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Headed Toward A Delegate Deadlock?

One of Andrew Sullivan's readers points out that despite Hillary's big lead in New York, she won't get anywhere near all the state's delegates:

The point is this. Using the numbers in the poll you cite, and the conservative assumptions that Hillary wins every single district out of the city, that Obama everywhere garners at least 30%, and that Edwards doesn't meet the threshold anywhere, the pledged delegate tallies for New York State would be: Hillary 132, Obama 100. You can knock one delegate off of Hillary's total for every upstate CD in which Edwards cracks 15%; if he breaks that statewide, subtract another 6 from Hillary and 4 from Obama.

The point is this. Hillary's strategy is built on the assumption that she can leverage huge leads in NY, NJ, and CA to compensate for her losses in the south and midwest. And in the last week, that strategy has gone up in smoke. She's finished; if our national media wasn't innumerate, it would have noticed by now.

The first part of this analysis might be right, but the second part is dead wrong. What's true of Hillary in New York is true of Obama in his strong states like Illinois and Georgia: she's going to end up getting a lot of delegates there. This points toward a larger reality: much as everyone decries a system of front-loaded primaries, the Democratic delegate-allocation process is designed with the expectation that some candidate will gain so much momentum in the early states as to become the presumptive nominee. It isn't well suited to deciding a situation in which you have two strong candidates with enduring bases of support.

Granted, it's probably still relatively unlikely that Obama and Clinton will both continue to score in the high thirties and forties everywhere through February, March, and April--but if they do, it's almost assured that no candidate will gain a majority of delegates (which makes John Edwards very, very happy). Because all the delegates up for grabs are allocated proportionally (both at the statewide and congressional-district level), and no bonus is given for winning a plurality of the vote in a state, it winds up being all but impossible to rack up a delegate majority. In retrospect it seems like maybe you should get extra delegates for winning a state, but this situation comes up so rarely (it may not even happen this year) that it's easy to overlook this aspect of the system.

--Josh Patashnik