By Richard Lee
Super Tuesday will once again play a critical role in the nation’s electoral process, but the significance of the primaries and caucuses on March 6 will not be limited to how the candidates fare in those 10 contests.
Super Tuesday also will be an important test for the media, as well as for all us as citizens.
For news organizations, Super Tuesday poses a challenge – in part because of the logistics involved in covering 10 simultaneous events in various locations across the county. The greater challenge, however, will be to sort out the results and cut through all the spin and rhetoric to determine just what Super Tuesday means for the American people and the future of our nation.
Covering Super Tuesday is not like covering the NCAA basketball tournament, where there are clear winners and losers. Although every primary and caucus will have a winner and a few losers, all victories are not equal when it comes to politics. In sports, a win is a win. Defeating the 1927 Yankees may have been as a lot tougher than beating the 1962 Mets, but it didn’t count any more in the standings.
On Super Tuesday, a myriad of factors will determine the value of each victory, starting with the number of delegates at stake, which ranges from just 17 in Vermont to 76 in Georgia. How each state allocates its delegates also is an important part of the equation.
Most states use some type of formula that allocates delegates proportionately based on how many votes each candidate receives. A strong second place showing in Georgia, for example, could garner a large number of the state’s 76 delegates. A candidate who finishes second in a state such as Ohio, however, could walk away empty handed, even if he receives just one vote less than the winner. Ohio is one of several states in which the winning candidate will receive all of the state’s delegates if he captures more than 50 percent of the vote.
In addition to the delegate total and allocation issues, every state has its own oddities and idiosyncrasies that make its process unique. Continuing with the sports analogy, it’s a bit like covering a tournament that has different rules for every game.
The challenge for reporters becomes all the more difficult when candidates and campaigns go into spin-mode and do their best to paint a rosy picture despite what the numbers show. For example, Mitt Romney won this year’s first primary in New Hampshire back in January, but one would never have known the other candidates lost from the tone of the speeches they delivered after the results were final. Jon Huntsman finished a distant third, but that didn’t stop him from declaring “We’ve got a ticket to ride” to the next primary in South Carolina. It turned out to be a ticket home as he dropped out of the race less than a week later – well before the South Carolina contest.
Spin is nothing new. In his book Hardball, Chris Matthews describes a successful strategy the Walter Mondale campaign employed on Super Tuesday in 1984. With the Mondale camp anticipating a disappointing showing in the nine primaries taking place that day, his campaign manager, Robert Beckel, spent much of the 48 hours prior to Super Tuesday telling reporters Georgia was the key state up for grabs. Mondale won Georgia, and Mathews describes the glowing press coverage that followed – even though Mondale did not fare well elsewhere that night. “Mondale lost seven contests out of nine,” he writes. “But that was just the arithmetic.”
Fast forward to 2012 and imagine what the Robert Beckels of today could do with the Internet, social networks and all of the other tools available to candidates and campaigns in the 21st Century.
And this is where we come in as citizens. In today’s world, news and information no longer come to us though journalists, who bear the responsibility of holding government and politicians accountable. Today, candidates and campaigns have the ability to bypass the scrutiny of the news media and deliver information directly to voters.
Critics of the media may feel this is a good thing, and the truth is: It is somewhat liberating. But this new world also leaves us with more responsibility. To make educated and informed decisions when we cast our ballots, we must be willing to sort through the cable television channels, web pages, tweets and Facebook posts, and separate fact from fiction and reality from spin.
It’s an awesome responsibility, but it’s also what democracy is all about.
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Richard A. Lee is an assistant professor in the Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Bonaventure University. Prior to joining the St. Bonaventure faculty, he spent more than 30 years working in New Jersey journalism, government and politics. Read more of Rich's columns at richleeonline and follow him on Twitter @richleeonline.