Obama’s caucus advantage

In this post, I want to distinguish between states decided by primaries and those decided by caucuses. (In caucuses, people don’t just mark an “X” on a ballot; they assemble in a school gym or a cafeteria and divide into groups based on which candidate they support.)

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were tied in the number of primaries each had won, the last time I checked. But Obama had won every caucus except Nevada. And in many cases, he has won caucuses by a wide margin, thus maximizing the number of delegates he gains. (Delegates are awarded proportionally, based on the candidates’ respective share of the vote.)

Beginning with Iowa, Clinton has claimed that caucuses are a stupid way to determine delegates. And she has a valid point. To give just one example, I think it’s ideal to mark a ballot in private, where you aren’t subjected to peer pressure to vote a certain way.

But those are the rules, and they have been in place for a very long time. The process wasn’t gerrymandered to disadvantage Clinton in 2008. And Clinton didn’t complain until after she suffered that first, stunning loss.

Morever, it isn’t just caucuses that Clinton objects to. She has tried to diminish the significance of all of Obama’s victories:

She said she never expected to do well in any of [last weekend’s] contests, even though she had been favored to win Maine. Clinton repeated her criticism that the caucus system is undemocratic and caters mostly to party activists.

As for Louisiana, “You had a very strong and very proud African-American electorate, which I totally respect and understand,” Clinton said.

So states determined by caucuses don’t count. Neither do states with large black populations. Nor states that are likely to be won by the Republicans in a general election. Nor small states, because everybody knows that big states count and little states … don’t?

But little states obviously count for something, because that’s where Obama is amassing a significant lead over Clinton!

The fact is, Obama has been competitive with respect to every demographic in every part of the country. For example, he won about one third of the Latino vote in California, so it isn’t as if Latinos simply won’t vote for him. He also won more of the white vote in California than Clinton did, even though Clinton won the state overall.

But let’s return to the topic of this post:  Obama’s caucus advantage.

Why does Obama outperform Clinton in caucus states? Kevin Drum floats several possible explanations, but it boils down to this:  Obama has run a more strategic campaign than Clinton.

To summarize: Caucuses require organization and Obama was better organized. They require enthusiasm and he has more enthusiastic supporters. They require time, and his demographic has more free time. They’re mostly in small states, and Obama targeted small states. They’re dominated by activists, and activists tend to support Obama.

Note the first statement:  “caucuses require organization and Obama was better organized.”

But how is that possible?! Bill Clinton is regarded as the senior statesman of the Democratic party. He has political connections in every part of the country, and at least the remnants of an organization he used during his two presidential campaigns.

Obama, on the other hand, didn’t have an existing organization in Iowa, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, and the other caucus states. If I’m not mistaken, Obama’s professional career has been confined to Illinois. So Obama built his organization in all those far-flung states from scratch, and he outperformed the supposedly well-oiled Clinton behemoth. That’s pretty damned impressive!

Returning to Drum’s post:  I was particularly struck by Callimaco’s explanation. It makes perfect sense to me:

Everyone knew Clinton was going to run a big state, traditional Democratic campaign….[Obama] used a two prong strategy to build a stalemate through Super Tuesday: 1) remain close enough in the big state, 2) trounce Clinton in the small states.

Given that strategy, and give the clear fact that he intended that strategy from the start, it makes sense to invest very, very heavily in caucus states because those are the elections over which a campaign can exercise the most control. More, organizing takes time and people and those are things Obama had in abundance. Those are also the states in which Clinton was investing the least resources because they seemed almost irrelevant to her campaign strategy.

I think that’s exactly right — except, as I’ve just pointed out, Obama didn’t have people “in abundance” when the campaign started.

Note that Callimaco’s explanation boils down to this:  Obama fought a strategic campaign. Clinton is whining:1  caucuses are undemocratic, and naturally black people vote for him, and Obama’s only winning the red states and the small states that shouldn’t count.

But the real story is, Obama saw a potential advantage and he exploited it brilliantly.

