Obama’s California Strategy

A quick eyeball of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s campaign schedule for Barack Obama makes the strategy pretty clear: National Hispanic Cultural Center, Albuquerque, N.M.; Santa Fe Community College; gatherings in Los Angeles and Oakland. Maybe he’ll drop by a King Taco for good measure.

For months, Hillary Clinton has held a solid lead over Obama in California. Polls show Obama closing the gap —a Rasmussen poll put him within the margin of error . But it’s unclear if he’ll catch up by Feb. 5. Most people are chalking up Clinton’s success to her support among Latinos. She has the backing of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, among other Hispanic leaders; and she’s been courting Latinos, who could make up as much as 25 percent of the state’s Democratic electorate on Super Tuesday, much more aggressively than Obama. (Hispanic sentiment toward Obama seems to be largely based on unfamiliarity .

But with Kennedy on board, Obama is trying to alter the calculus in a week. He may not be able to pull off a win in Hispanic communities. But because of the way delegates are allocated, he doesn’t need to. Micro-electoral guru Ambinder explains why . Briefly, it’s because the state allocates many of its delegates proportionally by district. (California has 53 congressional districts. 241 delegates are given to the winners of the districts. Another 81 delegates go to whoever wins the state.) So say a district has four delegates at stake. Even if a candidate wins sixty percent of the vote in that district, he or she will still receive only two delegates. If there are an odd number of delegates, the most a candidate can win by is one.

So Kennedy doesn’t need to win over every Latino in California for Obama. Just enough to close the gap slightly. That way, as long as Hillary doesn’t rack up a bunch of lopsided wins, the delegate race will be incredibly tight. And given expectations, Obama can live with that.