Political Capital with John Harwood

"Junior Tuesday" And Keys To the Democratic Race


When 22 states selected Democratic delegates on a single day last month, the sheer scale and complexity of "Super Tuesday" made election night returns difficult to follow.

Today’s "Junior Tuesday" election could have a decisive impact on the nomination race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But with just four states voting–Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont-–television viewers will find it much easier to track the keys to the race.

Here are some factors to watch:

--LONE STAR EARLY-BIRDS. In many elections, the first precincts reporting vote totals don’t mean much because those totals bear little relation to the ultimate outcome. But the first returns in Texas, where the last polls close at 9 p.m. eastern time, may count a lot. That’s because they will represent "early voting" that took place BEFORE election day, which the Clinton campaign considers crucial to its hopes for victory. Early voting could represent about one-third of overall turnout.

--FRIENDS OF HILLARY. For much of the primary campaign, demography has been destiny. So Mrs. Clinton’s hopes in Texas and Ohio could turn on the composition of voter turnout. In Texas, Mrs. Clinton wants the Hispanic constituency that has favored her to loom as large as possible; strategists in both campaigns say it could comprise 40 percent of the vote. In Ohio, the key is how much women dominate the electorate. All year they’ve been a majority of Democratic primary voters; the higher their vote share rises above 55%, the better for Mrs. Clinton. Team Clinton is also targeting Democrats in relatively conservative southern Ohio, the home region of her top ally in the state, Gov. Ted Strickland.

--OBA-MANIACS. Critical constituencies for Mr. Obama include young voters and African-Americans. One remarkable feature of his Iowa and South Carolina victories: voters under 30 turned out as heavily as those 65 and older. So he’s counting on heavy turnout in university towns like Austin and Columbus. Because of the way Democrats apportion delegates within states, African-Americans in both Texas and Ohio could matter more than their estimated 15% share of the electorate would suggests; that's why urban centers like Houston and Cleveland are central to his strategy. Obama strategists are also watching blue-collars towns like Youngstown and Akron to gauge their candidate’s success at peeling working-class voters, especially men, away from Mrs. Clinton.

--HIDDEN JACKPOTS. While big states dominate the headlines, small ones sometimes play an outsized role in the count for nominating delegates. Mr. Obama currently leads Mrs. Clinton by roughly 150 delegates depending on who's counting, though he remains far short of the 2,025 needed for the nomination. Because Democrats allocate delegates in primaries in proportion to the popular vote, close contests sometimes leave the candidate who finishes second in the popular vote with virtually the same number of delegates as the winner. Tiny Vermont – with one-tenth of the delegates at stake in Texas – could have a larger effect on the delegate race by adding as many as five to Mr. Obama’s lead.

--POLITICAL MACHINERY. Mr. Obama, the one-time community organizer, has dominated caucus contests that place a premium on attention to political mechanics. The good news for Mrs. Clinton is that all four states hold primaries today. The bad news is the “Texas Two-Step,” which will also include evening caucuses to select one third of its delegates. Though Mrs. Clinton is competing more aggressively in those caucuses than in some earlier states, there’s still a chance that she could win the primary vote but lose enough delegates in the caucuses as to cast doubt on which one has “won” the state.

--LIVE OR LET DIE? The result everyone in the world of presidential politics will watch most intently is whether March 4 results prod Mrs. Clinton to end her bid to become America’s first woman president. The more decisive the outcome, the easier her choice. Should Mr. Obama sweep all four contests, her hopes plainly will be extinguished. Should she carry Ohio and Texas – as her former president husband says she must to retain a shot at the nomination – she’ll fight on to the next big battle in Pennsylvania on April 22, and perhaps all the way to the Democratic convention in Denver this summer.

A mixed verdict in the two biggest states will pose a harder decision. But Democratic pros inside and outside her campaign expect that losing Texas or Ohio would persuade her she can’t overtake Mr. Obama. One clue to her intentions: whether her Election Night remarks in Columbus repeat her feisty attacks on Mr. Obama’s national security and economic credentials, or echo the gracious tone of her recent debate statement that she’s been “honored” to share the campaign stage with him.

Harwood in Ohio

Questions?  Comments?  Write to politicalcapital@cnbc.com.