Politics

Obama Won Texas

Winning doesn’t mean exactly what it used to.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

You may think Hillary Clinton won Texas, but she didn’t, at least not by the rules of the game. The eventual Democratic nominee will be the one with more delegates, and Obama won more of Texas’ than Hillary did.

To reiterate: Clinton won the state’s popular vote and the primary, but that doesn’t matter, because after a majority of the caucus votes were counted—the second step in Texas’ two-stage process—it looks as if Obama won the delegates.

Declaring Obama the winner makes sense. In this primary season, we’ve got to stick fast to the rules. As both the Obama and Clinton campaigns spin themselves into the topsoil, that’s all we have to keep us from madness. Except that Obama supporters have been making a case that doesn’t stick to the rules in arguing how Democrats should pick the party’s nominee.

Over the last several weeks, as Obama has taken an insurmountable lead among pledged delegates, I have heard various Obama allies and aides argue that if Clinton wins the nomination by convincing superdelegates to overthrow Obama’s lead among pledged delegates, it will represent a subversion of the popular will. Whatever backroom thinking went into forming the superdelegate system, it is not in keeping with the view that the people—and not party insiders—should determine the nominee. Obama supporters argue that a superdelegate-driven Clinton victory would be unfair and would destroy the party. Obama’s passionate constituents would bolt, furious that the prize had been snatched from them. To avoid this train wreck, superdelegates should sign up with Obama.

Fair or not, if Clinton wins by superdelegates, that win would be perfectly legal. The Democratic Party, in all its wisdom, designed the system to allow for this possibility. It may subvert the popular will, but the rules are the rules. In claiming victory in Texas, Obama is making this very same case, because the Texas delegate win happened through a subversion of the popular will. In just one of the contest’s several wrinkles, Texas delegates were apportioned in the primary and caucus among state Senate districts, based on a system that gave more delegates to the candidate who won districts where turnout had been high in previous elections than to the candidate who won districts where turnout had been lower.

Obama played by the rules and won fair and square, but if, as an Obama supporter, you insist that he won Texas through a system that thwarts the popular will, you lose standing to complain about a system that thwarts the popular will in picking the nominee. One system may thwart the will more than the other, sure. But either the principle is that the rules are the rules or it isn’t.

Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, says he is not suggesting that a Clinton nomination victory by a superdelegate majority would be underhanded—though some of his colleagues and allies certainly are making this case. Plouffe’s own pitch is that superdelegates should look at Obama’s lead in pledged delegates and decide to back him. This is a good argument, but it’s not rule-based. Once you start climbing into the heads of the superdelegates, you’ve gone somewhere else. “There are few principled arguments in either camp,” says Democratic pollster and strategist Mark Mellman, “only arguments of interest.” There’s nothing in the Democratic rule book that instructs superdelegates on how they’re supposed to vote or what they’re supposed to base their thinking on. Maybe they should support a nominee by following the pledged delegates, or maybe they should take a look at the popular vote. Or maybe they should roll a 12-sided die or ask their pet myna bird.

The Clinton campaign would prefer that superdelegates use the popular vote as a criterion for their decision, since Clinton’s slim chances of winning the popular vote are better than her next-to-impossible chances of winning the pledged delegate vote. Obama aides say that the Clinton team’s new emphasis on the popular vote is a desperate stratagem they’ve been forced into by Obama’s pledged delegate numbers. This is true, but if the debate is over what criteria the superdelegates should use, any argument goes. But, wait, Obama supporters will insist, the rules say nothing about superdelegates following the popular vote. Correct. They also say nothing about superdelegates following the pledged delegate lead.

Which brings us back to this: If Obama supporters are going to insist that their guy won Texas because the rules are the rules, then they should not squawk if Clinton wins the nomination despite her pledged delegate deficit. The rules are the rules.