Editor's Note: Josh Benson is a former TNR reporter-researcher who later worked in Democratic politics in California. He'll be posting from time to time throughout the night.
East Coasters hoping to watch California come in tonight should find someone--or something--to snuggle up with. It’s going to be a late night. Polls don’t close until 8 PM Pacific time, and even then, it could take hours to count the ballots. In the last major contested primary, the 2006 gubernatorial election--which turned out to be a five-point squeaker between two Democrats--hard numbers didn’t come in until about 9:30 PM, and the race wasn’t clear until 11 PM. It could be even worse this time. As this SF Chronicle story explains, confusion over electronic-voting machines has forced many counties to return to paper ballots. Some are predicting they won’t have final tallies until the following morning.
The interesting question is how the talking heads will play this tonight. Will they: 1.) Assume that Obama and Clinton probably split the California delegates either way, so the final numbers are unimportant; 2.) Declare that if Obama comes anywhere close to Clinton in California, that’s a victory given her dominant lead until just a few days ago; or 3.) Take a cue from Hollywood, and leave California as the cliffhanger that, when it finally comes down very early tomorrow morning, decides the Super Tuesday winner? (No complaints from Californians about that one. We think it should always be that way.)
One final note: There WILL be some very quick numbers reported just after the polls close at 8 PM. Those will come from the early mail-in ballots that have already arrived in the county election offices. Many counties have been counting those since this morning (some since last week), and they can report those results at 8 PM sharp. That ain’t nothing. Early absentee ballots probably make up 15-20% of the tally in some counties. And those ballots are going to favor Hillary, both because these early voters missed the Obama surge, and because absentee voters--older, whiter, working-class--compose Hillary’s natural base in the state.
So for Obama supporters, don’t freak out if the early numbers have Hillary up big. And for reporters, don’t bite on these early returns and then be forced to pull a Florida tomorrow morning.