Clinton’s Counting Game

After Obama adviser David Plouffe’s spin-credible, twist-tastic, distort-errific memo about expectations for Super Tuesday, any media manipulation coming out of the Clinton campaign today should look relatively tame.

Always count on them to surprise. During a conference call, Clinton strategist Howard Wolfson kept insisting that Hillary is leading in delegates. “We currently enjoy a delegate lead,” he said, “and will maintain that” after Feb. 5.  

Well, sort of. Hillary is leading only if you count superdelegates, the 800 or so party leaders and elected officials who commit themselves to a candidate before or during the national convention. By CNN’s current count, she is leading with 232 to Obama’s 158. In terms of pledged district delegates—you know, the ones that come from actual votes—Obama is winning. He currently has 34 to Clinton’s 21. (If you count Iowa and Nevada’s delegates, he’s winning 63 to 48.)

Why does Wolfson count superdelegates? Because “the delegate count includes superdelegates,” he said. Again: sort of. If you’re talking about the number of delegates that will ultimately be awarded to the winner of the nomination, then yes, it does. But if you’re talking about the election part of the election—the number of delegates allocated based on people going to polls and voting—then you wouldn’t include those numbers. When we watch the votes come in Tuesday night, the networks won’t report superdelegates.

The reason is that superdelegates are notoriously fickle. If either candidate takes a decisive lead in the district delegate count, expect superdelegates to jump ship in packs. That’s why superdelegates will matter only if the primary race comes down to a brokered convention —a scenario Wolfson floated during the call—in which candidates barter for unclaimed delegates. He’s right that if this scenario occurs, Clinton’s superdelegate lead will turn into a real advantage. (Also consider how much better Clinton would be at the wheeling and dealing necessary for such “brokering”.) But that lead evaporates if Obama ends up winning more district delegates. For Wolfson to predict that Clinton will emerge from Feb. 5 with a delegate lead that includes superdelegates—but to refuse to predict the same thing without including them—rings a tad disingenuous.

Of course, there are other complicating factors besides superdelegates. For instance, Obama and Hillary won delegates in Iowa and Nevada, but those states don’t actually commit them until April, which means they could switch loyalties before then. The wild cards of Michigan and Florida could also decide a tight race, as the Clinton team jockeys to get the delegates “seated” while Obama’s people try to stave them off.  

If the counting battle is any indicator, this primary could get ugly: If we can’t even agree on who is winning now, how are we supposed to figure out who won?