Politics & Policy

Delegate Math for Demmies

What can they have the audacity to hope for?

So far in the race for the Democratic nomination, momentum has meant nothing for either of the two major candidates. After his surprise win in Iowa, Barack Obama’s inevitable victory in New Hampshire disappeared faster than Hillary Clinton’s tears. Obama’s comeback in South Carolina was followed by a mixed decision on Super Tuesday, and his subsequent victories have tied the game.

Yet even after Obama gains ground in today’s contests in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., he will have only a slight lead in delegates. After that, what do Democrats have to hope for?

They may be saddled with a system incapable of delivering a clear winner. For all of the good press Obama got with his victories over the weekend, he only improved his standing versus Clinton by about 1 percent of the total number of delegates. What’s more, the 23 states involved in Super Tuesday (including their freelance “superdelegates”) produced a mere 49-delegate boost for Clinton against Obama — signifying very little, for all the sound and fury. In terms of elected delegates, he actually gained on her.

No Democratic primary can be decisive because the proportional delegate rules prevent it. Hillary’s huge 57-percent victory in New York only changed the margin in her favor by 86 delegates, or 2 percent of the total. That’s it.

Obama is expected to win big in all three Chesapeake contests Tuesday. And again, this will only slightly enhance his standing vis-à-vis Clinton. It is hard to estimate results, because the rules are complicated. But all three races are primaries that split delegates — not caucuses, that can be easily dominated by one candidate. Obama will surely take no more than 65 percent of the 168 “pledged” delegates at stake today (this does not include superdelegates, some of whom have separately pledged to one candidate or the other). Even such a large victory as that would result in an estimated relative gain of 59 delegates. By the count at Real Clear Politics, that would give him an estimated lead of 65 delegates overall, or about 1.5 percent of the total.

Clinton’s decision to duck out of Virginia and rely on later victories in Texas, Pennsylvania, and Ohio may prove as unwise as Rudy Giuliani’s retreat from the early GOP contests to his “Florida firewall.” But barring a sudden evaporation of support for Clinton nationwide, the Democratic system’s focus on proportional allocation of delegates all but guarantees an extremely close and unsatisfying result.

After today’s races are done, there will be 1,071 delegates left to be selected by voters and delegates in 17 states and territories. Obama would have to win more than 90 percent of them in order to win the nomination without the involvement of the remaining 443 superdelegates — who still have not publicly declared for either candidate at this point. Of course, that is impossible. And if Clinton does indeed perform well on March 4, she might erase Obama’s lead and return the contest to a near-tie.

Later this year, we might be watching the results in Puerto Rico’s last-in-the-nation primary to see who wins and by how much. We may even end up hanging on news from each state’s convention, where some of the pledged delegates will be allocated after primaries are over.

A final result based on the actions of unelected superdelegates could be inevitable, regardless of which candidate enters the convention with a delegate lead. Even if they all break for the winning candidate, competition for their support will be fierce. Candidates will promise a wide array of meaningless federal offices: “How would you like to be an assistant secretary of Commerce/Education/Energy/Transportation? Or U.S. Treasurer? Is my opponent offering you an ambassadorship in Uzbekistan? I can do better than that…”

If it sounds ugly, it’s because it is. This is the outcome Democrats dread most, the one likely to cause hard feelings more than any fair-and-square election victory ever could.

The salvation of the Democratic system has previously been the propensity for voters to unite around a winner early. John Kerry’s total victory was all but guaranteed after he won the New Hampshire primary in 2004.

This time, the Democratic race has come down to just two candidates, either of whom could win. It is going into the late states, no matter what. It is an undemocratic game in which the voters are mathematically incapable of picking the winner without the help of unelected party elders.

– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.

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