Super Tuesday guidelines: What to watch for tonight

My analysis of the Democratic and Republican delegate allocations will serve as my detailed preview of Super Tuesday, but here is a quick overview of what to look for tonight, and what states will be most important in determining tomorrow morning's headlines:

California, for both parties: Few people expected the Romney come back in California, but the primary here is closed and conservatives have rallied around Romney over the past week, giving him an opening to win the Golden State. Unfortunately for Romney, a win would not necessarily mean a delegate lead, since every district attributes 3 delegates (winner-take-all), whether they are a heavily conservative districts with hundreds of thousands of GOP voters or a liberal San Fransisco area with only a few thousands voters in a Republican primary. Ultimately, California will matter as a symbol in the GOP race. It will be much easier for Romney to justify continuing the race if he wins the country's biggest state.

Among Democrats, California will be essential to determining the storyline, though here also delegates are likely to be mostly split. An Obama victory would be the dramatic exclamation point to the candidate's surge over the past week, and give us a measure of his momentum going forward. If Clinton holds on to the state, it will allow her campaign to make the argument that Obama's momentum is being overstated, just as in New Hampshire. Polls have shown big leads for both candidates, so there is an expectation that Obama could do well today; that means -- however unfair that is -- that even a narrow Clinton win would be presented as a great victory for the New York Senator, just as in New Hampshire.

Illinois and New York, Democrats: Obama and Clinton will (almost) no doubt win their home states, but their margin of victory will determine just how big a lead of delegate they get. Will Clinton cross 15% in the Chicago districts? Will she cross 30% in most districts, allowing her to force a delegate split in the even-delegate districts? Will Obama do the same in upstate New York districts that award even number of delegates? (More information about this delegate distribution here.) Will he win some districts in New York City that he has targeted?

Missouri, both parties: This is a must-win state for Mitt Romney, perhaps even the must-win state. 58 delegates are at stake in the only winner-take-all primary that is a toss-up, and Romney needs those delegates to stay close in the final delegate count. Even with a California victory, it will make very little sense for Romney to continue if McCain has amassed a big delegate lead and is approaching a majority.

For Democrats, the race has been equally close and Obama really wants to win here to be able to make the argument that Clinton cannot win in purple states and away from the coasts and argue that he is the best placed to win over swing voters in the general election. For Clinton, a victory here would allow her to counter the storyline of Obama's surge -- just as in California.

Georgia, Republicans: The Democratic race is not very suspenseful here, and expect it to be called early (it is the only state where polls close at 7pm). But this is one of the most important states in the GOP contest. Not only do polls show a complete three-way toss-up between Huckabee, McCain and Romney, but the winner gets 33 at-large winner-take-all delegates (there also are districts allocated by district). As I already said, Romney needs to keep himself close to McCain in the delegate count and he needs Missouri and Georgia in his column to do so.

Connecticut and New Jersey, Democrats: In Clinton's backyard, these two states were long considered strongholds for the New York Senator. But recent polls have shown a tight race, especially in Connecticut. A loss in either of these states, while not dramatic delegate wise (especially in CT), would be very embarrassing for Clinton. The results here are also likely to come early in the morning and thus shape coverage more than results in states that report later.

Massachusetts, Democrats: Clinton was long massively ahead but Ted Kennedy (and, to a lesser degree, John Kerry)'s endorsement have given a tremendous boost to Obama's organization. Polls since then have been very contradictory, ranging from a narrow Obama edge to a large Clinton lead. This is another state whose results could be known early and that could prove embarrassing to the NY Senator.

Alabama, both parties: Huckabee is hoping to complete a Southern surge that started to register in the polls in the past few days and take Alabama from McCai; he is also hoping for a strong showing in Tennessee. Romney seems out of the game in both of these states but needs Huckabee to poll well to deprive McCain of some nominees and stay close to him in the delegate count.

Among Democrats, Alabama is shaping as the only close Southern primary, especially since Edwards's withdrawal threw white voters in Clinton's camp. Polls show a complete toss-up here, and a victory here could give the winner's campaign one more thing to boast about tomorrow morning. After all, with Obama and Clinton likely to split delegates, it will all come down to a battle of symbols.

There obviously are a lot of other storylines (especially in the Democratic race, where every state will feature a major delegate fight, even places that a candidate is expected to win solidly). So to help us through the night, here is a quick assesment of where things stand (the "Lean X" lists are organized from the safest to the less safe states). First, for Democrats:

Leaning Clinton: New York, Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma

Leaning Obama: Georgia, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, North Dakota

Toss-up: California, Alabama, Missouri, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Kansas, Arizona, New Mexico

And for Republicans:

Lean McCain: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Arizona, Illinois, Oklahoma

Lean Romney: Utah, Massachusetts, the caucus states (despite little evidence of what is going on): Colorado, North Dakota, Alaska, Minnesota, Montana

Lean Huckabee West Virginia (already won!), Arkansas

Toss-up: California, Tennessee, Georgia, Missouri, Delaware, Alabama

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