campaign desk

As goes American Samoa…

Voting early, the island enhances its play on Super Tuesday
February 5, 2008

By most measures, American Samoa is a small place. It has a population of 57,000, sharing about seventy-one square miles of Polynesian island.

But today is Super Tuesday, and American Samoa, along with twenty-some other states and Democrats living abroad, will select 1,688 delegates to the Democratic party’s national convention in Denver in August. And in that respect, the island’s influence is outsized.

According to the American Samoa Secretary of State’s office, the island has somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000 registered voters. (Party registration is not tracked.) Today, essentially, they’ll be picking six delegates to send to Denver, who will each cast half a vote. By comparison, when the last paper ballots have been counted (and recounted) in California, the state’s 16 million registered voters will be represented by 370 delegates.

Do the math, and you’ll see that that gives every 6,000 or so Samoan voters one vote at the national convention; each California delegate, meanwhile, will be voting on behalf of more than 43,000 people.

In recent days, the political press has fully hopped on the delegate bandwagon, recognizing that presidential nominees are actually selected by winning a majority of convention delegates, and not by quick victories in a handful of early states.

But they’ve still done a lousy job explaining exactly how these delegates are chosen. In part, it’s because the presidential nomination process is quite complicated. Republicans and Democrats run their conventions, caucuses, and primaries differently. Within some guidelines, state parties get to set their own rules, which leads to further balkanization. And as we’ll no doubt see tonight, there’s a natural tendency to concentrate on the biggest states, and a great pressure to anoint victors when things are still muddled. (See Florida, 2000.)

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Granted, American Samoa is so small that it’s not hard to understand why it’s been left off the presidential political map. But maybe not this year.

That’s because Samoa’s Democrats, who have long caucused on Super Tuesday, made a simple change. “We’ve moved the time,” says party chair Fagafaga Daniel Langkilde. “In past years we’d had it at 6 p.m. always, but by the time we had our results, people on the mainland would be asleep.”

Not even American Samoa is immune from primary-season me-firstism. This year, caucusing will take place at 11 a.m. Langkilde thinks it will take an hour and a half, tops. Given that the island is six hours behind the east coast, that could make it the first place to report results on a long night when cable viewers will be hungry for news. The AP has a stringer on the island, ready to send in the results. Langkilde says he expects to field calls from all the major networks.

How are American Samoans preparing for their brief turn in the spotlight?

Monica Miller is news director for KHJ, a Samoan pop radio station. (“She’s the queen of journalism on this island,” the station general manager told me before getting her on the phone.)

Miller was happy to chat, but seemed a little unprepared for my questions. “As much as there’s been a lot of election publicity on the mainland, it’s not like that at all here,” said Miller. Yes, she said, the caucus is open to any registered voter, but there hasn’t been much advance publicity, and the vast majority of Samoans don’t seem to be paying attention. A staffer at The Samoan News told me that her newspaper would probably just run the results from the party’s press release.

Still, Hillary Clinton did make local news when she mentioned the island’s caucus in a speech following her South Carolina defeat. (According to several Samoans, it was the first time their contest was recognized by a major presidential candidate.) Days after the New Hampshire primary, Togiola T.A. Tulafono, the island’s governor, endorsed Clinton and was designated co-chair of “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Hillary.” In a set of talking points made public last week, the campaign oddly singled out American Samoa.

“I believe the votes are going to be for Hillary Clinton,” said Miller, suggesting, perhaps, that she knows something others don’t.

Party rules require that any candidate garnering over 15 percent of the vote gets some delegate representation, which means that Barack Obama is very unlikely to leave empty-handed. The island’s non-voting congressional delegate, Eni Faleomavaega, has endorsed Obama, but it’s not clear what support that might bring, especially since a staffer in Faleomavaega’s D.C. office refused to say whether or not Faleomavaega would be back in Samoa attending the vote.

“Historically, a good turnout is about fifty people,” says Langkilde, who explained that Samoans tend to be more focused on local politics. But this year, like the states that have voted so far, he’s expecting to break records; two hundred or so people could pack a room of Pago Pago’s Tradewinds hotel. (That’s the only caucus site.)

So where are Samoans getting information about the candidates? How are they deciding?

Langkilde also happens to own a television station, Malama TV. He says that Malama’s morning program has devoted a couple of episodes to discussing the race. But there are other factors at work. “Because it’s such a small community, family ties play a bigger role,” said Langkilde. “I think a lot of families where the chief supports a particular candidate, they’re bringing their families with them.”

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.