Clinton Camp May Regret Largely Turning Its Back on Caucus States
Friday, February 15, 2008
Among the costliest decisions Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign has made this year was to largely cede caucus states to Barack Obama. It is one that, in retrospect, baffles Democratic strategists and, even more so, the operatives on Obama's team.
Like Obama, Clinton threw everything possible into the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, spending $20 million to $25 million on what turned out to be a losing effort. The experience seemed to sour the Clinton campaign on caucuses -- she has repeatedly disparaged the caucus process in public remarks -- and ever since, her team has largely ignored them in favor of states with primaries. If the Democratic race is all about delegates, as the Clinton campaign declared shortly after the Jan. 8 New Hampshire contest, the decision has given Obama an unexpected gift.
Here is a simple way to understand the consequences of that choice. Take two states that held Super Tuesday contests on Feb. 5: big New Jersey, with 107 pledged delegates at stake, and tiny Idaho, with 18 delegates up for grabs. Clinton won New Jersey's primary and made headlines for doing so early on that night, while Obama won Idaho's caucuses long after many of those watching had gone to bed. But because of the rules of proportionality, Clinton netted just 11 more delegates than Obama from her New Jersey victory, while he gained 12 more than her by winning Idaho.
That pattern held through other states on Feb. 5 and Feb. 9, as Obama rolled up substantial margins and, as a result, harvested delegates in numbers that belied the relatively small size of some of the states. Eight states held caucuses during that period -- Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and Washington -- and together awarded 305 pledged delegates. By the Obama team's calculations, the split out of those states is about 209 for him and 96 for Clinton -- an advantage of 113 delegates.
After his big victories in Maryland, Virginia and the District on Tuesday, Obama has the overall delegate lead, including superdelegates, and a larger advantage among the pledged delegates awarded on the basis of primary and caucus results. Most of this margin comes from his performance in the caucus states.
There are two important features of the Democrats' sometimes incomprehensible system. The first is that, because of proportionality, it is difficult for any candidate in a close race to gain much of an advantage. Winning states can still mean splitting delegates almost 50-50. But the flip side is that once someone gains even a relatively small lead, it becomes more and more difficult for the other candidate to catch up.
The explanation from the Clinton camp is that at the time decisions were made about where to concentrate resources for Feb. 5, money was extremely short. Targeting and winning big states took precedence over organizing for caucuses in smaller states. In the estimation of one strategist, winning California, Massachusetts and New Jersey after Obama was closing the gap paid off. Had the campaign had more money in January, the caucus states would have gotten more attention.
Clinton now faces a difficult mathematical challenge. She will need big margins in upcoming states to make up ground. A split of 52 percent to 48 percent in Ohio on March 4 would net her only about five more delegates than Obama would gain. A 60-40 victory in Ohio would give her about 30 more delegates than him. In Texas, a 55-45 split would give Clinton about 19 more than Obama, although Texas rules are so convoluted that those numbers may overstate the difference.
Obama's campaign now argues that she must not only win those states but win by margins big enough to make substantial progress in the delegate hunt. The Clinton campaign may be satisfied for now with victories, hoping that defeating Obama even by a narrow margin would change the narrative of the Democratic race, give pause to other voters and especially give pause to those superdelegates needed to help Clinton win the nomination.
Clinton's team also will press harder to seat the delegations from Florida and Michigan, states that were stripped of their delegates after they moved up their primaries, on the theory that she will grab the lion's share of those delegates. But that could be an ugly fight that party leaders hope to avoid -- and it's unlikely to be resolved without some adjustment in the delegate split that would come out of the results of those states.
Ultimately the fine points of delegate allocation may have little to do with how this nomination is decided. Victories in Wisconsin, Ohio and Texas could go a long way to help Obama, but Ohio and Texas in particular appear so competitive that neither campaign can take them for granted.