In 2008, Hillary Clinton lost the race for the White House in part because her team somehow forgot the rules of the game.
The primary contests that begin to cluster thickly in March aren’t just a series of elections to be won or lost—they are designed to award delegates who will convene at the party’s national convention to elect a nominee. The magic number is 2,383—a simple majority of the 4,052 delegates “pledged” by the outcome of votes plus the 712 “superdelegates” who can support whomever they choose (more on them later).
Clinton missed the mark on her first presidential run because her team was too focused on the traditional path to victory—a dominating showing in the early contests to establish momentum—and missed then-senator Barack Obama’s methodical focus on amassing delegates. It turned her coronation into a war of attrition, and without a plan B, her campaign wilted.
Now, once again, an insurgent candidate who excites the party’s left has ended any thought of an easy path for Clinton to her party’s nomination. Has she learned her lesson?
“Taking their delegates”
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign focused on the most efficient path to claiming as many delegates as possible. Even as organizers worked hard in Iowa, the campaign was stacking overlooked contests like the Utah primary with staff and volunteers.
After Clinton and Obama split Iowa and New Hampshire, the Nevada caucus would prove instructive. Though Clinton won the vote handily, Obama took home one more delegate than she did thanks to a quirk in the state party’s nominating process.
“We don’t view Nevada as a loss,” Obama strategist David Axelrod said at the time. “We’ll keep letting them spin the victories and taking their delegates.”
On Super Tuesday, Clinton ignored warnings from some staffers and concentrated on big states like Florida, California and New York. She ended up winning 12 elections to Obama’s 11. But by running close in the big states (there are no winner-take-all Democratic primaries) and racking up victories in small states like Alabama, Idaho and North Dakota, Obama took 847 delegates to Clinton’s 834.
Clinton’s campaign never recovered. Though she would go on to win important states like Ohio and Texas, Obama never relinquished his lead in pledged delegates on his way to seizing the nomination.
Once more, with feeling
This time around, Team Clinton has gone out of its way to downplay any mention of “inevitability,” and tried to emphasize a focus on the most important metrics for victory. Robbie Mook, now the campaign manager, ran Clinton’s statewide operation in Nevada in 2008, and is painfully familiar with pyrrhic victories.
But it’s safe to say that Sanders rise has taken them by surprise. His near-upset of Clinton in Iowa and his dominant New Hampshire victory show that he must be taken seriously. But in 2016—thanks in part to a stretched-out primary calendar, designed by the party to benefit Clinton—the delegate math appears to be on her side this time around.
That’s because Sanders has so far been playing in territory—largely white, rural states—that is demographically friendly to him, but in Nevada and South Carolina, the next two contests, a more diverse electorate will have the chance to weigh in. In polls, Clinton appears to have an advantage with these voters, and if it is proven out, she will have a major advantage in the Democratic electorate overall.
A model built by analyst David Wasserman is worth a consult: To break even among pledged delegates over the entire course of the race, Sanders needed 46 delegates from Iowa and New Hampshire—but he only got 36. This time around, it’s Clinton who needs a war of attrition to win and Sanders who wants the media to declare the race sewn up.
Sanders will need to exceed expectations significantly in the next two contests in order to regain even a fighting chance of taking half the elected delegates. Failure to do so means Sanders will be making a primetime speech at the Democratic convention, but not accepting the nomination.
When do superdelegates matter?
The superdelegates are party members, typically elected officials, who can back whichever candidate they choose. So far, judging by personal endorsements that the candidates have received, Clinton has a dominant edge over Sanders, 394 to 44.
These delegates were installed to prevent the primary voters from hijacking the primary process and choosing a totally unelectable nominee, a lá senator George McGovern in 1972. But in practice they tend to validate the decision of the voters.
If neither Clinton nor Sanders wins outright, the key for either candidate is to win at least half of the pledged delegates—for Clinton, to avoid accusations of insider manipulation, and for Sanders, to give them a plausible reason to switch sides. Obama also fell behind early among superdelegates only to win them over during the course of the race.
Given the criticism of the superdelegate system in 2008 that is already beginning this cycle, it hardly seems credible that superdelegates would choose to put Clinton over the top at the convention if she doesn’t win a majority of the pledged delegates. However, if Sanders can only tie Clinton among pledged delegates, her establishment support may well put her over the top.
Elections have consequences
After New Hampshire, Mook released a memo explaining that the Clinton campaign has been mainly focused on the next set of contests in March, organizing where the bulk of the delegates will be awarded—a very Obama 2008 position.
Whether it was a long-planned strategy or a hastily concocted excuse, this gameplan depends on the campaign staying focused and disciplined over the weeks ahead (remember No-Drama Obama?) even as the media tries to write Clinton’s political obituary. These are conditions where the Clintons have floundered before, so rumors of a campaign shake-up and reports of an off-the-reservation Bill Clinton are not encouraging signs.
Sanders’ campaign knows that the Clinton team will spin the math, even as they focus on their candidate’s momentum and message.
“It was a very smart move to work so aggressively to get the media to recognize [the delegate math after Nevada],” Tad Devine, Sanders’ chief strategist, said of Obama’s team in 2008. “In retrospect, that one delegate was a big one.”
Now Sanders is counting on his big splash in the early states to establish the narrative for the race and re-open questions about Clinton in voters’ minds.
Nevada Democrats will caucus in just four days, and by all accounts, it’s going to be a scramble for both candidates. Pundits describe Clinton’s campaign as a panicked operation that busy lowering expectations, even as they still concede that she is the front-runner. Polling isn’t definitive in a transient state where caucus results are heavily dependent on organizing, but it will be key for Clinton to demonstrate that the assumptions behind her favorable delegate math are born out by the results, or the carping will only increase.
At least one bit of good news came Clinton’s way this week: The most recent polls of South Carolina’s primary election, to be held on February 27, show that she is maintaining a strong advantage in the state, especially among black voters, despite her New Hampshire loss. A stumble in Nevada could change that.
Clinton’s staff is surely right about one thing: The nomination will be won in March, not February. And despite everything she’s come up against, for now, the math is on her side.