WASHINGTON — The headlines are confusing. Sen. Hillary Clinton “won” California. She “won” New York. But Sen. Barack Obama was the “victor” in more Super Tuesday states.
It’s hard to define winners in a Democratic race when delegates are awarded proportionally. The difference between Clinton netting 52 percent of the vote in the Golden State and Obama taking home 42 percent is, well, more subtle than you’d expect.
Delegate crunching is both an art and a science, and the task can be can annoyingly open to interpretation.
So, in the aftermath of Tuesday’s primaries and caucuses, which of the Democratic presidential contenders is actually closer to having the 2,025 delegates needed to clinch the nomination?
Sorry folks, the answer to that question won’t be clear for a while.
One reason: Democratic Party rules on selecting delegates to the national convention — the body that formally nominates the presidential candidate — are neither simple nor straightforward.
Let’s take California as an example of how the delegate count works.
California Democrats award 129 delegates in proportion to statewide vote.
Clinton won the state with 52 percent of the votes cast.
This part seems easy: 129 multiplied by .52 equals 67, so Clinton gets 67 of the statewide delegates.
But the state Democrats also award 241 other delegates proportionally depending on each candidate’s vote tally in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts.
The tricky part is figuring out who really won each congressional district.
“The vote reporting in many places by congressional district is quite slow,” explained NBC News Director of Elections Sheldon Gawiser. “This is most often the case when congressional districts span county lines, but it can also occur when multiple congressional districts are in a county. The worst case is when there are partial multiple counties in a congressional district, which is less common.”
We know that Clinton, for instance, won Contra Costa County in Northern California. But Contra Costa County encompasses parts of three different congressional districts.
Within Orange County, which Clinton also carried, are parts of six different congressional districts.
“Because of the delegate-allocation rules, we often need all the votes in to be sure we know what the allocation would be in the district,” Gawiser said.
Even awarding the statewide delegate winners, Gawiser said, might seem easier than it is in reality.
“We need to know the actual final vote percentage to be sure we have the at-large allocation correct. In some cases, it is easy, but when a candidate is just on the edge of one additional delegate, then it takes virtually all the vote to be in,” he said.
Adding to the complexity are caucus states like Minnesota, Iowa and Kansas, where meetings of local party activists determine delegates.
And caucuses go through several steps before those delegates are chosen.
In Iowa, the delegates elected at the precinct level on caucus night then move on to the county convention in their respective counties.
At the county conventions, delegates are then elected and head off to the congressional district convention and the state convention.
The district conventions, in turn, elect delegates to the national convention, which is where the party’s nominee is chosen.
The state convention also chooses some delegates to the national convention.
It takes a while.
So, we know how primary and caucus delegates are determined, but why are so many different numbers floating around out there?
Different news organizations make different delegate calls at different points along the process. Some estimate what the candidates will get after the lengthy counting process has played itself out.
"We’ve done our best to do some reporting — talk to both campaigns who have boiler rooms who do nothing but keep track of this vote. Combined with our own knowledge of those congressional districts, we did an estimate," said NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd.
NBC News estimates Obama has 838 delegates compared to Clinton's 834. Using their own methods, other news organizations give different totals: The New York Times estimates Clinton has 892 delegates and Obama 716; ABC News gives Clinton an 872-793 edge.
Four years ago, when John Kerry cruised to the Democratic nomination, and eight years ago, when it became clear that Al Gore would get the nomination, few people paid much attention to the specific delegate counts that were reported.
This year, with two tight-running Democrats, the gritty details matter.
Meet the delegates
With the Obama-Clinton train racing toward the convention, what of the actual delegates themselves?
As part of the deluge of e-mails we’ve received about delegates, how they’re chosen and what function they have, there’s one very basic, recurring question: “Is a delegate an actual person?”
Yes, a delegate is a real, flesh-and-blood person.
In each state, Democratic activists loyal to each of the candidates run as delegates to the national convention. Each presidential contender has a right to review the names of those who have filed to be delegates for them.
According to the Democratic National Committee, “during candidate right of review, presidential contenders may approve a specific number of delegate candidates in order to ensure they are bona fide supporters.” Essentially, this means presidential contenders don’t want any covert agents on their slate.
There also seems to be confusion surrounding the obligation of delegates to actually vote for their pledged candidate.
According to the Democratic National Committee, technically, they don’t have to.
“A delegate goes to the convention with a signed pledge of support for a particular presidential candidate. At the convention, while it is assumed that the delegate will cast their vote for the candidate they are publicly pledged to, it is not required.”
The party’s rules ask delegates to “in good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.”
And what happens to those Democratic delegates already pledged to John Edwards? He may be out of the race, but 26 delegates are still attached to his ticket.
Basically, those delegates may be pledged, but they’re not legally bound to him.
According to the DNC: “As a sign of good faith, most former candidates will ‘release’ their delegates from voting for them; however, this is not required, and only has a symbolic meaning to it. Delegates can vote for another presidential candidate without being ‘released.’“
Out of personal loyalty to him or his cause, they may also choose to follow whomever Edwards chooses to endorse. That is if he ever decides to make an endorsement.
Super Delegates, super confusing?
And then, there’s the mother lode of all delegate questions: What are Super Delegates, and what makes them so super?
There are 796 in all, who are elected Democratic officials, such as governors and senators. They all have an ex officio, or an automatic vote at the convention.
Super Delegates amount to about 40 percent of the total number of delegates needed to clinch the Democratic nomination.
Some Super Delegates have publicly declared their support for Obama or Clinton. But the Super Delegate tally is often in flux: Just three days ago, Rep. Steve Cohen, D–Tenn., announced that he was supporting Obama.
NBC News isn’t including Super Delegates in its current tally. That’s because current Super Delegate pledges are just public commitments. They can change their minds at any point, and it’s not considered shameful or unusual; it’s just practical politics.
"Everyone has a different standard for counting these. We have decided to keep these separate and attribute it to the campaigns. We are in the process of figuring out a better way to survey the super delegates," said NBC's Todd.
History has taught us that that some Super Delegates will jump ship if the winds of electoral change are upon them. And sometimes they’ll just lie low and wait for a failing candidate to drop out before they switch camps.
Buyer’s remorse can be a powerful motivator.
Case in point: The 2004 Democratic race when some of Howard Dean’s delegates crept away from him after his defeat in the Iowa caucuses.
So, as you can see, there are several variables contributing to what has become a confusing Democratic race for president. With Clinton and Obama running so closely, these variables may loom ever larger.