Just try to calculate the popular vote

In focus -- politics

April 13, 2008|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON — In response to an article published in Sunday's Ideas section about counting popular votes in the Democratic presidential contest, Sen. Barack Obama's campaign said the results of the Puerto Rico primary should be included in the popular vote total. "We view each vote cast in the Puerto Rico primary as being as important as the votes in any other primary or caucus," the Obama campaign said in a statement.

WASHINGTON -- When Bill Clinton flew to Puerto Rico the other day, it highlighted what may be the most peculiar quirk of the '08 campaign: The people of Puerto Rico cannot vote in the November presidential election, but they could decide whose name appears on the ballot.

Hillary Clinton, in fact, is counting on it.

Her strategy for wooing undecided superdelegates involves running up the score in the remaining primaries. She can't overtake Barack Obama in the delegate count during the primaries and caucuses, but eclipsing him in the popular vote count is still a possibility.

Doing so would strengthen her case to the superdelegates that she has more broad-based support than Obama and is the strongest candidate against John McCain. A number of her leading backers, including New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, have explicitly stated in recent days that Clinton needs to win the popular vote to have a credible chance at getting nominated.

At the same time, her campaign is pushing back against those who want Clinton to quit the race, maintaining that the contest with Obama is still incredibly tight. To bolster that argument, they point to the neck-and-neck popular vote count.

The last big primary, in Puerto Rico on June 1, could prove decisive in that measurement, which both candidates have called an important sign of their success.

But counting popular votes in this convoluted election year isn't easy. Thank Florida and Michigan for that, as well as the often-confusing caucuses in other states.

As a result, it is entirely possible that both Clinton and Obama will claim to have the most popular votes when the primary season ends in early June. So far, after more than 25 primaries, Obama has an advantage of more than 700,000 votes, or about 2.5 percent of the more than 26 million Democrats who've participated.

The figures don't include two of the largest primaries, since they were held in violation of the nominating rules and the national party invalidated them in advance.

In Florida, about 1.5 million Democrats turned out for the primary, even though no delegates were at stake, many drawn by a statewide property tax referendum. The presidential candidates, by prior agreement, had not made campaign appearances, and Clinton won by almost 300,000 votes. Her campaign includes Florida in its popular-vote tally; Obama's does not.

In Michigan, Obama and most of the other Democratic candidates removed their names from the ballot; Clinton left hers on and got more than 325,000 votes, which she counts in her popular-vote total.

Clinton campaign aides say they'd be willing, for purposes of figuring a nationwide total, to distribute the 237,000 Michigan votes for "uncommitted" among the candidates whose names weren't on the ballot. That would still give Clinton a 250,000-vote lead over Obama in the state. However, if the primary votes were apportioned according to the results of that day's exit poll, her Michigan edge would shrink to about 65,000.

According to RealClearPolitics, which has various vote-total permutations on its Web site, Obama's national lead in popular votes shrinks to 94,000, a mere 0.4 percent out of the roughly 28 million votes cast, if Florida and Michigan are included and Obama is given zero votes in Michigan.

Another complication: counting caucuses. Several caucus states, Iowa, Nevada, Washington and Maine, did not release popular vote totals, even though hundreds of thousands of Democrats participated. Obama's camp adds the estimated caucus vote in those states to each candidate's total and claims an overall popular vote lead of more than 800,000 nationwide.

(Want to split more hairs? In Washington state, which held a non-binding primary 10 days after its caucuses, Obama's advantage would shrink by about 50,000 if the primary vote were counted instead of a caucus estimate. The Obama campaign uses the caucus count, since neither candidate campaigned in the period between the caucuses and the primary, and the primary had no effect on allocating delegates.)

Obama, looking ahead to the largest remaining state contests, told reporters on Friday that "Indiana may end up being the tie breaker," since he is favored in North Carolina and Clinton has the edge in Pennsylvania.

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