That’s how you win a campaign. And it’s a very good reason for the Democratic party to nominate Obama as their candidate in ’08. He and his team are better strategists than Hillary, Bill, Mark Penn and the rest.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~
1whining:  No sexist slur intended. I just think it’s an apt description of Clinton’s many, feeble rationalizations.

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. aaron
    Feb 12, 2008 @ 20:51:01

    If Clinton is concerned with undemocratic procedures in place for picking the Dem prez nominee, she should focus her energy on complaining about the superdelegates. But given that she’s currently got about 100 more commitments from these decidedly undemocratic delegates than Obama does, I don’t expect her to hear her take issue with them.

    Reply

  2. Random
    Feb 13, 2008 @ 05:36:04

    “But Obama had won every caucus except Nevada.”

    Actually, even in Nevada Obama won more delegates despite losing the popular vote. That organisation thing again – Hillary won big majorites where they didn’t help her, but Obama ground out more narrow victories where the delegates were actually in play.

    “But those are the rules, and they have been in place for a very long time.”

    I don’t think this is the case. It’s my understanding that there have been so many caucuses this year because the front end loading of the campaign around Super Tuesday meant that many state parties simply did not have either the time or the resources to hold proper primaries so they went for the quick and cheap option of caucuses.

    “The process wasn’t gerrymandered to disadvantage Clinton in 2008.”

    Indeed, as I commented on an earlier thread it was gerrymandered to *favour* Clinton – she was supposed to be the only one with the organisation and financial muscle to compete simultaneously in 24 states. Nobody expected that Clinton would be such a poor campaigner that she would fail to win an election rigged in her favour.

    But to sympathise with Hillary for a moment – firstly, caucuses *are* undemocratic. As Nevada shows, they offer a lot of potential for an organised machine to effectively overturn the popular vote. Secondly, caucuses do favour activists over normal people. To take an extreme example, Obama won 9 delegates in Alaska. Do you know how many people actually voted for him in the caucuses there? 302. That’s a whopping 11 votes per delegate (presumably you have to be pretty seriously committed to want to trudge to a caucus meeting in February in Alaska…). By contrast it took 10,500 votes to elect a delegate for Hillary in California, and yet an Alaska delegate will have exactly the same vote at the convention as a California one. Thirdly, there is something unpleasant about the way the black vote is breaking. Let’s be blunt here – if in a two headed contest between a white and a black candidate the white vote was breaking 8 or 9 to 1 in favour of the white candidate the cries of racism would be loud and furious. I don’t see why the black electorate should get a pass on this.

    Okay, Hillary sympathy over, normal service is now resumed. As for (1) & (2), as you quite correctly observe, the Clintons knew what the rules were. If they didn’t realise the implications of them and how they could be exploited to game the system then that’s their fault and no-one else’s. As for (3), it can certainly be argued that the Clintons brought this on themselves. It seems clear in retrospect that the Clintons’ efforts in South Carolina to shore up the white vote by pigeonholing Obama as the Black candidate and making unflattering comparisons with Jesse Jackson caused huge offence in a community that was previously well disposed towards them (Bill Clinton was supposed to be the first black president, remember). Of course the Clinton attitude on (3) is richly hypocritical because there hasn’t been the slightest hint of unease from them at the sexism of women voters who are breaking heavily in favour of Hillary.

    “But how is that possible?! Bill Clinton is regarded as the senior statesman of the Democratic party. He has political connections in every part of the country, and at least the remnants of an organization he used during his two presidential campaigns.

    Obama, on the other hand, didn’t have an existing organization in Iowa, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, and the other caucus states. ”

    According to an explanation I heard, the unsung hero of this part of the campaign is John Kerry. When he endorsed Obama he didn’t stop at saying nice things in public but also gave Obama access to his organisation from 2004 and, not least, a list of e-mail addresses of some 3 million donors. Obama was basically handed whole a pre-existing nationwide organisation that had been kept ticking over since 2004 (it wasn’t until comparatively recently that Kerry ruled out running himself this time after all). Kerry does not like the Clintons apparently!

