As the candidates make their final appearances before Super Tuesday, it appears likely, judging by the polls, that John McCain will have an insurmountable lead over Romney, Huckabee, and Paul, after the Republican voting. In contrast, the polls also suggest that neither Clinton nor Obama will be anywhere near a majority on February 6. Whether selecting the nominee first is an advantage is the subject of an earlier blog. The question I will take up here is how long the Democrats may have to struggle.
In theory, the nomination process for the Democrats could last until their convention late in the summer. In recent posts I have pointed out that the Edwards delegates and the super delegates would then hold the balance of power. Together, these unpledged votes constitute one fifth of what either Obama or Clinton needs to reach the magic total of 2025. They might be fighting to get those votes all summer, culminating on the floor of the convention. This happened to the Republicans in 1976, when Ford and Reagan battled all the way to the last possible day, with Ford winning by a small margin. The same thing happened to the Democrats in 1960, and there are other examples from earlier decades.
In practice, convention cliffhangers are rare. Usually, the candidates have been chosen through the primary process, and the convention is scripted as a display of unity. That is what any nominee would prefer. However, there are simply not enough delegates being chosen on Super Tuesday to declare a winner to this contest, so, let us look at the contests after 5 February. Seen from a candidate's perspective, what lies ahead is going to be exhausting. It will be long and it will require a great deal of travel, because the states holding primaries on the same day are often far apart. It will also be ferociously expensive.
Here is a summary of what comes after Super Tuesday. Note particularly 4 March when more than 10% of all the delegates will be selected. This might close out the process, but even at this point there will be 650 more delegates to choose in the remaining primaries, plus the uncommitted super delegates. Should Clinton and Obama keep running neck and neck, this race could go all the way into June and still not have a certain winner.
One hopes, however, that either Obama or Clinton will manage to build a majority by 22 April (Pennsylvania) or 6 May (North Carolina and Indiana). By that time, conceivably, one of them will admit defeat and gracefully withdraw. But it might go all the way to the Convention.
Primaries after "Super Tuesday"
9 February, 194 delegates at stake in widely separated Washington, Louisiana, and Nebraska.
10 February, 34 delegates at stake in Maine, up on the Canadian border, as far from the previous three states as it is possible to get.
12 February, 238 delegates at stake in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC. Note that for once the three elections are in contiguous locations.
19 February, 121 delegates at stake in Wisconsin and Hawaii
4 March, perhaps a decisive day with 444 delegates at stake in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
8 March, just 48 delegates, in the widely separated Wyoming and Mississippi.
22 April. If the decision still has not been reached, the primary in Pennsylvania might well be the most important of the entire election, with 188 delegates at stake. The candidates will have ample time to campaign here - six weeks!
6 May. Two weeks later, even more delegates are at stake, 218 in North Carolina and Indiana.
13 May. If the candidate has not been chosen by this point, West Virginia may become an unlikely battleground for just 39 delegates.
20 May. With 125 delegates in Oregon and Kentucky, this is the last time a substantial number of delegates can be won
3 June, the end of the process, with just 47 delegates at stake, in the neighboring states of Montana and South Dakota.