The Super Tuesday Stakes

Democrats

Barack Obama:

At a minimum, Obama needs to keep the overall delegate count relatively close, so that even if he falls behind Hillary, he won’t be in a position where he needs to sweep the rest of the primaries and caucuses to catch up. Even though delegates are given out proportionally at the district level, Obama also needs to win multiple states in different regions to make a statement about his national viability.

A good day for Obama—or at least a day that meets expectations—includes wins in Illinois (his home state); Georgia and Alabama in the South (where he’s led or run even in polls and where large black populations will buoy him); scoring virtual ties in California, Missouri, Arizona and New Jersey; pulling off an unexpected win or two (perhaps in Connecticut or Massachusetts; and scoring decisive wins most of the small red states (Kansas, Alaska, Idaho, Utah, North Dakota) that his campaign as targeted in an effort to prove that he has the confidence of Democrats in Republican-friendly areas.

A great day would include a victory in California—a powerful psychological boost, if he can pull it off—plus wins in most of the toss-up states (like Missouri, Arizona, Colorado) and in Hillary’s backyard (in New Jersey or Connecticut—or both—and a strong showing in New York). If Obama can win California, secure more delegates overall than Clinton, and win more states than her, he stands to emerge from Super Tuesday as the front-runner, in terms of delegates and momentum.

And even if he can’t do all of that, a California win alone—assuming there aren’t any major surprises elsewhere—might be enough for the media to dub him the day’s winner.

Hillary Clinton:

The best thing that Clinton has going for her is that she leads—however narrowly—in most Super Tuesday states. The problem is that momentum has been on Obama’s side for the last 10 days.

She starts off as the presumed winner in New York, Arkansas and Oklahoma. If she can hang on in California (where some polls now have her behind), Missouri, Arizona, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Tennessee, she will probably be the day’s delegate leader and will also be able to declare a national victory, with big-state wins in several regions. A bonus will be if she can pick off several off the small red states that Obama has targeted. Even if the delegate count is relatively close, Clinton can benefit if she is the winner (again, however narrowly) in most states, which will feed perceptions that Obama is a strong challenger—but not quite strong enough to get over the hump against her.

The worst-case scenario to Hillary would be if the states where she now hold tenuous leads all slip into Obama’s column, particularly if he beats her in California. Losing the day’s delegate race to Obama would be demoralizing for Hillary, and so would losing the majority of states—especially if (outside of Arkansas and Oklahoma) her wins are limited to the Northeast.

Wildcard:

John Edwards suspended his campaign—as opposed to dropping out—meaning that his name will still appear on ballots and he can still collect delegates (he has 26 already). In the past, candidates who have done this have occasionally added dozens or even hundreds of delegates after suspending—like Paul Tsongas in 1992. If Edwards can break 15 percent in some states, he could theoretically collect enough delegates to become a powerbroker at the Democratic convention if the Clinton-Obama race goes unresolved.

Republicans

John McCain:

The most important state for McCain is California. Even if he has a big day elsewhere, a loss to Mitt Romney in California will allow Romney to press on. Ominously, McCain has fallen eight points behind in the latest Zogby poll in the state.

McCain also needs to do well—or at least prevent Romney from winning – in Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee and Oklahoma. He is virtually assured of victories (and delegate windfalls) in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Arizona and Delaware. Dominating those states, pulling out California, and keeping Romney in check in the South and Missouri is the recipe for a decisive Super Tuesday for McCain. A bonus would be a victory in Romney’s Massachusetts.

Mitt Romney:

Romney’s goal is to emerge from Super Tuesday with the media and party faithful unconvinced of McCain’s inevitability—and for them to write off Mike Huckabee once and for all, thus giving Romney a clear one-on-one shot at McCain.

To accomplish this, he must win California. Even though the state’s delegates are distributed proportionally, a victory in the nation’s largest state would make a powerful psychological statement and help off-set the lopsided delegate advantage McCain figures to enjoy for the day.

Romney also needs to score victories in states like Missouri, Oklahoma, Georgia, Tennessee and maybe even Alabama, where Huckabee’s presence has been a serious detriment to his efforts, siphoning off the religious conservatives Romney has been targeting. Not only does Romney need to win those states to off-set McCain’s advantages elsewhere, he also needs to clearly outperform Huckabee for the day—which means winning in the former Arkansas governor’s backyard and lapping him in the delegate race.

If Romney can win California and numerous Southern states, deprive Huckabee of any meaningful victories, and hold on in his home state of Massachusetts, the media might declare Super Tuesday a surprising success for him, giving him one last chance (with a marginalized Huckabee) to dethrone McCain.

If Romney is boxed out by Huckabee or McCain in the South and only wins California, he will still be able to justify continuing his campaign, but he’d be so far behind in delegates that it wouldn’t reverse the rapidly cementing impression that McCain is on course for the nomination.

And a failure to win even California could lead Romney to hang it up soon after Super Tuesday.

Mike Huckabee:

He will barely register in Northeast states and in California and he’s essentially exhausted his nomination chances, but Huckabee is a major factor in Arkansas (which he should win), Missouri, Oklahoma, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. Winning all—or most—of them is a stretch, but Huckabee has made it clear that stopping Romney (perhaps to earn a spot on a John McCain-led ticket?) is important to him. To that end, he may do just enough harm to Romney, by draining votes from religious conservatives, to allow McCain to win several southern states.

The best case for Huckabee on Super Tuesday would be winning more states and securing more delegates than Romney. Short of that, he seems happy enough to block Romney in the South.

The Super Tuesday Stakes