Is Obama winning?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Jan. 21 2008 5:58 PM

Is Obama Winning?

Only if you're counting primary delegates.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

Who's the front-runner in the Democratic primaries? Obviously it's too early to say, but if forced to designate one candidate in the lead, most people would name Hillary Clinton on the strength of her victories in New Hampshire and Nevada. Obama won the Iowa caucus, but he hasn't won anything since then. According to the Associated Press, Clinton has 236 delegates to Obama's 136. That means Hillary's winning, right?

That's one way to look at it. In a properly ordered universe, there would be only one way to look at something as seemingly straightforward as a delegate count. But that's not the universe we live in. As I explained in an earlier column, presidential nominations are won through the acquisition not of delegates but of momentum, as interpreted by the momentucracy, a loosely defined group of political reporters and TV talking heads who step in at some point to render a collective and somewhat unscientific opinion about who will acquire the necessary number of delegates some time in the near future. Simple delegate-counting is for pathetic nerds.

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But if I may be permitted a moment to hitch up my trousers and insert a plastic pocket protector into my shirt front, in counting up delegates awarded thus far in primaries and caucuses my inescapable conclusion is that as of Jan. 21, Obama is ever so slightly in the lead!

That's counterintuitive, I know. Clinton has won two states to Obama's one. Moreover, the combined population of the two states Clinton has won is 3.8 million, while the population of the one state Obama has won is 2.9 million. If you want to get technical, Clinton has actually won three states, because she won in Michigan, too. But that was only because she was the only major candidate whose name appeared on the ballot. Obama and Edwards kept their names off the Michigan ballot because, in choosing an early date for its primary, Michigan defied the wishes of the Democratic National Committee, which then punished Michigan by refusing to seat its delegates at the national convention, and got all the major candidates to pledge not to campaign there.

And yet, strictly by the book, Obama is ahead on all convention-bound delegates awarded thus far in primaries and caucuses. That's because each state has its own, often eccentric, method of converting votes cast into the awarding of pledged delegates. In Iowa, Obama got 38 percent of the vote to Clinton's 30 percent, but that translated into only 16 delegates to Clinton's 15. In New Hampshire, Clinton got 39 percent to Obama's 37 percent. That translated into a delegate tie, with each candidate awarded nine delegates. In Nevada, Clinton got 51 percent to Obama's 45 percent. That translated, bizarrely, into 13 delegates for Obama and only 12 for Clinton, according to the Associated Press, a finding backed up by the chairman of the Nevada Democratic Party.

Add these delegates up, and you get 38 pledged delegates for Obama and 36 pledged delegates for Clinton. Ergo, Obama is winning.

A few caveats are in order. To arrive at these numbers, I had to ignore Michigan, where Clinton won by 55 percent (shockingly low, given that none of the other major candidates was even on the ballot; "uncommitted" got 37 percent). That means Clinton picked up something like 73delegates. But they're make-believe delegates, because the Democratic National Committee refuses to seat them. It's widely assumed that these delegates will eventually be granted permission to attend the convention, but only after one of the candidates has captured the necessary 2,025 delegates necessary to secure the nomination.

Another caveat is that, technically, Iowa and Nevada haven't chosen their delegates to the Democratic National Convention. They've chosen their delegates to state-level nominating conventions, which won't make binding decisions until the spring. Because of this uncertainty, the New York Times isn't including Iowa and Nevada in its running count of delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

A final caveat is that this count doesn't include superdelegates. Superdelegates are party leaders and elected officials who may participate in choosing the nominee at the convention. The Democrats will have about 800. Some superdelegates have endorsed a presidential candidate, and others haven't. All are free to change their minds, which means that the number of superdelegates assigned to any given candidate is in constant flux. According to this Web site, for instance, the number of superdelegates pledged to Clinton has been reported as 200 by the AP, 195 by CBS, and 174 by CNN. That doesn't include the superdelegates from Michigan, who have been disenfranchised along with the state's pledged delegates; and it doesn't include the superdelegates from Florida, which is being similarly punished by the DNC for disobedience in scheduling its primary.

All calculations give Hillary Clinton about twice as many superdelegates as Barack Obama. Hence the statement in the first paragraph of this column that, by the AP's reckoning, Hillary has 236 delegates to Obama's 136. CNN has it at 210 to 123. ABC has 203 to 149. Obviously, then, the superdelegates think Clinton is winning. But that will change rapidly if Obama gains the upper hand.

A plurality of two delegates is a start. Or rather, it might be if anybody chose to notice that front-runner Hillary Clinton, the comeback queen, isn't actually, you know, winning.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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