Winning the delegates wasn’t enough. Now the Democrats running for president must keep them from straying. The party’s arcane system of caucuses and conventions has both campaigns working to keep delegates they had already claimed in Nevada, Iowa, Kansas and elsewhere.
At stake: 172 delegates in nine states, enough to shift the balance of the entire race. The Associated Press has awarded 109 of those delegates to Sen. Barack Obama, who has fared well in caucus states. The rest went to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Most years, the complexities of party caucuses don’t generate much interest after the campaigns have moved on. But in a nomination contest as close as this one, both sides are fighting to win — and keep — every delegate.
“We want to make sure we hold onto what we have,” said Steve Hildebrand, Obama’s deputy campaign manager.
In the overall race for the nomination, Obama leads with 1,362 delegates. Clinton has 1,266.5, getting the half-delegate from the Democrats Abroad primary. It will take 2,025 delegates to secure the Democratic nomination.
The first test to keep those national delegates is in Nevada on Saturday, when nearly 11,000 county delegates are due to report to 17 county conventions.
The national media and the big campaign operations have long since abandoned the state. Yet a handful of staffers and a network of supporters are left to ensure that delegates elected last month stick with the campaigns until the deal is done.
Former President Clinton held a conference call to rally local supporters Thursday night. Obama did the same with his precinct captains, Hildebrand said.
Karen Hicks, a senior adviser to the Clinton campaign, said the goal is to “protect the delegates we’ve earned.” However, she added, “We will try to maximize every single chance we get to pick up delegates.”
Here is how the system works:
Most primaries and some Democratic caucuses are binding, meaning that national delegates won by the candidates must pledge to support them at the national convention this summer. Some high-profile caucuses, however, are just the beginning of a multistep process of selecting national convention delegates.
In Nevada, precinct caucuses were held Jan. 19 to select delegates to county conventions this weekend. The county conventions will select delegates to the state convention in May.
The national delegates are elected at the state convention — the third step of the process. If all the delegates for each candidate show up at every step, the national delegates awarded Jan. 19 will remain unchanged.
In Nevada, Obama won 13 delegates and Clinton won 12.
But if one side is unable to rally its supporters at any step along the way, it risks losing national delegates, much like Gary Hart did in 1984.
Hart fared well in initial party caucuses when he ran for the Democratic nomination in 1984, only to see some of those delegates go to Walter Mondale at the state conventions, said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who counted delegates for Mondale.
Mondale went on to win the nomination before losing badly in the general election to Ronald Reagan.
“If you’re Gary Hart, you might say they got stolen,” Devine said. “The fact is our campaign recognized that the first tier of the caucus process was not the end, it was the beginning.”
Nevada’s system is similar to those in other states, though each has its quirks.
In Alaska, Colorado, Iowa and Nevada, none of the national delegates will be officially pledged to candidates until they are selected at state conventions in April and May.
In Hawaii, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and Washington, some delegates were pledged at initial caucuses, while others won’t be secured until state conventions. Other caucus states pledge all their national delegates at initial caucuses.
Clark County, Nev., convention chair Bill Stanley said the party is trying to minimize delegate poaching by opening the pool of possible alternates to any Democrat who participated in a precinct caucus and attends a county convention.
“At the end of the day, what we hope to do is maintain the same amount of the delegates for each candidate as were reflected out of the precinct caucuses,” Stanley said.
Still, the situation is ripe for convention-floor horse trading.
Nearly 440 county delegates awarded to former candidates John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich are up for grabs, along with a handful of uncommitted delegates.
Campaigns can also capitalize on what they expect to be a large number of no-shows.
Nevada saw caucus attendance jump from 9,000 in 2004 to 118,000 this year, meaning the vast majority of delegates are first-time participants unfamiliar with party politics. The names and phone numbers of at least 1,000 delegates were lost in the chaos of caucus day. Party organizers say they’ve been flooded with calls from confused delegates wondering when and where to show up.
First-time delegate Phil Aurit can’t make it — a bad back and an aversion to crowds will keep him away. He said he volunteered to be an Obama delegate in a burst of enthusiasm at his precinct caucus.
“I thought, ‘This is pretty neat.’ So I raised my hand,” said Aurit, an environmental specialist in Boulder City, Nev. “I found out since then there was going to be several thousand people there. I just figure it’s going to be really congested. I kind of decided that somebody else can do it.”
(Associated Press Writer Stephen Ohlemacher reported from Washington.)