01/25/2013 12:51 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2013

A Political Geek's Guide to Understanding Oscars Season

Take note: "Super Tuesday" is this Sunday with the SAG Awards. If DC is simply Hollywood for ugly people, its no surprise to find similarities in how selections get made in those worlds, right? This struck me as I was trying to explain to a political operative how the Oscars season works. He found it archaic, lumbering, hard to fathom why voters voted this way or that. And I thought, "You mean like the U.S. electoral system?"

There are a few obvious comparisons, like how watching Election Day and the Oscars' night results are an American pastime or how a small group like the Academy and Electoral College both hold sway in determining winners for the nation. Granted, the selection of the leader of the free world has a bit more gravitas than the best picture of the year but win it comes to voting, the characteristics can be incredibly the same.

First, there are the candidates. You can think of any big-budget movie with a well-defined character or storyline like Lincoln, Titanic or The English Patient spoken of as an epic (read: presidential) as The Incumbents. The ones to beat. And so, there are also quirky challengers that can shift balance. You could argue that for The Artist last year. Will Beasts of the Southern Wild be this awards season's Howard Dean? If so, lets just hope so without the screaming.

There are important benchmarks along the road to the Oscars, much like that in a presidential primary. The People's Choice Awards? Kind of like the Florida Straw poll. Mostly hype, no bearing on the outcome. The Golden Globes? Think Iowa caucuses as in having some impact but not without some impressionable wild cards. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG), The Writers Guild (WGA), and Director's Guild of America (DGA) Awards however, are like Super Tuesday. They signal who might win it all and influence voters in other states. Actors alone make up a small percentage of the Oscar electorate.

And because these Awards happen before the Oscar voting deadline -- "polls close" on Feb. 19 at 5 p.m. PST -- the SAG, WGA, DGA combo can have an impact in the final weeks. Unless you're Ben Affleck and you got bounced out of nominations for Oscars despite being ahead in "polls" by winning the Critic's Choice and Golden Globes for Best Director. Think of it kinda like Newt Gingrich not qualifying for the Virginia primary ballot in 2012. What's more, this year will be more complicated and dramatic for the voters because of the new Oscar online voting process. Electronic voting? Uh-oh. The Academy is mostly seniors, so there could be problems.

And lo, greater democracy has come to the Documentary Film category! Similar to a reaction to historic voter suppression, the Academy is opening up the voting in this category to go beyond documentary filmmakers, a narrow group that has often eschewed more popular docs in classic A/V club, revenge of the nerds "hateration" style. That may create opportunities for a great film like The Invisible War this year that can be more fully embraced and appreciated by all Academy voters.

Like many things American, money matters. The person best suited for elective office may not be the one that has raised the most money and so, we may never know about that person. The same can be said about films. Like when Federal Election Commission finance reports come out as a measure of strength for a candidate, so too for the all important box office receipts. There's an unspoken threshold to be met in box office to be Oscar-worthy.

That's what makes major studio big budget releases "For Your Consideration" campaigns so much like Super PACs. They go right to their target audience (members of the Academy, entertainment unions or associations) in key states (or really New York City and Los Angeles) with extensive TV ads, mailers, and public appearances just like a Super PAC goes at swing voters in Ohio.

The major studios have the money for it, putting the smaller less-known nominees at a disadvantage. No one has talked about campaign finance reform in this regard but the Independent Spirit Awards are a bit of an equalizer since they cap the size of a film's budget to be nominated. But alas, they happen the day before Oscar night, or rather, after the polls have closed. Where is Common Cause on this one?

So, who will win? Well you have to watch the trends on all else that happened during the season of course. Will Jennifer Lawrence's joke about "beating Meryl Streep" be like Romney's "binder of women" quip and take her down? We'll see. Treat Entertainment Tonight like Hardball. You have to look at how those with high name recognition are faring early like Spielberg or De Niro. Keep your eye on the dark horses like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, or Amour for next few weeks. And by no means can you write off a nominee because they are regarded as too young or have a funny name like Quvenzhane Wallis. Remember, armchair political hacks, there was a guy named Obama with the same alleged disadvantage.