KANSAS CITY, Mo. Feb. 5 will be the biggest presidential primary day in American history.
More than 70 million registered voters in 24 states will choose more than 2,700 Democratic and Republican convention delegates on Super Tuesday, almost 10 times more than in all the primaries and caucuses so far. Before they do, they'll be bombarded by TV ads, phone banks, campaign appearances and surrogates for at least eight major candidates, and by nonstop polling, punditry and predictions.
"Super" seems inadequate, so it's been dubbed Tsunami Tuesday. So surely, on back-to-normal Wednesday, we'll know who the two major presidential nominees are?
"No one has ever seen anything like this," said Jack Oliver, a top adviser to the Bush-Cheney campaigns in 2000 and 2004. "I just don't know that we'll know" the ultimate winners the next day.
"It's way, way too early (to know)," said Bill Lacy, former Sen. Fred Thompson's campaign manager and a veteran of former Kansas Republican Sen. Bob Dole's campaigns. He said it was "plausible" that candidates in one or both parties could fight for the nomination for months, well into the summer.
"We're in uncharted territory," said Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political science professor.
The first Super Tuesday, in 1988, was designed to give Southern states a bigger role in picking presidential nominees. But both parties quickly grew accustomed to the idea of multistate primaries and caucuses as a way to settle nominating contests early, end intraparty bickering and save cash for the big battle in the fall.
Deciding the nomination quickly was part of the rationale for this year's voting behemoth, too. But it may have grown bigger and more complicated than anyone anticipated, yielding confusing results.
Virtually all 24 states have adopted detailed and different rules for awarding delegates. The rules are so dense, in fact, that few observers agree on how many convention delegates will be picked that day.
The best estimate: 1,029 Republican delegates pledged to specific candidates, and 1,678 pledged Democratic delegates.
That's just more than 40 percent of all the delegates in each party. If a candidate could carry them all, he or she almost certainly would lock up the nomination.
But few analysts expect those contests to be definitive.
"There's no reason to think that there will be some automatic consensus," Loomis said.
Results could be even more muddled because of the way each party assigns delegates. For the most part, Democrats will allocate delegates proportionately, based on primary votes for candidates who meet a 15 percent "viability" threshold. Republicans, in many cases, prefer a "winner-take-all" system.
But in a field with four or five viable candidates, winner-take-all could leave each major Republican candidate with a claim to the nomination after Super Tuesday. Each candidate could win, say, four states and their delegates.
The result? Deadlock.
In a two- or three-person race such as the Democrats', proportional allocation means that candidates will win some delegates in virtually every state, raising the possibility of a tie, or at least an unsettled race, after Super Tuesday.
If there's no final decision on Super Tuesday, operatives in both parties said, attention would turn to the primaries in Texas and Ohio on March 4, in Pennsylvania on April 22 and in other states.
Each campaign also would increase its efforts to land uncommitted delegates, trying to reach the conclusion that Super Tuesday promised but failed to deliver. About 150 Republican delegates national committee members and state chairs are officially uncommitted, although some already may have endorsed candidates. They might face pressure to announce or change their votes in the weeks after Super Tuesday.
Democrats have set aside almost 800 convention votes for "super" delegates, party leaders who, for the most part, aren't bound by primary or caucus decisions. Of those, about 200 already have promised to back specific candidates, although they could change their minds if Super Tuesday leaves the nomination open.
At the moment, according to the Real Clear Politics Web site, Clinton is thought to have 163 super delegates to Obama's 99 and Edwards' 32, but those are hardly carved in stone.
"There would be tremendous pressure for someone to concede, or for a deal to be made, well before the convention," Loomis said. "And maybe the late primary states actually have some clout for once, ironically.'