LAST NIGHT'S near-national primary - 24 states voting from New York to California - was supposed to give both parties a clear, early choice of presidential nominees. Like much of the rest of the 2008 campaign, Super Tuesday defied expectations.
Voters gave so many split decisions among the states that it seemed likely both parties will need more time to select their nominees. That's a good thing; there is far too much at stake in this election for either party to force a hasty choice on the voters.
Moving the Massachusetts primary date up did seem to galvanize turnout among voters who felt their opinions would count more, but, on the Democratic side at least, states like Maryland, Texas, and Ohio - with hundreds of delegates at stake in the coming weeks - may yet have the last laugh. Because of the proportional allocation of delegates, Hillary Clinton - who took Massachusetts - and Barack Obama are still in a close race.
The great imponderable of Massachusetts primary politics - the behavior of the state's 2 million unenrolled voters, who can choose either Republican or Democratic ballots - was a crucial factor. In 2000, Republican John McCain won Massachusetts by a larger margin than any other state. But that year featured less of a contest on the Democratic side. Last night, because a majority of the unenrolled seemed drawn to the Democratic ballot, the Republican primary was drained of independents who might have favored McCain, leaving more stalwart party regulars to vote for former governor Mitt Romney. If he had lost here, it might have meant the end of his candidacy.
It was not a good night for coattails. Neither Deval Patrick's nor Ted Kennedy's high-profile endorsements could put Obama over the top; even Mayor Tom Menino, who backed Clinton, can't crow much this morning, since Obama swept Boston by about 10,000 votes.
The Clintons have always been popular in Massachusetts; the state gave Bill Clinton his biggest margin of all 50 states in 1996. As in New Hampshire, women voters demonstrated their loyalty to her last night. Similarly, Clinton won her adopted state of Arkansas, and she enjoyed a halo effect in neighboring Tennessee and Oklahoma.
Some have said that a Hillary Clinton presidency would be more like a Restoration - a vindication of her husband's reign. In truth, we could do worse than to go back to a time of budget surpluses, investments in average people, and a foreign policy that emphasized negotiation over confrontation.
But we could also do better. We believe Barack Obama offers a chance to stitch together a fractious nation with an appeal to our best natures, but also with an explicit rejection of us-against-them politics. It's good news that more voters will have a chance to hear that message in the weeks to come.