The overwhelming positive media coverage that Hillary Clinton received during Tuesday night's primary coverage was a bit peculiar—especially considering what each candidate was expected to do prior to Super Tuesday's elections. In light of the full spectrum of election results from February 5th, the only possible explanation for this curiously positive tone of the media coverage for Clinton, and the inconsistencies of pundit analysis before and after the elections that day, is what happened in California. By all other measures, the night was a disappointment for Clinton.
First, what were the expectations going into Super Tuesday? Polls and pundits had expected Hillary Clinton to sweep the northeast, win the bellwether state of Missouri, be competitive or win every other southern state with the exception of Georgia, and win most of the Western primary states with the backing of the large Hispanic communities—with the possible exception of California. (Note: polls in California taken a day or two before the primary were split, some had Obama (Zogby) and some had Clinton (SurveyUSA) up by double digits).
So, how did Clinton perform? First, in the Northeast, Obama won 2 of the 5 states—Delaware and Connecticut, performing above expectations. Although Obama had received endorsements from John Kerry (several weeks ago) and Ted Kennedy, no serious pundit could have thought Obama would overcome the large lead Clinton had amassed in Massachusetts (note: Smart Politics named Massacusetts one of the states not to be in play in its February 4th Super Tuesday preview, putting it directly into Clinton's column).
Similarly, Clinton was leading Obama by double digits in every poll coming out of New York and by 5 points or more in 5 out of 6 polls coming out of New Jersey released one or two days before that primary. In sum, Clinton's performance in the Northeast was disappointing, with Obama outperforming expectations by winning 2 states in the region.
Secondly, consider the Southern and border states: the fact that Obama won 3 of them, Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri would again have to be viewed as a success for his campaign.
Georgia was expected to go in Obama's column, though no one expected he would trounce Clinton by 36 points (polls had Obama with a 15 to 22 point lead the week of the election).
Alabama was viewed by all polls and pundits as a toss-up (identified as one of 3 toss-up states here at Smart Politics, along with Missouri), with Clinton up in half the polls and trailing by no more than 2 points in any poll released the week of the primary. Obama won the state easily by 14 points.
Missouri, perhaps Obama's biggest victory of the evening, was also viewed as a toss-up although Clinton was leading in 3 of the 5 polls released the week of the race, and by 11 points in one of them (SurveyUSA). Smart Politics identified Missouri as the key race of the evening in its February 4th preview, stating it may be the ultimate bellwether state, "In determining who has the ultimate advantage as the campaigns move forward past Super Tuesday, as it is the neighboring state to both Clinton (Arkansas) and Obama (Illinois)." Obama won the border battle—although he did not receive much positive coverage from the media during its programming that night, as Clinton led (at times by double digits) until the 11th hour when results from the state's most populous regions came in.
Clinton, of course, easily won her home state of Arkansas (as did Obama in Illinois), and Obama performed as expected in the remaining Southern states of Tennessee and Oklahoma. In Tennessee Clinton had a 13-point advantage in the polls and won by 13 points; in Oklahoma Clinton had a 24 to 27 points advantage in the polls and won by 24 points.
Moving westward, with only a few exceptions, Obama trounced Clinton, especially in the caucus states. As predicted here at Smart Politics on February 4th, Obama won Minnesota, despite the only poll giving Clinton a 7-point advantage among Democrats statewide (the poll did not have a likely voter screen). Still, no one, not even Smart Politics, was predicting Obama's victory would be as strong as it was (35 points). Obama also won by extraordinarily large margins in North Dakota (24 points), Kansas (48 points), Colorado (35 points), Alaska (50 points), and the Utah primary (18 points).
So, with all of that positive news for the Obama campaign, what could have turned the evening into such a great night for Clinton, in the eyes of anchors and commentators both from the right (Fox News' Britt Hume) as well as the left (NPR's Juan Williams)?
In the Southwest, Clinton won Arizona (where she led in every poll released during the past year) and, most importantly, the big prize of California. Admittedly, California was the one state Smart Politics got wrong on the Democratic side in its Super Tuesday preview, although polling was split equally giving both Obama and Clinton the advantage the week of the election. In the end, Clinton won by 10 points, but, because of the Democratic rules for allocating delegates, both will end up with a substantial number from the state—with the majority obviously going to Clinton. Due to the consensus on the ground and in the media that Obama would win California, Clinton's decisive victory came as a shock to the media Tuesday night—so much so that it seemed to color most of its post-election coverage with a pro-Clinton hue.
So, the question the political news consumer has to ask is this: did Clinton meet expectations on Super Tuesday? Clinton won just 8 of 21 states (with New Mexico pending). Clinton lost two states in the Northeast. Clinton lost the bellwether state of Missouri. And Clinton's losses in the caucus states and the Deep South were much larger than anticipated.
Pundits had been saying all week that the nation was trending towards Obama and that if Super Tuesday would be held one week later he would score big victories. While the delegate count on Super Tuesday was about even, the Obama campaign has to be buoyed by the victories it scored—stealing several states from Clinton with its surge. Smart Politics does not expect this trend to change in the coming weeks.
Thus, the only way this analysis falls apart is if Clinton's somewhat unexpected victory in the state of California trumps all of the other bad news she received on Super Tuesday. In the eyes of Smart Politics, it doesn't.