When Is a Primary Not a Primary?

A campaign blog.
May 29 2008 4:46 PM

When Is a Primary Not a Primary?

When it’s a caucus, according to the Clintons.

In a letter to superdelegates yesterday, Hillary Clinton quietly dropped caucuses from her calculation of who's winning. "[W]hen the primaries are finished," she wrote, "I expect to lead in the popular vote and in delegates earned through primaries." Likewise, Bill Clinton bluntly criticized the caucus system yesterday while touring Puerto Rico:

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[T]he party will have to decide whether they believe the caucuses where you get about one delegate for 2000 votes are more important than the primaries where you get one for 12,000.

Let’s address these beefs one at a time.

Hillary may be correct that she’ll be winning among noncaucus pledged delegates once all is said and done. Among caucus states alone, Obama leads by 135 delegates. (Calculated from the New York Times and AP counts.) If you remove those from the equation, his pledged-delegate lead drops from 149 to 14. A blowout win in Puerto Rico, with 55 delegates at stake, could push Clinton past Obama. A favorable decision on Florida could net Clinton another 19 delegates. But remember: That’s if you pretend caucus states—15 of the 57 Democratic contests—don’t exist.

As for Bill’s complaint: Say caucuses did only give one delegate for every 12,000 votes, instead of for every 2,000? (Bill’s numbers are approximate, but generally correct.) You can convert the numbers by dividing their caucus delegate counts by six. So Obama’s 135-delegate lead in caucus states would become a 22.5-delegate lead. Factor that into his overall pledged-delegate lead, and he’d be ahead by 36.5 pledged delegates. Again, big Clinton wins in Puerto Rico and on the Florida question could put her over the top.

Why all these logical gymnastics? Only to point out just how convoluted these arguments are. Saying Hillary Clinton will win "delegates earned through primaries" requires ignoring 15 states that did count and counting one state that didn’t. Saying caucuses are unfairly weighted, but counting Michigan’s lopsided vote (Obama wasn’t on the ballot) toward your popular vote tally, requires equally odd logical leaps.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.