is whether the arithmecrats will continue to prevail as the primary season continues. In other words, will the arithmecracy acquire momentum? The question has the quality of a Zen riddle. Balz now seems to think the arithmecratic paradigm will likely prevail through the end of the primary schedule, but that may simply reflect a lingering reluctance on his part to give up momentucratic thinking in all forms. A more authentic arithmecratic view, it seems to me, would be that one mustn’t predict at all. Just sit back, empty your mind, and let it happen. A yoga mat might help.

Momentucracy Vs. Arithmecracy Archive:

Feb. 1, 2008:  “On the Media” interview about momentucracy and arithmecracy, New York Public Radio
Jan. 30, 2008: “Momentucrats vs. Arithmecrats, Part 2
Jan. 28, 2008: “Momentucrats vs. Arithmecrats
Jan. 21, 2008: “Is Obama Winning?”
Dec. 11, 2007: “Whose Nominee Is It, Anyway?”