Learn To Count

Both Clinton and Obama agree that this is a race about delegates. They just can’t agree on how to count.

The two camps spent the last few days bickering over how many delegates each one had—Hillary’s camp insisted on including superdelegates, while Obama has always stuck with pledged delegates. Their philosophies then colored their post-Super Tuesday predictions. And now that the results are coming in, the fight is escalating.

How many delegates will Clinton win tonight? She would “reject the premise of the question,” in flak-speak. Her team doesn’t deal in pledged delegates. Rather, they insist on including superdelegates in the count. The reason is obvious: Recent superdelegate estimates show Clinton leading Obama by at least 100. She’ll emerge from Super Tuesday with a lead in overall delegates no matter what , making that vague prediction fairly useless.  

Obama’s people are more specific: On a conference call tonight, Obama strategist David Plouffe projected that Obama was ahead in terms of delegates, 606-534. (There are a total of 1,681 delegates at stake tonight; a candidate needs 2,025 to secure the nomination.) Press Secretary Bill Burton just sent out this email: “With California not yet counted, we currently lead Clinton by 43 pledged delegates – Obama: 677 – Clinton: 634.” Now that wasn’t so hard, was it? (Of course, it’s easy to be specific when you’re winning.)

The problem with including superdelegates is that they can change their mind whenever they want. Unless the race goes all the way to the DNC—the “brokered convention” scenario Hillary’s camp occasionally floats—the the 800 or so superdelegates will back whoever wins the actual election. If the race is close, however—and especially if the dispute over Florida and Michigan’s delegates continues—then the superdelegates could influence who wins the nomination. The division of pledged delegates and superdelegates reflects a tension within the party over how much power to put in the hands of voters vs. how much to vest in party leaders. Historically that balance of power has been adjusted whenever it’s perceived to shift too far in one direction (think 1968) or another (think 1972). If the race comes down to superdelegates this year, the battle could well produce another overhaul of the system.

Clinton is right to play by the rules they’ve been given. If superdelegates matter, and you’re winning by that count, then why not emphasize them? And of course it’s the press team’s job to paint things in the best light. But if we want an honest reflection on the election at hand—and not the potential deal-making power struggle we will hopefully avoid—then we should be looking at pledged delegates. You know, the election part of the election.

UPDATE Feb. 6 1:21 p.m.: Even news organizations can’t agree on the delegate count. Check out this item for all the different, contradictory totals.