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Super Tuesday down to the line

Bruin experts weigh in on the vote

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By Ajay Singh

Published Feb 5, 2008 2:35 PM


Between the time you read this and go to bed tonight, the results of primaries and caucuses in most of the 22 states will be in, capping one of the most exciting, unpredictable and unusual electoral exercises in recent history.

Today's Super Tuesday vote follows a remarkably atypical campaign: For the first time since 1952, neither an incumbent president nor vice president is in the race; and never before has a woman or an African-American candidate had a serious shot at running for president.

UCLA faculty who are experts on the political process and presidential campaigns are closely watching what may become a historic turning point for the nation.

"If you had told me that an African-American candidate will win Iowa, come a close second in New Hampshire and beat Hillary Rodham Clinton in South Carolina, I would have been quite surprised," remarked Mark Sawyer, associate professor of political science and the Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies.

One of the most astonishing turns in the campaign is the highly competitive nature of the race for the presidential nomination.

"Usually parties know who they want their candidates to be — and that focuses people's attention," observed Lynn Vavreck, an assistant professor of political science and a scholar of presidential campaigns. "Obama is giving Clinton, the [Democratic] focal candidate, a run for her money." And the Republicans didn't have a probable frontrunner until Arizona Senator John McCain swept the Jan. 29 primary in Florida.

Because Super Tuesday is being held in some of the nation's most populous states, including California, New York and Illinois, "we are now moving into the part of the process where the main thing is not just winning the most votes in a state, but winning the most delegates at the congressional district level," explained Mark Peterson, professor of public policy.

To get a presidential nomination, candidates need the support of a majority of delegates at their party's national convention. (For Democrats, who will convene in August in Denver, the magic number is 2,025 delegate votes; Republicans, who will meet in September in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minn., have a winner-takes-all system whereby delegates are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in a state.)

Obama, whose candidacy has been surging nationwide, has injected in key areas of California the highly effective precinct-style, door-to-door campaigning that helped him become a senator in his native Illinois.

"It's a very important strategy," said Sawyer. "Clinton may win the overall vote in a lot of places, but her share of delegates may not be commensurate with that."

Super Tuesday has attracted much criticism for so-called "frontloading" of the primaries, whereby states compete to hold their contests earlier instead of spreading them over weeks or months. The practice is nothing new — but its sharp acceleration this year has forced candidates to curtail campaigning in many states. Further, the scheduling of the caucuses and primaries appears to have affected some political fortunes.

"It is certainly one element in the decline of Rudy Giuliani, who was far ahead and in such a short time has gone down to nothing," said Daniel Hays Lowenstein, a professor of law who is an expert on election procedures. "You have these little states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina — that have such a big impact on the process."

A less deliberative contest tends to affect the quality of the debates, especially in the case of the Democratic contenders, who espouse similar policies. "The attributes that become important are not issues but who has the greatest opportunity to win, the ability to govern most effectively, take hold of big ideas and move them forward — who has the character one wants to see personified in the White House," said Peterson.

Overall, Democrats appear to be happier with their candidates than Republicans are about theirs.

"That means a lot of people are really undecided," said Peterson, adding: "They are still looking for cues to help inform themselves about whom they want to support."

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