    There may be one other factor in play here which I haven’t seen discussed much and which I hesitate to offer up because it touches on the race issue again, but it concerns something called the Bradley Effect – essentially, it’s a curious phenomenon whereby ethnic minority candidates tend to perform rather better in opinion polls than they do in actual elections (it’s hypothesised that this may be because white people, when asked to state their preference publicly by a pollster, are reluctant to appear racist by not appearing to consider the minority candidate whereas they vote differently in the privacy of the polling booth). This is potentially significant because the mechanics of a caucus are more similar to those of an opinion poll than they are to those of a secret ballot.

    “But the real story is, Obama saw a potential advantage and he exploited it brilliantly.

    That’s how you win a campaign. And it’s a very good reason for the Democratic party to nominate Obama as their candidate in ‘08. He and his team are better strategists than Hillary, Bill, Mark Penn and the rest.”

    Quite. I stand by my reservations about President Obama, but it has become very clear that he is a phenomenally good campaigner (though it should be noted there will be no caucuses in November, and the likes of Alaska will vote Republican almost regardless of who the nominees are). Obama has managed to do in one season – beat the Clinton machine – what no Republican (with the arguable exception of Newt Gingrich) has managed to do since 1992. Respect where it is due, and I hope McCain’s people are watching and learning and won’t repeat Hillary’s mistakes.

    Reply

  3. Bill
    Feb 14, 2008 @ 13:50:21

    I am going to start this comment with an apology for only supperficailly reading both the article and the comments. That said, if I was going to pose a causal relationship between Obama’s success at Caucuses, it may be in the fact that Obama IMHO is a much better orator than Clinton. The decision made on the basis of Oratory is short lived but powerful. Like alter calls at revival meetings, the converted often find themselves thinking the next day “What the hell was I thinking!”

    Reply

  4. Stephen
    Feb 14, 2008 @ 19:28:49

    • Random:
    Thanks for fleshing out some of the details. It’s good to be in dialogue with someone who is following the race so closely.

    I particularly want to emphasize that the Clintons lost the black vote precisely in the way you assert — by deliberately characterizing Obama as the black candidate.

    I also want to emphasize, again, that Obama’s appeal goes far beyond the black community. Indeed, he won more of the Latino vote and more of the white vote in Maryland and Virginia. (I think it was those two states, but feel free to correct me if I’ve garbled it.) Even though the black vote has been crucial to Obama’s delegate total, it would still be unfair to pigeonhole him as the black candidate.

    Of interest: Hilzoy has a devastating post on the incompetent campaign Hillary has run.

    • Bill:
    There’s some truth to the statement about the “converted” having second thoughts the next day. But I think Andrew Sullivan has a better explanation of what makes Obama such a compelling candidate after two Bush terms:

    The criticism of Obama as a messiah figure is misplaced. It’s not about believing in him. It’s about believing in our own capacity to act as newly reasonable democratic participants in an age of extreme danger. …

    I have been deeply, deeply demoralized about this country for the past few years.

    … Obama is a deeper solvent [i.e., deeper than McCain would be] for the Bush stain. His election would be a statement not about him, but about Americans themselves. About how they do not recognize themselves any more. And want to again.

    In other words, Obama’s oratory works because he is appealing to what is best in Americans: calling them to live up to their own noble ideals. That’s not to be sneezed at, or dismissed as ephemeral.

    Much of what is most important in life is ephemeral in just this way. Being against torture doesn’t help you to feed your children. But it’s meaningful, nonetheless — arguably more meaningful that mere food. Obama’s oratory isn’t just a circus show.

    Reply

  5. billarends
    Feb 15, 2008 @ 15:00:05

    Don’t get me wrong I respect Oratorical skills. Obama would be my first choice. I agree “Obama’s oratory isn’t just a circus show.” That is why it is able to sway caucuses effectively. I am convinced he believes in “what is best in Americans: calling them to live up to their own noble ideals. ” That said does Clinton? Would we know. I am not convinced Clinton can express what she believes as effectively.

    Reply

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