It seemed like a general election last night as we followed state-by-state results, east to west, in the Democratic and Republican nominating contests.
Regrettably, the final and big contest of the night, in California, was fouled somewhat by the fact that millions of early absentee ballots had been cast well ahead of Tuesday and that former Sen. John Edwards and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, already withdrawn from the race, thus drew percentages of the total vote that might otherwise have fallen to the real contenders.
But the people spoke, in large numbers, and they clearly are energized by this year's national election. And to the surprise of most analysts, including myself, neither party's nominee was decided in the Super Tuesday contests. Our Washington caucuses will mean something this Saturday.
It was a good thing we had the election results to distract us. Otherwise news would have been dominated by yesterday's calamitous 370-point drop in the Dow and 73-point falloff in the Nasdaq index. International markets weakened overnight, and God knows what will happen to U.S. markets today. What is particularly worrisome about the market falloff is the fact that there is nothing whatever in the financial or economic fundamentals to justify it. The abrupt ups and downs in the market have been triggered, for the most part, by traders and speculators who know and care little about the fundamentals. (More on this below.)
Here are the big things from last night:
Both parties' presidential nominees are unlikely to be determined until at least early March. After last night's 24-state extravaganza, the pace will become more measured. Democrats will caucus in Washington and Nebraska on Saturday and in Maine on Sunday. Republicans will caucus in Kansas and hold a Louisiana primary on Saturday.
The next big contests will take place next Tuesday, Feb. 12. The Washington Beltway Battle – primaries in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia – will absorb TV's political talking heads, who are mainly based in the capital, and also will provide a good and balanced test to both parties' contenders.
The next showdown contests, and chance for a breakout by a frontrunner, will be March 4 in Ohio and Texas. But one or both parties' contests could extend beyond that.
The candidates' patterns of support are becoming apparent. On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Clinton is proceeding from a base of over-50 women, lower-income, and less-educated voters and Latinos. Sen. Barack Obama's base is essentially the Eugene McCarthy/Gary Hart/Bill Bradley/Paul Tsongas base of better-educated and higher-income professionals, independents, and youth – plus the committed support of African-American voters of all ages and genders. Clinton and Obama are evenly matched and both are well financed.
On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain has a base of active and retired military, foreign-policy hawks, and Republicans and independents who like his prickly, maverick reputation. His voting record is one of the most conservative in the Senate. Yet, in this race, he is presenting himself as a principled "moderate." His principal competitor, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has a far more moderate record. He was elected and governed successfully in the country's most liberal state. Yet he is presenting himself as conservatives' last hope to stop the politically unreliable McCain. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who had Dixie and border-state victories last night, has a limited base in the party but will be able to bring enough delegates to the national convention to bargain on the platform. He probably sees himself as a vice-presidential nominee but that will not happen. The Republican nominee will be expected to carry the same states on his own. His running mate likely will come from the West or North.
The problem for both McCain and Romney is that they lack truly committed supporters within their own party. That is not a problem for either Clinton or Obama.
Democrats' chances are looking better. A month ago I would have bet on a close race to the wire in the general election. That still could happen. Polls presently show McCain, for instance, running neck and neck with either Clinton or Obama. But I expect that to change. McCain's candidacy is based in large part on the bet he placed on the present "surge strategy" in Iraq. Fortunately for him, the surge at least temporarily has stabilized the situation in the country and reduced American casualties. But continuing good news in Iraq is a weak reed on which to base a presidential campaign. Moreover, as the campaign has proceeded, McCain has consistently demonstrated his general ignorance of financial and economic issues. That is where yesterday's market falloff comes in. Will voters be willing to trust big financial/economic decisions to someone whose income over his life has come either from military pay or the largesse of his in-law patrons?
Romney's competence in finance/economic issues could give his candidacy new life – especially if financial markets continue to gyrate over the next month. He will no doubt attempt to corner and embarrass McCain on these issues in upcoming televised debates.
The democratic process has been renewed in our country; voters are paying close attention. I have just returned from a three-week book tour and will be heading out again next week. Everywhere, without exception, I have found people of all political persuasions to be excited by the nominating campaigns and eager to learn more about major issues. Obama, in particular, has brought millions of new voters into the process.
There is no incumbent on the ballot. Both parties have spirited contests between representative candidates. There are huge differences between the Democratic and Republican aspirants on gut war and peace and economic issues. Clear choices will be presented to voters in the fall campaign. For my own part, I intend to attend my Democratic precinct caucus Saturday and to stand with Obama supporters. I also intend, in the general election, to work and vote for the eventual Democratic nominee, be it Obama or Clinton. I know and have seen enough of McCain and Romney to know I could not vote for either.
To an aging political junkie, things have a familiar feel. It feels like 1960 and the beginning of a new and more hopeful political era.