Obama’s Muddled Delegate Message

The Obama campaign has a new favorite story . Politico ’s Roger Simon reports that Hillary’s camp is courting not only superdelegates—that’s old news—but pledged delegates as well.

Sweet-talking pledged delegates is perfectly legal, according to DNC rules. A “pledged” delegate is merely someone who signs a pledge, which they’re entitled to violate with no more punishment than if they’d broken a promise to a friend (or in this case, a lot of friends).

But Team Obama is in hysterics, alleging that Clinton is trying to subvert the will of the American people. And if you think about the mechanics of swinging pledged delegates—you’re essentially undoing hundreds of thousands of real votes—it does seem freakout-worthy. (Although Clinton spokesman Phil Singer says the Obama campaign is doing the same thing. [ Update 1:21 p.m.: Both camps deny pursuing each other’s pledged delegates.]) Obama’s people don’t claim that it’s illegal. Rather, they’re saying, Who cares if the rules don’t explicitly forbid it? It’s wrong.  

Their logic on superdelegates, however, is a lot more muddled. The question of how superdelegates should behave, which we explored last week, has two possible answers. Either they should vote with their heart (or brain, or gut) or they should go with whoever wins more pledged delegates. (The first method is thought to benefit Clinton; the second, Obama.) At first Obama said that supers should follow the lead of voters, but his campaign has since been murky on the issue. “I do think they need to exercise their independent judgment,” said campaign manager David Plouffe on a conference call today. But he also said that “a lot will go into their calculus” and that “one of the things they need to bring into their thinking is the will of voters.”

Wait, so they should exercise independent judgment and factor in the pledged delegate count? That’s like saying, Make your own decision, as long as you make it this way.

So, why all the word games? Why not just pick a methodology and stick with it? The reason is that circumstances may shift. Pledged delegate hegemony benefits whoever is leading; “independent judgment” benefits whoever is losing, or who has more sway among party faithful. According to that calculus, the rhetorical shift among Obama’s people signals a dip in confidence that Obama will be leading in pledged delegates when this whole thing wraps. Why else resurrect the “independent judgment” language? Sure, it’s the kind of hedging a front-runner has to do. But it also reeks of trying to have it both ways.