The hunt for delegates
Primary wins capture spotlight; another number secures the nomination

By Frank Davies
Published January 28th 2008 in San Jose Mercury News
WASHINGTON - This month we've seen the headlines: "McCain captures New Hampshire," "Clinton takes Nevada," "South Carolina goes to Obama."

Finishing first in states gets the attention.

But there's a numbers game going on below the media radar screen that's becoming more important as the Republican and Democratic campaigns approach "Tsunami Tuesday" with no clear front-runners.

The numbers to remember: 1,191 for the Republicans and 2,025 for the Democrats.

That's how many delegates a candidate needs to secure the nomination at the party conventions in late summer. To get there, candidates are trying different strategies, often improvising quickly, as they adapt to a compressed schedule of primaries and caucuses.

The allocation of delegates is a process marked by anomalies and quirks, with some key differences between the two parties and no assurance that winning the most votes will translate into earning the most delegates. In the past, when races were decided early, these rules did not matter much. Now they could help decide who wins.

"Early on, it's all about momentum," said Stephen Wayne, author of several books on presidential politics. "But that's about to change with so many contests coming up."

Indeed, candidates are adjusting to take on the hunt for delegates.

Take Republican Mitt Romney, who largely abandoned South Carolina when it was clear he could not win, and put some extra time and money into Nevada, which had a small turnout and less media attention.

Some Republicans criticized Romney, but the move paid off. He won 17 delegates in Nevada, where he received 22,646 votes. John McCain won just two more delegates than that in South Carolina, where he took 140,798 votes. McCain may have received huge publicity in New Hampshire, but that yielded a mere seven delegates. In Wyoming, off the beaten track, Romney captured eight delegates.

After the first six states, Romney has the most delegates (59), followed by Mike Huckabee (40) and McCain (36). That, of course, will change dramatically Tuesday when the winner of Florida will get all 57 delegates from that state.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are constantly recalibrating, making changes they think will win them the most possible delegates in more than 20 states, including California, that vote on "Tsunami Tuesday," Feb. 5. At stake that day are almost 1,700 delegates.

All Democratic contests are proportional, with each candidate earning delegates that match his or her percentage of the vote, as long it's more than 15 percent. That means intriguing scenarios are possible. Obama can win a chunk of delegates in Clinton's stronghold of New York; Clinton can do the same in Obama's home state of Illinois.

Clinton will try to win big in New York, New Jersey, California and Arkansas. Besides Illinois, Obama is banking on states such as Georgia and Missouri, as well as caucus states - Colorado, Minnesota, Kansas - where he organized early.

Florida Democrats also hold a primary Tuesday, but no delegates will be awarded because the national party penalized state officials for moving up its primary. Clinton hopes to win the "beauty contest" in Florida to take some of the luster off of Obama's big win Saturday in South Carolina.

There's a big wild card in the Democratic race - the nearly 800 "super-delegates," who can support anyone they want. These members of Congress, governors and party leaders could gravitate toward a front-runner after Feb. 5. So far, 200 support Clinton, 114 back Obama and 32 endorse John Edwards, with the rest uncommitted, the Associated Press reports.

A close Clinton-Obama race could magnify the role of Edwards, who is unlikely to get the nomination, but whose delegates might ultimately provide either front-runner with the margin of victory. With the proportional system, Edwards could pick up delegates in several Feb. 5 states, even if he finished third everywhere. His campaign is aiming for at least 200 delegates that day.

In most states, the GOP gives a boost to front-runners with its all-or-nothing system of awarding all delegates to the winner

of the statewide vote. Rudy Giuliani's allies set up that system in Florida, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. New York (98 delegates) is the big prize on Feb. 5.

But if Giuliani loses Florida on Tuesday and if New York cannot propel that city's former mayor to win the nomination, those big Northeast states are suddenly opened up to McCain or Romney.

In California, candidates of both parties can micro-target their areas of strength because most delegates are awarded to the winners in each of 53 congressional districts. For the GOP, a candidate gets all three delegates by finishing first - whether it's a heavily Republican district in San Diego or a Bay Area district with relatively few Republicans.

California Democrats even take their proportional system to the district level, with three to six delegates in each district. If Clinton and Obama evenly split the vote in a heavily Democratic district, such as the Palo Alto area represented by Rep. Anna Eshoo, each would get three delegates.

The delegate hunt gets even trickier in caucus states, and there are seven of those Feb. 5. In the Nevada caucuses a week ago, Clinton had a slightly bigger turnout, but Obama earned 13 delegates to Clinton's 12 because rural areas, where he did well, received more weight.

In some states, the exact breakdown of delegates won't be known until weeks after the caucuses, when district and state conventions decide.

According to the Associated Press and its delegate count, it's statistically impossible for a candidate in either party to lock up the nomination Feb. 5. But the Republicans, with their winner-take-all system, have a greater chance of seeing a clear front-runner emerge.

One thing is certain, however. The delegate hunt will now get a lot more attention.

It's a lot like a baseball game, said Ryan O'Donnell, spokesman for FairVote, a non-partisan election reform think tank. "There has been little focus on delegates, just on who won the game - not how many runs were scored. Now the runs matter."

Sierra Club National Popular Vote Resolution
WHEREAS, the mission of the Sierra Club is to explore, enjoy and protect the planet through grassroots participation in politics and government; and

WHEREAS,  presidential candidates focus their efforts and resources only in battleground states.

WHEREAS, two-thirds of the states receive little to no attention in a competitive presidential election.

THERFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the Sierra Club supports National Popular Vote state legislation that will elect the President of the United States by popular vote.

BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, that the Sierra Club supports election of the President of the United States by direct popular vote.