How likely is it that the Super Tuesday results will give us an accurate read of public sentiment regarding the Democratic presidential race? Not very.
With millions of voters casting "early ballots" - some of them marked and sent weeks ago - a substantial portion of the votes will reflect sentiments framed before the contest took its current form.
Thus, major developments like Ted Kennedy's endorsement of, or the Illinois senator's big win in South Carolina - in a race that caused many Democrats to rethink their feelings regarding Bill and - won't be reflected in the final results from critical states.
Additionally, there is every reason to believe that hundreds of thousands of early votes in California and hundreds of thousands more nationwide have already been cast for candidates who are no longer in the race, such as John Edwards.
Early voting has become increasingly common in states across the country in recent years. Promoted as a procedural shift to increase participation in elections, it has been embraced by political parties and candidates as a vehicle to "lock in" votes before election day.
Little examined for its impact on actual results, early-voting's influence could - and should - be one of the big stories of Super Tuesday.
Early-voting patterns will warp Tuesday's results - perhaps dramatically.
Consider the case of California: In the "Super Tuesday" state with the largest number of delegates at stake, it is estimated now that as many as half the votes will end up having been cast prior to February 5. That's more than 2.3 million votes, some of which were cast around the time of the New Hampshire primary.
Among the other Super Tuesday states that allow "no-excuses" early voting - as opposed to the old tradition of tightly-controlled absentee voting - are Illinois, Arizona, Georgia, New Jersey, New Mexico, Tennessee and Utah. And the patterns are similar to California. In Tennessee, for instance, a record number of presidential primary votes were cast in the form of early ballots - 320,939 - by the time early voting ended this week.
In Georgia, estimates are that roughly 200,000 early votes have been cast, another record.
In just one Illinois County, Cook, voters in Chicago and its suburbs have cast more than 130,000 early ballots. That's Barack Obama's home county, so he can feel good about those numbers.
But, in most other states, Hillary Clinton is the one who is likely to get a boost from early voting -- since many of those ballots were cast at a point where she was the clear front-runner in the race.
This certainly seemed to be the case in Florida.
One quarter of Florida Democratic primary voters said they cast their ballots early - usually in the form of "no-excuses" absentee ballots. Among these voters, Clinton won 50 percent, Obama won 31 percent and Edwards took 14 percent.
Among voters who said they decided in the final days before the primary and cast their ballots after the early-voting period had closed, Obama won with 37 percent to 34 percent for Clinton and a significant 24 percent for Edwards.
None of this means, of course, that if early voting was eliminated the final results on election night would precisely reflect the sentiments expressed by those late deciders. Some early voters are the most committed partisans, and would carry their choices through to the end. But, certainly for Edwards and Dennis Kucinich voters in California and other states, developments that took place after they cast their ballots would have been likely to change their choices. And, if we believe the shift is polling positions over the past month, the same can be said for a number of early Clinton backers.
Bottom Line: There is a very good chance that, for all the hype, Super Tuesday will not present America with a precise reading of who Democrats want as their nominee.
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from The Nation