Given the number of sub-cultures in America, it's a wonder the country holds together as 'one nation under God'.

With three winners in four Republican primaries so far, and John Edwards hoping against hope for an upset in Nevada or South Carolina that would make it three winners on the Democratic side, this year's presidential race has highlighted the diversity of political opinion in the US. The buzzword of the week has been fluidity, but that hides a deeper truth about America that's often lost on overseas observers. America is as much a continent as it is a country. From sea to shining sea there are many Americas, so much so that it's actually incredible that the norm in previous presidential races has been to identify a clear party leader relatively early in the primary process.

Of course, there's a full bucket of political opinions in every country. To note that Michigan has an unemployment rate nearing 8%, while in Idaho it's barely a third of that, may be to point out a distinction that can be found just as well in different regions of the UK or other western countries. The huge discrepancy in GDP per capita, from $28,900 in Mississippi to $150,700 in Washington DC, is unusually high, but it still doesn't paint the full picture. It's more than that.

For a start, different states were born at very different times. While we think of America being created with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, it was nearly another hundred years before the west was won and longer before the country was fully-formed. Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Hawaii and Alaska only joined the union in the 20th century. I remember being struck during a visit to Louisiana in 2006, when locals told me that Creoles dominated local politics until around the time of the first world war and around five percent of Louisianans still speak French at home. Or taken another way, when Hollywood started making silent westerns, people who knew the Wild West from personal experience were still alive to tell them what it was like. For all its world dominance, this is a very new country containing a truckload of subcultures running along ethnic, gender, age, economic, linguistic, philosophical and many other lines.

I've been pondering the significance of that fact this week, because I'm a correspondent for a radio network in New Zealand, and this week, as we talked about the misreading of the New Hampshire polls, the host asked about the validity of the national polls. I pointed out how meaningless they are during the primaries, because each state has such distinct issues, values and voting patterns. From my experience in recent years, France and Spain are more alike culturally and their people more alike in their worldviews than, say, Maine and Louisiana. Or, this week, should I say Michigan, South Carolina and Nevada. And heck, I've never even been to Minnesota! It's oh so different again.

As commentators, we look for national trends or try to capture "the mood of America". But what's little discussed is that those trends are driven by minority groups. Self-identifying evangelicals, so politically influential in recent years, are a little over 20% of the population and, despite assumptions to the contrary, not all vote Republican. Even the movement conservatives (including those conservative evangelicals), who have set the political tone since Reagan, are less than half the population. Throughout the country, there are so many distinct subcultures that voting blocs don't have to be large to have sway.

That seems to be magnified this year, for several reasons. For a start, with record voter turnouts, subcultures that could afford to be ignored in the past - such as voters under 25 years old in Iowa, for example - are making their voices heard. Movement conservatives, for now at least, seem to have split into subsets of their own - small governmenters backing Mitt Romney, evangelicals backing Mike Huckabee and the national security crowd behind John McCain or Rudy Giuliani - and so can't be captured in one fell swoop. On the Democratic side, that party's old divide between the liberal idealists and the left-wing workers is already in play.

All that means it looks increasingly unlikely that one candidate will be able to gain enough momentum to snowball their way to the convention. Super Tuesday on February 5 will be the last chance for someone to claim the title of heir apparent, and that looks a vain hope.

As a result, candidates will be battling state by state for delegates, trying to nuance their message to each of those many subcultures. It has become a battle of inches. In the Republican race, at least four candidates could turn up at the convention with enough delegates on their side to make a fight of it. But at least on the red side, many of their primaries are winner-take-all affairs. While there are fewer viable candidates on the Democratic side, it could be even closer because their primaries are decided by proportional representation.

For all the early fuss in Iowa, Hillary Clinton took away 15 delegates compared to Barack Obama's 16, while John Edwards got 14. And how many more delegates did Clinton win than Obama in New Hampshire, as a result of her stunning last day comeback? Zero. They both got nine delegates. Edwards got four. And while everyone ignored the Wyoming caucus, in this battle of inches Romney's eight delegates from there could make a difference.

The American media is so consumed with winners and losers that they talk endlessly about percentage points and hardly mention delegate numbers. Here's hoping that changes soon, because crunching those numbers could be crucial in the next few months.

This post first appeared in the Guardian's Comment is Free section on January 19, 2008.

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