Obama’s delegate operation was a textbook case in the annals of presidential politics. Jeff Berman, who oversaw the operation, has laid it out in rich detail in a new book, “The Magic Number.” He shows how preparation, attention to detail, ruthlessness, resources and good luck can add up to winning a presidential nomination. Delegate trackers for the Republican candidates — particularly Rick Santorum, whose stumbles on this front will prove costly Tuesday — might wish they had read Berman’s account months ago.
Most nomination battles are won or lost on momentum rather than the hand-to-hand competition over delegates. A good delegate strategy becomes important only when it’s needed. By then it’s too late to put one together. The absence of a good delegate operation is an early warning signal of a campaign ill-prepared for whatever might be coming.
The failure of Santorum and Newt Gingrich to qualify for Tuesday’s primary ballot in Virginia is an example of what can happen to a small, underfunded or disorganized campaign. Santorum’s failure to file for 18 of the delegates at stake in Ohio compounds his mistakes. Romney advisers said Saturday that Santorum has flunked a key test of organizing. They are correct.
Berman’s story underscores just how early the preparation of a delegate plan must begin. In the summer of 2007, when Obama badly trailed Clinton in national polls and was struggling to find his voice as a candidate, campaign manager David Plouffe signed off on Berman’s proposal for a delegate operation that was built on the assumption that the Democratic race might not be over after the earliest primaries and caucuses. Clinton’s team, in contrast, was woefully late in coming to the same conclusion — or at least preparing for it.
Delegate tracking requires an intimate knowledge of the rules that govern the primaries and caucuses. This involves more than knowing and meeting the filing deadlines to qualify for the ballots in every state. The Democratic rules are particularly arcane. It is a job for lawyers, as Berman, who is one, makes clear.
The Obama campaign not only knew the rules but pushed to make sure they favored them when possible. Berman describes just how hard the Obama team worked, much of it behind the scenes, to make certain that the primaries in Michigan and Florida, two states that had violated Democratic Party rules by advancing the date of their contests, were disqualified and therefore meaningless. Plouffe said after the campaign that had Florida been a real primary rather than one that didn’t count, Clinton might have won the nomination.