In the Arena

How to Watch Tonight

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We mainstream media sorts have a tricky situation tonight: how to decide who won on the Democratic side. Because the chances are in the game that really matters–delegate count–no one will really win. For example: Who won New Hampshire? Hillary Clinton, famously, right? Only if you count the popular vote. The delegate count was 9 to 9. Indeed, South Carolina has been the only clear-cut delegate win so far.

And so tonight, the biggest surprise on the Democratic side will be if one candidate or the other wins significantly in the delegate count. Chances are, the result will be a wash. But that’s no fun, and hard to suss out in the hours after the polls close. So watch for the television networks to do what they have done in the past–pay disproportional attention to who “wins” the popular vote in each state. That, too, may turn out to be a wash. Although I imagine that the night will be played as an Obama victory if he dents the former Clinton bastions of the northeast–Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey. And certainly, in the end, anyone who wins California will be perceived as the big winner–although with a ton of absentee ballots to be counted, that result might not be known until tomorrow or so.
(To split a final hair: If Obama wins the walk-in voters, his campaign will make the distinction between those and the early voters, reputed to be Clinton-leaning, in order to diminish a Clinton overall victory in California.)

But if how to play the results is a major headache for the media, it’s also going to be a big problem for the candidates–especially if the delegate results are roughly equal and one candidate “wins” a lot of the hot contests. How does the “loser” play it? “Well, we split the delegates and this is a long game,” isn’t the most inspiring message. But I suspect that it’s the closest to the truth, barring a sweep for one candidate or the other. This thing goes on.