It takes 2,025 convention delegates to win the Democratic presidential nomination, and about 1,700 will be awarded in the 22 states that hold contests on Tuesday. But come Wednesday morning, there will be many ways of looking at the results. Will the real winner be the candidate who wins the most delegates? The most votes? The most states? The most closely contested battlegrounds?
The Democrats designed their nominating process to be a grind, and one that plays out on several levels. The complex and conflicting forces that will be at work on Tuesday present a strategic and tactical challenge to the campaigns of the two contenders who remain in the race. "We are doing well in a lot of states where there are a complicated set of challenges from one end of the country to the other," Hillary Clinton told reporters traveling on her plane Saturday. But she conceded: "Obviously, we're all making it up as we go."
The heart of the Democrats' system and what makes it different from that of the Republicans' is the principle of apportionment: Each candidate is supposed to come away from each state with a share of delegates proportional to the vote won in that state. The system, however, doesn't always work as advertised. On Tuesday, there may be more instances similar to what happened in last month's confusing Nevada caucuses, where Clinton got the most votes statewide, and was declared the winner in the next day's headlines, but Barack Obama won the most delegates.
With that in mind, here are four key questions to consider in trying to make sense of what is likely to happen in the Democratic race on Super Tuesday:
1. How does the proportional allocation of delegates affect each campaign's strategy?
The campaigns must approach each Super Tuesday state on two levels: one looking at gaining an edge statewide (which is how 35% of each state's delegates are apportioned) and the other battling it out congressional district by congressional district (which is how the remainder of delegates will be awarded).
Gearing up to win the statewide total is a relatively simple proposition: campaigns have no choice but to compete for them in big states. But figuring out how to allocate resources in individual congressional districts can really get complicated and produce some odd results.
Consider what might be called the odd-even factor. Each district is assigned somewhere between three and seven delegates, depending on how heavily it has voted Democratic in past elections. In the districts that have an odd number of delegates say, three winning by even a single vote nets a candidate more delegates than his or her opponent. But in those that have an even number of delegates, one candidate could beat the other by a significant margin, and yet still come away with the same number of delegates.
For instance, in a district with four delegates, one candidate could win 55% and the other 45%, but the proportional split means they would each come away with two delegates. That suggests that as the candidates decide how much money and manpower to pour into each of these districts, they must consider whether they have a reasonable shot at running up the score high enough to win an additional delegate or two.
2. With so many states holding elections on the same day, are the campaigns competing in all the states, or just selectively?
Having raised so much money, the two campaigns are able to wage battles across the map. The most precious resource, of course, is a candidate's own time. Over the final weekend, both left California and made their way East. They spent much of their time in the West and Midwest, in states that have never before had a chance to have a meaningful impact on the nominating process. And in a race this close, it seemed no trove of delegates was too small to merit some attention. Obama drew a crowd of 14,000 in sparsely populated Idaho not exactly known as a Democratic stronghold. That crowd was three times as big as the entire total of Idaho Dems who voted in the state's caucus four years ago.
It is also possible to see some difference in their strategies, when you look at how they are spending their ad dollars. The Obama operation is running a somewhat broader campaign. He is on the air in all the Super Tuesday states, with television ads in all of them except Alabama, where he is on the radio only. Clinton, on the other hand, is not running any ads in Minnesota, Colorado and Kansas (all three of them caucus states), and is on the radio only in Georgia.
3. Where are each of the candidates most likely to win?
If there has been any lesson of this campaign season so far, it is about the perils of predicting anything in a race where turnout levels have been breaking records and throwing the polls completely out of whack. One thing that is almost certain to happen on Tuesday are some surprises.
California, with the greatest trove of delegates, is the biggest prize. Both Clinton and Obama are competing hard there, and the winner will go forward with bragging rights and an additional burst of momentum. But unless the result is lopsided, the California winner may not get much of an edge in delegates.
Each of the candidates is believed to have natural advantages in some states that will be voting on Tuesday. Political hands inside and outside the campaigns expect Obama to win his home state of Illinois. He is also expected to do well in much of the South, especially in states with a large numbers of African-American voters. And his organization has proven itself well-suited to competing in caucus states, where there will be a total of 226 delegates awarded on Tuesday.
Clinton is expected to win her home state of New York, as well as its neighbor New Jersey, and Arkansas, where she was First Lady for 12 years. All told, those states, plus California, have 44% of the delegates that are up for grabs on Super Tuesday.
But many states are considered genuine toss-ups. Tennessee, for instance, is the most competitive state in the South. Others in which the battle has been particularly intense and tight include Missouri, Arizona, Connecticut, Utah and Oklahoma.
4. Will Tuesday determine the nominee?
Not unless one of the candidates proves to have a strong burst of momentum that is not immediately obvious in the current polling. More likely, strategists for both campaigns say, the contest will continue until at least March 4, when Texas and Ohio will vote. There is some talk of a "doomsday" vote in Pennsylvania on April 22. And of course, a real muddle on Super Tuesday could lay the groundwork for a race that goes right up to the Democratic convention in Denver in August.