Even if you follow politics closely, you could be forgiven for not realizing there were contests yesterday in Arizona, Utah and, for Democrats, Idaho. After the hype and fanfare of Super Tuesday, followed by the two sequels Super Tuesday II: The Michigan Surprise and Super Tuesday III: Hillary Fights Back, yesterday’s contests felt like an afterthought. Some of this, no doubt, was because the Brussels attacks understandably dominated the headlines, but March 22 was never going to be circled in red on the primary calendar. The results came in way too late to be covered in real time in the eastern half of the country, with vote counting in Utah and Idaho concluding at 2:30 am Eastern Time, which is prime time in Hawaii. This muted whatever news the three contests generated. And with big wins by Trump and Clinton at the main event in Arizona, the headline story did little to disrupt the prevailing media narrative. It just looked like more of the same.
But there were interesting subtexts to yesterday’s voting. Had the evening ended earlier, the headlines might have trumpeted a successful night for Bernie Sanders, who won the caucuses in Utah and Idaho by 4-1 margins and walked away with more total delegates than Hillary, albeit without making much of a dent in her impressive delegate lead. Ditto for the Republican side, where Trump’s big winner-take-all Arizona victory was offset in large part by Ted Cruz taking 69% of the vote and all the delegates in Utah, where Trump actually finished third behind John Kasich.
Absent the media spotlight, the Democratic campaign will chug along to Washington state, Alaska and Hawaii this weekend, where Sanders is expected to have the advantage in all three caucuses. And that’s it until April 5, when both sides compete in Wisconsin. Primary dates are now spreading out and, as we expected, the campaign story is slowing down accordingly. It will take an unexpected turn in Wisconsin to change the trajectory of the narrative that was set after Florida, Ohio and Illinois.
The media’s relative indifference to the March 22 contests makes it easy to overlook the fact that over one million people cast ballots yesterday, twice the number of ballots cast in New Hampshire and almost certainly more than twice the number cast in Iowa (where it’s impossible to know how many people voted because the Democratic Party released delegate equivalent numbers rather than raw turnout figures). Imagine for a second how the primary contests might have traveled a different path had these states voted first. While a direct comparison is impossible because you can’t erase the influence of circumstances predating yesterday’s balloting on how people voted and because the Republican field was so much more crowded at the start of the race, it isn’t difficult to imagine how a stinging defeat like the one Trump suffered in Utah or the two huge Sanders victories in Utah and Idaho would have been covered had they occurred on February 1, and how that would have set expectations for future contests.
It’s easiest to envision a counterfactual scenario on the Democratic side, where it’s been effectively a two-person race from the start. If yesterday’s contests had been the first, how hard would it be to imagine Chris Matthews gushing about the size of Sanders’ victories and, albeit with the qualification that there are almost certainly more coyotes in Utah than Democrats, wondering aloud what it portends for Hillary’s campaign, which he might suggest would be over already if not for that well-timed 18 point win in Arizona. And with the calendar now turning toward a string of states where Sanders is expected to do well, can her campaign hold on until it finds more favorable terrain in the South and Midwest? With the primary in her native New York still weeks away, where is Hillary going to win so she can demonstrate her viability? Will she be able to catch up as Sanders’ delegate lead mounts? Will nervous superdelegates have second thoughts if she loses to Bernie in Washington state and Wisconsin and he starts to build a meaningful edge in elected delegates?
The point isn’t that one narrative is better or more accurate than another as much as that any narrative is a product of the inherently serendipitous nature of a months-long primary contest where the happenstance of scheduling will favor some candidates over others, and where the effects of doing well early are amplified by self-fulfilling expectations of inevitability as losing candidates fall away. Once reporters settle on a narrative it structures the way future contests are understood by voters, and as that narrative takes hold, subsequent contests become increasingly insignificant unless they substantially shift the direction of the story. This is the case no matter how many millions of people participate in them. I don’t know if there is an inherently fair way to conduct a primary campaign, but there has to be something better than this.