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How Will "Victory" Be Measured on Super Tuesday?

One of the more interesting variables going into tomorrow's Super Tuesday events on the Democratic side is how the chattering classes choose to measure victory, and of equal importance, how they contextualize the results in terms of the nomination contest.

On the first issue, "victory" could be measured by total delegates won, by the percentage of state contests won, or by performance against expectations. The sheer number and highly variable size of the states and territories participating in Super Tuesday probably makes the second measurement unlikely. The first measurement makes the most sense, but as we learned in Nevada, it isn't that easy to assess delegate totals in time to come spilling out of the mouths of television talking heads or the keyboards of print reporters trying to meet an evening deadline.

As for expectations measurements, which political observers love like a wino loves zinfadel-in-a-box, it's all gotten a bit complicated in the last few days. A week ago, HRC looked likely to win a large majority of the contests, especially in the big states not named Illiinois, and many of them by double-digit margins; this expectation nicely set up Obama to "win" on Super Tuesday by picking off an unexpectated state or two, or coming close enough to win nearly half the delegates in mega-states like CA. Now that Obama's had a well-publicized surge in the national and state polls, along with a bunch of newspaper and celebrity endorsements, he runs some risk of failing to meet expectations if he loses the big contests by any margin.

Complicating the Super Tuesday Election Night picture immeasurably is the time factor. Polls won't close in CA until 11:00 p.m. EST. And just as importantly, CA officials are expecting a very slow count. A 2007 ruling by the Secretary of State required the replacement of most touch-screen voting machines by paper ballots, which are obviously harder to count. Moreover, many absentee ballots will be dropped off at polling places, and won't be counted until after the on-site ballots are completely compiled and reported. One estimate is that 13% of the vote won't be counted at all on Election Night.

What all that means is that unless exit polls show a decisive winner in CA, the big national election night story will be about other places, such as MA and CT, where Obama appears to have all but eliminated big early HRC leads in the polls, or NJ, which has tightened up. Again, the results could cut either way according to the "expectations" yardstick.

But that leaves the other issue I posed initially: how will Super Tuesday be reported in terms of the overall nominating contest? Barring a big win by either candidate tomorrow night, that question is actually easier to answer. It's finally beginning to sink in that Super Tuesday won't be the decisive event that nearly everyone (myself included) thought it would be a couple of months ago. Yes, 1681 delegates will be apportioned based on Super Tuesday results. But another 1300-plus delegates will be determined by later contests (the exact count is almost impossible to determine based on such imponderables as last-minute affirmative action delegate allocations), and at present, 400 superdelegates remain undeclared. Even after that, there's the prospect of a fight over the current rule barring the seating of delegates from MI and FL.

It's possible, of course, that a monomaniacal determination to pick a clear winner and loser tomorrow night will lead the commentariat to decide that Obama's got irresistable momentum, or that HRC's turned back his challenge and is again "inevitable." But we're probably at that point where the hard numbers of delegates won should begin to displace all the psychobabble in nomination contest discussion.