Dan Balz's Take
Democrats Gearing Up For Delegate Fight
Barack Obama sent out an e-mail to supporters on Tuesday announcing plans for a big rally in New York's Washington Square Park on Sept. 27. The invitation was evidence of a campaign planning for a potentially extended battle against Hillary Clinton.
The idea of a protracted contest runs contrary to widespread assumptions about how the 2008 Democratic race may play out. But some analysts, who have studied the new calendar, the rules for allocating convention delegates and the financial resources of the leading candidates, believe that a lengthy contest extending into the megaprimary day of Feb. 5 and beyond may be just as likely.
Talk of an early end to the nomination assumes that what happened in 2004 may happen in 2008. Four years ago, John Kerry surged to an unexpected victory in Iowa, capitalized on that performance to win in New Hampshire a week later and then rolled easily to the nomination on the basis of pure momentum.
Many Democratic strategists -- including those around Clinton -- believe the same could happen this year if she wins Iowa and New Hampshire. The idea that back-to-back victories could effectively give her the nomination is based on the belief that Iowa is her single biggest hurdle. Therefore, if she can defeat both Obama and John Edwards there, the other states will fall into place because of her status as the party's national front-runner.
The same might happen if Obama defeats Clinton in those first two states, according to this thinking. If he were to win Iowa and New Hampshire, he would have toppled the Clinton machine on consecutive weeks and would have the kind of momentum Kerry gained in 2004.
Edwards is well situated in Iowa. Some strategists there believe that, if the caucuses were held today, he would win them. His chances of a momentum-driven victory are more limited, however, because he long has struggled with the New Hampshire electorate and could be tripped up there even after winning Iowa. He will also have more limited resources than Clinton or Obama.
The candidates' schedules, which are top-heavy with visits to Iowa and New Hampshire and destined to become more so next month, suggest all see those contests as potentially decisive. But the Obama and Clinton campaigns long have been preparing to contest the nomination on a much larger playing field.
Rick Sloan, the communications director of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, did some calculations earlier this year and concluded that the Democrats could be headed for a train wreck of a nominating contest that might not end until the convention in Denver next August.
Sloan noted that the rules and calendar have been constructed in recent elections to produce an early winner and along with that, time for the party to unify and raise money for the general election.
"What happens, however, if those carefully crafted rules and painfully calibrated calendars fail to work as intended?" he wrote. "What if a system accident occurs -- a glitch that causes a catastrophic event? What happens if, for example, neither Iowa nor New Hampshire act as a killing field?"
Some Obama advisers believe Iowa may not produce a decisive winner, given the competitive three-way race underway there. The same muddled result could occur in New Hampshire. In this scenario, the first four contests fail to decide the nomination.
The Feb. 5 primaries and caucuses then become a battle both for victories and for delegates, with delegates allocated proportionally.
Sloan ran some rough projections today to illustrate what might happen on Feb. 5. Assume a three-way race with the top candidate winning 45 percent of the total vote, the second-place finisher winning 33 percent and the third capturing 22 percent. The pledged delegate count would be roughly 884 for the top candidate, 648 for the second candidate and 432 for the third. In a two-person race, with a 54-46 percent split in the overall vote, the delegate count for that day would be 1,060 for the top candidate and 903 for the other.
This is where the Obama invitation for a blowout rally in New York comes into focus. Clinton should win the New York primary on Feb. 5. But in the majority of the state's congressional districts, by winning about 31 percent of the vote, Obama could walk away with two of the five delegates awarded in each. Rather than conceding the state to Clinton and largely staying out, Obama plans to begin building an organization designed to maximize his delegate count there. Clinton, of course, will do the same in Illinois, which also votes on Feb. 5.
Here money becomes especially significant. Only candidates with campaign treasuries of $80 million to $100 million may be able to afford to compete widely in so many states -- a disadvantage for Edwards in particular.
By some estimates, the wealthiest candidates may spend as much as $40 million competing in the four early states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. That assumes between $15 million and $20 million in Iowa, another $10 million-plus in New Hampshire and perhaps $10 million combined for South Carolina and Nevada.
Edwards has said he will have enough money to compete in the first four states and hopes to put away the nomination in the opening weeks. Only Clinton and Obama are likely to have significant amounts of money left after those contests for the roughly 20 states slated to hold contests on Feb. 5 and whatever may follow.
Both campaigns are beginning to staff up in those other states and are carefully crafting state-by-state strategies proactively in the event that Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina fail to effectively produce a nominee. A quick decision remains a clear possibility, but as one Obama strategist put it, "This is going to be more of a delegate fight than we've seen in a long time."
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