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How much do primary and caucus wins portend for November?

March 17, 2008 |  8:30 am

The debate has been joined -- and will continue -- over the relative merits of the primary and caucus scorecards for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

The Clinton camp has been the most aggressive -- in part because she trails Obama in the delegate count -- in arguing that her wins have been more meaningful.

Her aides note that she's won the lion's share of the most populous states that have held nominating contests, including the two essential building blocks for any Democratic presidential candidate -- California and New York -- and one of the most crucial swing states -- Ohio. They also have been dismissive of many of Obama's triumphs in small states that are a virtual lock to vote Republican in November, such as Idaho, Utah and North Dakota.

Obama and his staffers, understandably, scoff at such reasoning. First off, they note, a win is a win is a win; a convention delegate from Boise counts at the party's national convention just as much as one from Los Angeles. Secondly, they point with pride to his successes in states Democrats have struggled to hold in recent elections -- such as Wisconsin -- and in two states the party would love snatch from the GOP column -- Missouri and Virginia.

Catching up on our reading over the weekend, we came across a recent column that had this to say about fixating over the relative merits of carrying this state or that one at this stage of the campaign:

"Winning states in primaries and caucuses has little to do with winning them in general elections."

That pithy reminder came from ...

veteran Democratic pollster Mark Mellman in his column for the Hill (a publication that specializes in covering Congress). Mellman went on to buttress his case thusly:

"John Kerry began his march to the nomination with a come-from-behind victory in Iowa, only to lose the state to George Bush. In 2000, the loser of New Hampshire’s Republican primary (Bush) beat the winner of the Democratic primary (Al Gore) in that state’s general election.

Bill Clinton lost 1992 primaries in New Hampshire, Colorado and Maryland before winning those states in the general election, and primary victories in Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi and Oklahoma failed to foretell general election wins.

In 1988, Mike Dukakis won general election victories in only eight of the 25 states in which he won primary or caucus battles."

You can read Mellman's persuasive case in its entirety here.

-- Don Frederick