Last Delegate Standing

With such a close race, every single delegate could matter in this year's presidential contest

Note to Florida Democrats: Your vote doesn't matter. Or does it? In what has turned out to be a tight race where candidates are beginning to battle over delegates, even Florida's, which were stripped from the state by the Democratic National Committee for scheduling an early primary, could end up mattering.

A front-runner hasn't been established for either party, leaving the candidates scrambling for national convention delegates. Like the Electoral College, these delegates are the ones who actually pick the nominees at the parties' conventions, and so far the race for delegates is pretty close. Despite their lack of delegates, both of Florida's political parties are trying to make their early primaries count after the Sunshine State was reprimanded earlier this year for scheduling a primary before February 5. The Republican National Committee punished Florida, along with four other states, by taking away half its delegates. The DNC took them all away.

However, because the Florida primary is the last contest before Super Tuesday, candidates are campaigning there, hoping to establish momentum before 24 states hold contests on February 5. Both parties are trying to get voters to the polls so that the national parties cannot ignore them at the convention.

"I would ignore what the national parties have said about reducing or eliminating delegates to the conventions," Republican Gov. Charlie Crist told the Tallahassee Democrat. "It's more important what people say." The Democrats echoed this sentiment. "The No. 1 reason why our Democratic primary counts is because hundreds of thousands of voters are going to go to the polls, casting a vote and making it count," says Mark Bubriski, communications director of the Florida Democratic Party. "The Florida Democratic Party is very confident that we will have our delegates seated at the National Convention."

The punishment created an odd set of circumstances for Democrats. In Michigan, candidates Barack Obama and John Edwards took their names off the ballot and Hillary Clinton won a majority of the unseated delegates. Because of Florida election law, a candidate would essentially have to say he or she is no longer running for the presidency to get his of her name taken off the ballot, so all the Democratic candidates remain for Tuesday's primary. Who the delegates should vote for if they are seated at the convention could become a problem if the race is still close. Before Floridians have even cast a ballot, Clinton has already announced that she will ask the DNC to seat the delegations from Florida and Michigan.

Although most states cooperated and didn't lose any of their delegates, it doesn't mean the process is any easier to navigate. How delegates vote and how important of a role they play depend on rules and circumstances that most Americans know hardly anything about, because, quite frankly, they haven't had to. There hasn't been much of a contest in recent years, explains Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University. "There's always been some [candidate] by March who has just swept everything," Lichtman says. "We've not had to worry about all of these arcane rules."

And these arcane rules deal with allocation of delegates. All of the candidates have won some at this point and none have anywhere near enough to clinch the nomination. Early primaries and caucuses have traditionally been used to pluck out a front-runner, not completely settle the nomination. For the Democrats, Clinton is leading with 230. Obama has 152 and Edwards has 61. On the Republican side, Mitt Romney has 73, John McCain has 38, and Mike Huckabee has 29. Ron Paul earned six and former front-runner Rudy Giuliani has two. (Delegate counts include unpledged delegates and super-delegates.)

A Democratic candidate needs 2,025 delegates to secre his or her party's nomination. For the Democrats, none of the states are winner-take-all; instead candidates normally win delegates by how well they perform by congressional district in each state's primary or caucus, but again, this varies by state. This helps explain how Clinton won the Nevada caucuses, yet won fewer delegates than Obama. In districts that had an even number of delegates, Obama and Clinton each received the same number, however, Obama performed better in districts with an odd number of delegates, overall giving him 13 to Clinton's 12.

Republican candidates need 1,191 delegates to win their party's nomination, but their strategies to seek delegates differ from the Democratic candidates because they have winner-take-all states. On Super Tuesday several states for the Republicans are winner-take-all, including New York, New Jersey, and Arizona. Also the states that voted red in 2004 get bonus GOP delegates for good behavior.

To make things even more complicated, the Democrats have "super delegates," which are members of the Democratic National Committee, Democratic members of Congress, Democratic Governors, Democratic former presidents, and more. When Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell placed his support behind Clinton--who is leading in super-delegates thus far--he also in essence pledged to give her his super-delegate vote. The same goes for Sen. Ted Kennedy when he decided to support Obama. However, either politician could change whom they vote for before or even at the convention, making super-delegate support incredibly difficult to track. The more than 800 super-delegate votes could account for about 40 percent of the delegates needed to clinch the Democratic nomination. The tighter the race, the more important super-delegates become.

For the Republicans there aren't any "super delegates" per se, but there are automatic delegates. Each state's party chairman, national committeeman, and national committeewoman get to cast a vote for their party's nominee at the convention. When the GOP stripped Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Wyoming of half their delegates for jumping ahead of the line, the first ones they gobbled up were the automatic delegates.

Because different GOP candidates keep winning different states and the two Democratic front-runners continue to win similar numbers of delegates, this presidential election could go down as one of the closest races in history. At this point, it's mathematically impossible for any candidate to win the nomination on Super Tuesday, because they simply couldn't earn enough. Every last delegate, super-delegate, and automatic delegate could be up for grabs. "I think there's a real possibility that the Republicans will not produce a nominee, because you've got four or five candidates who could keep getting delegates," says Lichtman. The Democrats, he says, could be in the same boat. However, if the Sunshine State's primary has the impact that Florida's Democrats and Republicans hope it does and produces a front-runner, this race could quickly become a whole lot more typical.

By Nikki Schwab