CHICAGO, IL — By the time that Super Tuesday finally arrived, the mystery was long gone. The day that had loomed for so long had lost its melodramatic make-or-break status for the Democrats. Hours before the vote-counting began, the top strategists for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were pitching the same line: the results would not be decisive and whoever ended up the winner would walk away with merely a small edge in delegates. And as the vote tallies started to come in, both campaigns declared non-defeat. That is, they each claimed to have done well. "Encouraging results," Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist said. "We're having a very strong night," said David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager. Both were right.
The two campaigns had plenty of data to spin as the results materialized. Clinton triumphed in California (by an overwhelming margin), Massachusetts (where a big turnout in women negated that Kennedy magic), Arizona, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Obama won in Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Delaware, Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, Utah, Idaho, and Missouri. Last-minute deciders, Penn said, went for Clinton. "Momentum is turning," he insisted. Plouffe noted that Obama was competitive in regions across the nation, that he won the caucus states (showing the campaign's organizational talent), and that he captured states that did not permit independents to vote (Delaware and Connecticut). Clinton was the Queen of California. Obama was the Master of Missouri.
But all that really mattered was the final delegate count (which was not easy to calculate in the hours after the polls shut down but was likely to be close)--and the fact that neither candidate was knocked out of the race. Despite the wipeout in California, Obama's senior aides appeared pleased, as they spoke with reporters at his election night celebration in Chicago. Pre-election polls had shown him trailing in most Super Tuesday states, and their goal had been to survive the day. They did. "The nominating battle will continue well past today's voting," Howard Wolfson, Clinton's communications director, told reporters. Only weeks ago, Clinton strategists were hoping this mega-primary day would end the race in their favor. Now they were talking about the coming slog, as if it had always been inevitable.
Super Tuesday did not live up to its do-or-die reputation because the Democratic field had been downsized to two strong contenders who push rather different memes. Clinton presents herself as the tried-and-tested hard-worker who can get stuff done. Obama offers himself as a transformative figure who can--due to his power to inspire--bring about change. It's math versus music. And after seven years of George W. Bush--during which the music was awful and the math was bad--Democrats crave both proven competence and uplifting inspiration. For many voters, it's a tough either/or. Super Tuesday demonstrated there is no consensus position within the party among its voters.