Primary thunderbolts

Conventional political wisdom loses in this presidential primary season, but voters gain.

This presidential primary season has turned conventional wisdom on its head. Last week's unique "national primary," which gave more voters than ever an early say, is one example. Others abound, creating an upside-down political world – one that actually looks pretty good.

One enduring theory blown to bits is that the most money wins. Underfunded John McCain disproved that when he became the undeniable GOP front-runner on Super Tuesday, forcing the exit of multimillionaire Mitt Romney.

Oh, money's still king. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that the candidates competing for the White House raised and spent more money in 2007 than in each of seven of the last eight presidential elections. But it's nice to know that voter preference can checkmate checking accounts.

Also debunked – the idea that going negative works. The Clinton and Obama campaigns took a detour down this bumpy road before the South Carolina primary. But they found it a dead end with voters, and got back on an upbeat track.

Another premise swept aside: The early front-runner in public opinion polls cleans up at the actual polls. Remember last summer when everyone presumed a Hillary-vs-Rudy contest was inevitable?

A flawed campaign strategy (not a good idea to skip Iowa and New Hampshire), a wide-open field with no incumbent or vice president running, as well as message and tone – these help explain the upset in the Republican contest and the neck-and-neck race between the Democrats.

But the role of advanced and enhanced Super-Duper Tuesday can't be denied.

Pundits and the media maligned the national primary as too much too soon. From the voters' point of view, though, it worked beautifully. The retail politics of the early states vetted the candidates, but didn't decide them. Voters entered Super Tuesday knowing their votes still counted, and boy, did they.

Because the Democrats tied, even voters in latecomer states can still affect this race. And the longer Mike Huckabee stays in, the more influence he gains – even if he's not the nominee.

That the Democrats unexpectedly tied could well topple another bit of accepted wisdom: Superdelegates aren't very important. These Democratic heavyweights – nearly 800 elected officials and party organizers – have not played a decisive role in the nominating conventions of the past two decades. But because they can vote however they please, they could well determine the nominee if neither candidate gets the 2,025 delegates needed to win.

Democrats have to be careful here. The primary process has been opening up over the years, not closing. Fewer than half the states now restrict primaries to party members only. A convention in which insiders decide – possibly against the popular vote – would be a throwback to a nomination-by-backroom-deal.

Nor should Democrats rush to a "do over" in Michigan and Florida. These two states defied party rules by moving up their primaries, so their delegates don't count. To now count votes where candidates did not seriously compete would be unfair. To vote again would disenfranchise earlier voters.

The real competition of this year's primaries has been a breath of fresh air. Let's not stifle it.

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