With big complicated political events like Super Tuesday, every pundit — particularly the pontificator offering insta-reactions on television or social media — needs a prefabricated story line to make sense of it all in a digestible bite. Going into tonight, it’s safe to say the big Republican story line is an anticipated win by Donald Trump that sets up a possible one-on-one competition with whoever finishes second. Depending on perspective and bias, the story line makes it possible to exaggerate the decisiveness of the Trump win (you know, by saying he’s already locked up the nomination) or exaggerate the value of a second-place finish (especially if it’s Marco Rubio, the darling of the mainstream media and the Republican Establishment). On the Democratic side, the story line everyone is rehearsing is a big Hillary Clinton victory, which many gabbers will read as a mandatory swan song for Bernie Sanders.
But what are some scenarios that will throw the well-rehearsed pundit off balance? Here are a few to watch for:
Trump wins a majority of the vote in Massachusetts. No matter how much you’ve internalized the Trump phenomenon, some aspects of it still inflict cognitive dissonance. That Trump’s best region is the sophisticated, relatively progressive Northeast is one of those things the mind doesn’t quite accept. So it would be jarring if, as is entirely possible (a spanking-new Emerson College poll has him at 51 percent in the Bay State), Donald Trump wins a majority of the primary vote in the state that practically invented liberal Republicanism.
Rubio wins Alaska. The current media stereotype of Marco Rubio is as the last standing (give or take John Kasich) representative of that most staid and conventional of traditions, the Somewhat-Conservative Establishment Republican. That he’s a stone fanatic on abortion and America’s international obligations and has a voting record indistinguishable from Ted Cruz’s seems to be beside the point. In any event, it wouldn’t be a complete surprise if Rubio pulls off a win in Minnesota, a caucus state with a moderate reputation where he’s been campaigning heavily. Alaska is another sparsely polled caucus state. But isn’t that wild and woolly place a lock for Sarah Palin’s candidate, Donald Trump? Not necessarily; support for Trump generally seems to fade as you move west, and Alaska Republicans have a lot of high-income, secular voters who might gravitate to Rubio. On top of that, La Pasionaria of the Permafrost isn’t the dominant figure in Alaska politics she used to be. But still, the counterintuitive idea of Marco Rubio winning in the land of moose chili would be an eye-opener — and would put an end to a lot of the talk about his inability to win primaries and caucuses.
Cruz doesn’t collapse. The Republican candidate being fitted for the loser’s suit tonight is Ted Cruz, who underperformed in South Carolina and Nevada and looks likely to finish third behind Trump and Rubio in several southern states he was once expected to win. Rubio-boosters in particular are getting ready to demand that Cruz get out of the race instantly. But the great thing about lowered expectations is that they are much easier to exceed. So if Cruz handily wins his own state of Texas and doesn’t do as poorly elsewhere as some observers assume he will, he could wind up with more delegates than Rubio on the night when it’s all said and done. He sure won’t quit if that happens, will he?
Kasich withdraws. For some reason, the punditocracy seems to be giving Kasich a mulligan for Super Tuesday, presumably since he’s already set his sights on Michigan on March 8 and Ohio on March 15. But if his vote is invisible tonight (he’s probably hoping for a second-place finish in Vermont and Massachusetts) the futility of it all may just grip him and the Establishment could lose its plan B.
Bernie wins Oklahoma. In one respect, a Sanders win in Oklahoma wouldn’t be a surprise; he actually led there in a recent Monmouth poll. But the Sooner State just doesn’t fit the stereotype of Bernie Country, does it?
Hillary wins Vermont. Okay, just kidding. Sanders will win his home state by a massive landslide.