The May 20 Train Wreck

Not long after the polls close in the May 20 Kentucky and Oregon primaries, Barack Obama plans to declare victory in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

And, until at least May 31 and perhaps longer, Hillary Clinton’s campaign plans to dispute it.

It’s a train wreck waiting to happen, with one candidate claiming to be the nominee while the other vigorously denies it, all predicated on an argument over what exactly constitutes the finish line of the primary race.

The Obama campaign agrees with the Democratic National Committee, which pegs a winning majority at 2,025 pledged delegates and superdelegates—a figure that excludes the penalized Florida and Michigan delegations. The Clinton campaign, on the other hand, insists the winner will need 2,209 to cinch the nomination—a tally that includes Florida and Michigan.

“We don’t accept 2,025. It is not the real number because that does not include Florida and Michigan,” said Howard Wolfson, one of Clinton’s two chief strategists. “It’s a phony number.”

Wolfson said they intend to contest the DNC’s 2,025 number “every day,” as well as any declaration of victory made by Obama based upon that number, because it does not include Florida and Michigan.

In January, Clinton won both states by wide margins when Obama did not actively contest them. The two states were stripped of their delegates for holding early primaries not sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee.

Obama will not reach the 2,025 magic number on May 20. Rather, on that date he is all but certain to hit a different threshold—1,627 pledged delegates, which would constitute a winning majority among the 3,253 total pledged delegates if Florida and Michigan are not included.

“On May 20 we’re going to declare victory,” said an Obama senior advisor who asked that his name be withheld to speak candidly, adding that after those contests they will be “the ones with the most pledged delegates and the most popular votes.”

While the nature of that declaration of victory is “still developing,” in the advisor’s words, the Obama campaign contends that the winner of a majority of pledged delegates should be the party nominee.

“Senator Obama, our campaign and our supporters believe pledged delegates is the most legitimate metric for determining how this race has unfolded,” wrote Obama campaign manager David Plouffe Wednesday in a memo to superdelegates. “It is simply the ratification of the DNC rules - your rules - which we built this campaign and our strategy around.”

But the Clinton campaign’s insistence on counting Florida and Michigan would alter not only the overall delegate math, but the pledged delegate math as well. Because if the two states are included in the count, the total number of pledged delegates would rise from 3,253 to 3,566—which means the magic number for a majority rises to 1,784, not 1,627 as the Obama campaign asserts.

By hewing to that interpretation, the Clinton campaign would thus be able to raise doubts about a May 20 declaration of victory by Obama.

Since the earliest possible resolution of the Florida/Michigan dispute is May 31, when the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee will meet in Washington to address petitions from Michigan and Florida DNC members, the 11-day period between the May 20 primaries and the RBC meeting could produce a chaotic stretch where Obama claims to be the party nominee while Clinton argues otherwise.

Already, the two campaigns are gearing up for the battle.

“With the Clinton path to the nomination getting even narrower, we expect new and wildly creative scenarios to emerge in the coming days,” wrote Plouffe in his memo. “While those scenarios may be entertaining, they are not legitimate and will not be considered legitimate by this campaign or its milions of supporters, volunteers, and donors.”

“You can declare mission accomplished but that doesn’t mean that the mission has actually been accomplished,” Wolfson said.

Avi Zenilman contributed to this report
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