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How Much Should Obama's Delegate Lead Matter?

It's a near-certainty that neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama will finish the primaries and caucuses with the majority of committed delegates necessary to capture the nomination.

It's also a near-certainty that, no matter how well Clinton does in the remaining contests, Obama will have more committed delegates than she will once the primaries and caucuses are done.

That means the only way for Clinton to win the nomination would be to convince the remaining delegates--those approximately 800 “superdelegates,” whose allegiance was not determined by primary and caucus outcomes--to ratify her as the choice.

And, already, lots of people are warning that such a decision would be unholy, or at least undemocratic, because it would violate “the will of the people.”

The Los Angeles Times editorial board has said as much. So has And if you've read or heard any pundit chatter in the last few days, you've undoubtedly heard others say it, as well.*

But are all of these folks right?

Let's take a closer look, starting with the basics of the nomination process. Here, as a refresher, are the rules:

1. The candidate who receives a majority of available delegates will win the nomination. Not a plurality, but a majority.

2. The pool of available delegates come from two places. Most are selected by the voters, through the primaries and caucuses; these delegates are theoretically committed to support particular candidates, at least on the first convention ballot.

3. The rest of the available delegates are these superdelegates--party leaders, elected officials, and so on. They are free to back whomever they want.

So contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, the rules say superdelegate votes can determine the outcome if no candidate has a majority (which will likely be the case). And the rules don't offer any guidance on how superdelegates should vote.

So in a strictly technical sense, there's nothing illegitimate about Clinton seeking the support of the superdelegates--and, no less important, there's nothing illegitimate about them backing her if that's their decision.

Of course, I'm being a little coy here. The assumption that various activists and pundits are making is that superdelegates have not a technical but a moral obligation to honor the committed delegate lead.

OK. But why would that be?

As we all know, delegate counts are based on a lot of screwy factors, like the arbitrary (or, in many cases, not-so-arbitrary) lines drawn for congressional districts. In Nevada and Texas, for example, Clinton got more votes from individuals participating in the contests but Obama emerged with more pledged delegates.

So what if the primaries and caucuses finish with Obama ahead by, say, just 75 committed delegates--out of approximately 3,000 possible? That is a plsuaible scenario. And yet it's hard to see why that small a margin, among a group whose numbers aren't all that true to democratic wishes anyway, should carry significant moral weight.

That's not to say the “will of the people” ought to be irrelevant to the superdelegates' deliberations. All other things equal, that's probably the best criteria that superdelegates can use. But the key here is defining “will of the people” properly.

And the way to do that, I think, is by looking not at the committed delegate count but at the popular vote--that is, the sum total of votes cast by individuals in the primaries and caucuses. It may not be a perfect reflection of the voters' will, but it's surely a more accurate reflection than the delegate count.

The glitch here, naturally, is Florida and Michigan. Any popular vote total including votes cast in those two states back in January, when they held their original primaries, would be illegitimate. (That's particularly true of Michigan, where Obama wasn't even on the ballot.) But that's just another argument for holding new elections in those two states--which, thankfully, seems to be where things are heading.

Would heeding the popular vote count, rather than the delegate count, give Clinton a better shot at winning? Probably.

The likelihood of her overtaking Obama in committed delegates, again, would seem to be nearly zero. But according to the various counts I've seen--no officially sanctioned count seems to exist -- Clinton is only a few hundred thousand votes behind Obama. (Here, via, is NBC's tally.) That's without counting the tainted Florida and Michigan results.

Given the margins winning candidates have run up in big states so far, it's entirely conceivable that Clinton could out-poll Obama by that amount, maybe more, in Pennsylvania followed by Florida and Michigan (assuming new votes in those states). Then it'd be a question of how the results in other states shake out.

Still, while Clinton's chances of getting more popular votes are certainly stronger than her chances of getting more committed delegates, they're not as good as Obama's chances. In other words, if superdelegates did decide to heed the popular vote, my bet is that they'd still end up rallying around Obama.

Then again, it's also possible that neither candidate will emerge with anything resembling a significant popular vote advantage. As things stand now, the difference of approximately 600,000 votes isn't that big when you consider more than 25 million total have been cast.

So what should happen if, in fact, we end up with something that looks like a statistical tie? My suggestion would be that superdelegates should just go back to doing what a lot of them are doing already: Making up their minds based on their prediction of which candidate will serve the party best, in the election and beyond.

*One of the pundits making this argument about the importance of a committed delegate lead is my friend and colleague Jonathan Chait, in this week's TRB. But while I disagree with him about the significance of Obama's lead in committed delegates, I do agree--as I've said several times recently--that Clinton should stop making attacks that are so potentially destructive to the party, just as I think Obama should stop making arguments that undermine universal health care.

--Jonathan Cohn