campaign desk

Clinton’s Caucus Rhetoric

Her argument may get attention, but it demands scrutiny
March 14, 2008

Yesterday, NPR broadcast an interview with Hillary Clinton. It was a resounding volley in the Rhetorical Primary, the convention-focused war of words and ideas where the true battle for the Democratic nomination is now being fought.

To recap where we are: Clinton won’t be able to catch up with Obama’s pledged delegate lead. Her only chance to win the nomination rests on wooing a hefty portion of superdelegates. Clinton’s public argument to the supers is two-fold—she can claim she’ll be the strongest candidate against McCain and appeal to Democrats’ lust for victory in the general election, or she can suggest that there’s something unfair about the way Obama won his victory in terms of pledged delegates.

As a step toward this unfairness argument, Clinton has recently been floating the line that there’s a difference between caucus delegates and primary delegates. It came out in yesterday’s NPR interview when Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep admirably and repeatedly asked Clinton a key question: would she accept the nomination if she loses the pledged delegates but the superdelegates make a “different choice”? While a simple “yes” is the true answer, the senator parried three times. Here’s one:

Well, there are three ways that people become delegates. They become delegates through caucuses, which are smaller gatherings. They become delegates through primaries. They become delegates because they’re appointed to be delegates by the Democratic National Committee. Each delegate has an equal say in the process. That is the system that was set up and that’s been in place for decades.

Take a close look at this “three ways” business. The important part is, again, Clinton’s new distinction within what everyone else, including Inskeep, calls the pledged delegate count—that there’s some sort of difference between pledged delegates coming from caucus states and pledged delegates coming from primary states.

Here’s why Clinton, in the past, has said she’s “concerned” about caucuses: not everyone can afford (for nightshift workers, sometimes literally) to spend the time it takes to trudge out to a school gymnasium and hang around for an indeterminate length of time to take part in a Byzantine procedure. Since you have to be physically present, soldiers deployed overseas can’t caucus. (What Clinton doesn’t say is that oh, by the way, delegate-wise she’s never beaten Obama in a state caucus.)

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But in the above quote, it seems she’s calling, essentially, for separate pledged-delegate tallies, broken down by the method the delegates were selected. Now, technically, in the end, the only number that matters is who will have the most delegates at the Denver convention, pledged, unpledged, and super. Period. But that hasn’t stopped many media organizations from reporting the pledged-delegate numbers separate from the superdelegates. Part of this is structural—it’s easier to check on election results than on the opinions of 700 or so powerbrokers, many of whom have yet to publicly decide. But it also has something to do with the fact that many see the power of superdelegates as something separate—perhaps undemocratic, unseemly, or yes, even unfair.

But I’ve yet to see anyone split the pledged delegates up by caucus or primary, as Clinton seems to be suggesting. And the reason she’s making that implicit suggestion is clear: catching up in the total pledged-delegate count is a lost cause, but she’s got a fighting chance at closing the primary-delegate count. And that victory could, in turn, help her sway enough superdelegates to finally swamp Obama’s lead in pledged delegates.

According to the very helpful Real Clear Politics’s accounting, Obama leads in pledged delegates 1,403-1,239, a spread of 164. To drill deeper, as Clinton suggests, I borrowed a calculator and did the math. (Yes, claim-jumping Michigan and Florida are—for the moment—excluded, and I divvied Texas’s neither fish-nor-fowl delegates between the categories as best I could.)

So. In caucus contests Obama is up 282-146. That’s a 136-point spread, meaning that his caucus delegate lead accounts for an eye-popping 83 percent of his pledged-delegate lead. If you only look at primary contests, Clinton trails Obama by just thirty-two delegates, with 1,096 to Obama’s 1,128. As you can see, that “race” is hella close.

Of course, if Clinton wants to make the case to the public and to the superdelegates that caucuses, and thus the delegates they produce, are unfair—to some caucus-state voters, and by extension, to her campaign—she first has to get her audience thinking of caucus delegates as a separate category; it’s hard to bear a grudge against something that isn’t yet defined.

And it’s clear that she does want folks to think of caucuses as something less than a primary. Take another look at what she told Inskeep, especially that “which are smaller gatherings” closer. You should read it as a put-down: Aw, aren’t those caucuses just the cutest things? So don’t take them seriously!

There’s another reason why now is the time for Clinton to make this pitch: save Guam’s four delegates, there are no caucuses left. (Last week, Puerto Rico announced it would switch from a caucus to a primary.) And there’s a general sense that Clinton has, overall, more favorable demographics in the eight states still to vote than Obama does.

In the (unlikely) event Clinton wins Pennsylvania by 18 percent, as a recent poll suggests, she could easily net twenty-plus delegates in that state alone. My gut says it’s still an unlikely scenario, but if the bulk of the other contests go her way, Clinton could come to Denver able to claim that she’d won the primary delegates and the superdelegates, and that Obama only won the caucus delegates—two out of three (of the categories she created) wins the day.

If she keeps talking up a difference between caucus delegates and primary delegates, the press will—hell, I just did—fall in line and split the numbers. Maybe not always, but from time to time, certainly.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. As the electoral math forces Clinton to campaign on these sorts of arguments, the press should meet her there, and take hard looks at her claims, Obama’s counterclaims, and most important, do some independent thinking.

Only then can the voters and the superdelegates adequately weigh the case and decide for themselves. But if journalists present Clinton’s numbers without serious scrutiny of the argument behind them, they’ll just be doing her handiwork.

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