Hola, Puerto Rico!

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THE PLANK FEBRUARY 6, 2008

Hola, Puerto Rico!

So now what?

Like a lot of people, that was my first thought this morning, as I checked the final results trickling in from Super Tuesday. Looking around the web, I see a lot of smart analyses about how the coming contests will shape up.  (Here's Harold Meyerson.  Here's our own John Judis and Noam Scheiber.)

The consensus seems to be that the the next few states are good ones for Barack Obama: In Maryland, Virginia, and then Louisiana, he can count on help from the large African-American populations. Wisconsin seems favorable too, given its reformist streak and the fact that Obama seems particularly strong in the Midwest.

But then comes Ohio and Texas – and, after that, Indiana and Pennsylvania. If the pattern holds, white ethnic and Latino voters in those states will throw their support to Hillary Clinton – and, with them, their states. Obama seems to have more money, but Clinton should still have enough to compete, particularly given the intense media coverage she'll generate.

I do think, as Noam has suggested, that the return to a state-by-state campaign – rather than a national primary, like we had yesterday – will favor Obama, since he seems to do better the more time he can spend with the voters. Just how big the effect will be, however, is hard to say.

And, of course, this all presumes the dynamics of the race remain as they are. That's hardly a sure thing.

But, in a sense, this entire line of analysis misses something. We're way past talking about states, which make for nice graphics on television broadcasts but are next to meaningless when it comes to capturing the nomination. This is all about delegates now. And the math suggests this is going to keep going on for a while – quite possibly, all the way to the national convention.

Here's why: To capture the Democratic nomination, a candidate needs 2,025 delegates – a majority of the delegates who will be present in Denver. According to MSNBC's Chuck Todd, who seems to be the leading authority on these matters, Obama has won roughly 900 delegates from the primaries and caucuses so far, to a little more than 800 for Clinton.

Clinton, though, seems to have more support of more superdelegates. Superdelegates are the 765 party and elected officials who also vote at the convention but, unlike the regular state delegates, are not bound by the results of primaries or caucuses. Superdelegates don't have to declare who they support right now and, even if they do, they can always change their minds. Still, surveys of the superdelegates by major news organizations suggest Clinton has won pledges of support from about 200, while Obama has similar pledges from around 100. (The campaigns are claiming slightly more support than that; I'm relying on the media numbers.)

Using these rough numbers, then both Clinton and Obama are at about 1,000 delegates right now. That means either one would needs 1,025 more delegates to win the nomination.

Now here's the tough part. In the remaining primaries and caucuses, only 1,787 delegates are at stake. So to win the nomination on pledged delegates alone, a candidate has to win 57 percent of those at stake. And that won't be so easy to do.

Remember, the Democrats don't have winner-take-all contests anymore. The primaries and caucuses award delegates with formulas that are based on proportional representation. In a situation where two candidates, each with solid funding, are running strong, it will be difficult to run up large margins. It's entirely possible we'll see a lot of results like last night, in which – after all the back-and-forth over who won which state – the two finished nearly even in delegates won.

Obviously, the super-delegates could play a key role if they start to swing one way or the other. Here, I wonder, whether major endorsements – from still-undeclared unions (like SEIU) or former candidates (Al Gore or John Edwards) – could come into play. And don't forget there's the whole Florida-Michigan fiasco to sort out.

On the other hand, it's also possible that super-delegates will wait until the last possible minute before declaring – and that even some pledged superdelegates might start to waver, either because they've changed their minds or it becomes in their political interest to do so. (Yes, there will be deal-making.) If super-delegates shift to uncommitted, then the threshhold for winning the nomination will go up.

Does that mean we're headed to a brokered convention in August? Josh Marshall seems to think so. And while it still seems unlikely to me, it certainly seems a great deal more possible than it did 24 hour ago. Given the twists and turns so far, certainly, it'd be foolish to make any strong predictions about what happens next.

This much, however, we can say: The math suggests we in the media should treat the upcoming contests a little differently than we have the past ones. States still matter, insofar as they offer hints about how the candidates might perform in November. But when it comes to the nomination, delegates are the real issue. They should be the focus of coverage.

More important, we should stop playing up every contest as a chance for one candidate or the other to lock up the nomination – which clearly isn't going to happen anytime soon – and settle in for a protracted contest. 

Who knows, it may all come down to the contest on June 7 -- in Puerto Rico.  

Update: Apparently the Obama campaign is thinking along the same lines.

--Jonathan Cohn

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