Feb. 19th guidelines: Can Obama finish off his February sweep?

Three states are going to the polls today (2 of which will be voting in the Democratic contest). First, Wisconsin is holding its primary, allocating 74 delegates for Dems and 37 for the GOP. Polls close at 9pm ET. Second, we will get results from the Washington state primary, where polls close at 11pm ET. There are no delegates at stake for Democrats, and 19 for Republicans. Finally, the Hawaii Democratic caucuses will end around 12:30am ET, so the results of the day's last contest will likely not be known until late in the night.

As always, I will stay away from offering predictions but here are a few guidelines of what to watch for tonight.

Wisconsin, Democrats: The contest that everyone is watching for, Wisconsin's primary effectively marked the end of the primaries in 2004, when Edwards failed to catch up (falling 6% short of Kerry) and Dean finished a distant third. The primary is unlikely to be as decisive this year, but it could determine the momentum going into the final two weeks leading up to March 4th, two weeks with no contest whatsoever (!). Most polls show a narrow Obama leading -- ranging from 5% to 13% -- but the Clinton campaign has been working the state to make sure the margin stays close.

There are enough undecided voters in those polls to make a Clinton victory possible and if that were to happen it would certainly allow the New York Senator to claim momentum heading into Ohio and Texas and limit the talk of the campaign being already over. Inversely, a big Obama victory -- with double-digits -- would put the Clinton campaign in even more crisis, and further talk of her impending demise. After all, Wisconsin's demographics don't necessarily favor Clinton, but they are favorable enough that she has to keep it close. And this is only taking into account the momentum question. A big loss would also make Clinton fall further behind in the delegate count, which she really cannot afford to do.

A closer Obama victory would probably result in a draw, allowing the campaign dynamics to remain fundamentally the same. Obama would have met the expectations that he wins the state, and Clinton will have met her expectations to keep it close. Her campaign would also be heartened to see that it has managed to halt Obama's upward movement and would probably attribute this to their efforts to draw more severe contrasts between the two candidates -- which would signal to them that they should pursue the strategy going into March.

Something else to watch for, of course, will be the exit polls. First, has Obama made inroads in Clinton's strongest constituencies (women, blue-collar voters) or is Clinton maintaining her advantage there? If Obama continues to improve among these groups as he did in the Potomac primary, it could spell big trouble for Clinton in two weeks. Second, how much is Obama relying on non-Democrats? The voting anecdotes relayed today by the Journal Sentinel point to many Republican voters and GOP-leaning independents crossing over to the Dem contest to support Obama now that the GOP contest is no longer suspenseful. This is precisely the group of voters that escaped Obama in New Hampshire:

Hawaii, Democrats: There are very few clues we can rely on to know what is going on in Hawaii. There have been no public polls from the state and the fact that the state is holding a caucus makes things even more unpredictable. The conventional wisdom is that Hawaii is Obama's state to lose, both because it is a caucus and because it is the state he grew up in.

Washington, Democrats: I devoted a post yesterday morning to exploring what we are to do with the results from Washington. The Clinton campaign will be hoping to advance its anti-caucus argument here and answer the question: Do caucuses really benefit Obama? So we will have to compare Tuesday's results with those of the January 9th caucus, which Obama won 68% to 31%. This will have no effect on the delegate race, but if Clinton pulls significantly closer, they will use the results to hit the pledged delegate count.

Republicans: McCain has still not hit a majority of delegates, but he is very close, especially with Romney's support. The main question in GOP primaries right now is whether Huckabee can embarrass McCain some more, as he did on February 9th and almost repeated in Virginia. Huckabee is counting on Texas to pull off another upset, and it looks very unlikely that he will be able to get close in Wisconsin, which should allow McCain to get all or most of the state's delegates. In Washington state, the fact that this is a primary should favor McCain, who barely pulled out last week's caucuses 26% to 24%. And don't forget that there are delegates at stake here.

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