Sabato's Crystal Ball

How Obama Did It

Big states, small states, caucuses and campaign strategy

Justin M. Sizemore, Guest Columnist June 5th, 2008

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Justin M. Sizemore, the latest guest contributor to the Crystal Ball, is a University of Virginia alumnus and attorney who will also author a chapter on the Democratic nomination battle for Larry J. Sabato’s forthcoming book on the 2008 election, America’s Historic Marathon, to be published in 2009. The Crystal Ball is very happy to present this detailed breakdown of the recently concluded Democratic primary and caucus season. He can be contacted via email at justin.sizemore@yahoo.com.


Shortly before ten o’clock on the evening February 1, 2008, Barack Obama’s chartered 737 took off from Albuquerque International Airport bound for Boise, Idaho, where the Illinois senator was scheduled to hold a rally the next day.

In just four days voters in twenty-two states would award 1,681 Democratic National Convention delegates, of which Idaho’s caucuses would pick eighteen.

During the two-hour flight to Boise, Obama’s press handlers tried to assure traveling reporters that the candidate had not taken leave of his senses. “It may not be California,” an aide commented, “but smaller states like Idaho and Delaware add up.”

Barack Obama will become the Democratic Party’s presidential standard bearer in 2008 precisely because small states – particularly small caucus states – add up.



An Overview of the 2008 Results

Obama’s principal rival, New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, won most of the season’s biggest prizes, states that awarded a total of 1,835.5 delegates, more than the 1,574 selected in states Obama won. If the Democratic Party allocated delegates on a pure winner-take-all basis, Clinton would have ended the season 261.5 pledged delegates ahead of Obama. But rules dictate strategy, and if delegates were awarded like electoral votes, the candidates would have played the game much differently.

In the Democrats’ system, any candidate who achieves fifteen-percent support in a state’s primary or caucuses will get a share of that jurisdiction’s delegates, and each viable candidate’s overall allotment of delegates will roughly approximate his or her share of the vote.

In a closely contested race, proportional allocation makes it difficult for any candidate to establish – or to reverse – a commanding lead in delegates. A candidate can overtake his or her competitors in the delegate race only by winning lopsided victories; if a candidate manages to build up such a lead, it will be difficult for a trailing competitor to close the gap because a losing candidate will continue accumulating some of the delegates.


Table 1. Pledged Delegates: Caucuses and Primaries

Caucuses Contested Primaries Florida / Michigan All Contests
Obama 331.5 1,362 63.0 1,756.5
Clinton 178.5 1,374 87.0 1,639.5
Total 515 2,738 156.5 3,409.5
Obama net 153 -12 -24 117

At the end of voting in June, Barack Obama led Hillary Clinton by 117 pledged delegates, just 3.4 percent of the total chosen in primaries and caucuses held over the preceding five months. But for the Illinois senator’s caucus landslides, Hillary Clinton would have finished the season barely ahead in pledged delegates.

Hillary Clinton netted just twelve more delegates than her rival in contested primaries, but the primary states in which she prevailed awarded more than one and a half times the number of delegates allocated by primaries Obama won. In a winner-take-all system Clinton would have netted nearly 700 delegates from those victories. But thanks to proportional allocation, Obama came out only slightly behind in delegates awarded by primaries because his wins were, on average, more lopsided than Clinton’s.


Table 2. Contested Primaries by Winner’s Margin

Winner’s popular-vote margin Contests Total delegates awarded Winner’s net
20% or greater
Obama won 9 557 180
Clinton won 5 207 85
Less than 20%
Obama won 9 467 55
Clinton won 14 1,507 162
All primaries
Obama won 18 1,024 235
Clinton won 19 1,714 247
Total 37 2,738 -12

Clinton’s victories of less than twenty points netted her just 162 delegates, an advantage smaller than the one Obama achieved by winning landslides in primary states that awarded little more than a third as many delegates. Obama kept the results close by winning a larger share of a smaller pie.

Although caucuses selected only fifteen percent of the Democrats’ pledged convention delegates in 2008, those contests produced astonishingly one-sided results and gave Barack Obama a net advantage of 153 out of just 515 chosen. While most of the eighteen caucus jurisdictions seem inconsequentially small on their own, together they awarded more delegates than the 507 that were at stake in Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, and Massachusetts combined. In 2008, those four primary states had a combined turnout of more than 7.5 million, while slightly more than 800,000 people participated in caucuses. (A single state – Iowa – accounted for more than 200,000 of the total estimated caucus turnout.)

Caucuses and Campaign Strategy

Caucuses let candidates achieve more bang for their organizing buck, and the Obama campaign would demonstrate that mobilizing a few thousand people in a caucus state can have as much impact as getting several hundred thousand voters to the polls in a primary state. Obama’s young, affluent supporters and dedicated activist base gave him an inherent advantage in caucuses. But his overwhelming landslides in those contests were not inevitable: the Illinois senator invested considerable resources to build sophisticated grassroots mobilization efforts in states Hillary Clinton ignored.

Barack Obama had a small but dedicated following in Idaho that came to the attention of his campaign in mid-2007. Over the summer, paid staffers were dispatched from Chicago to conduct workshops on political organizing. In early November, the Obama campaign opened a Boise field office and by the time Idaho caucused on February 5, the campaign had offices in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho Falls, Ketchum and Pocatello – all of them staffed by full-time paid operatives.

“It was the most impressive political organization I’ve seen in my thirty-one years here,” Idaho Democratic Party Chairman R. Keith Roark said in an interview. (A Democratic superdelegate, Roark endorsed Obama in May.)

As for the Clinton campaign, Roark said, “we did not see any organized effort at all.”

Astonishingly, a similar pattern existed in neighboring Washington, a state whose caucuses would award seventy-eight delegates (more than four times the number selected in Idaho). By the beginning of February, the Obama campaign had built a massive operation in the state, with offices in Seattle, Spokane, Everett, Bellingham, Olympia, Tacoma, and Vancouver, and a paid-staff presence in several other cities.

“They’re opening offices faster than Starbucks,” state Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz remarked of the Obama campaign.

Until the three days immediately preceding the caucuses, the Clinton campaign’s Washington presence was limited to a state director who worked without any office space.

“The office is more of a psychological thing,” the Clinton operative explained in late January.

How the Race Unfolded

The Early Caucuses: Iowa and Nevada

The Iowa and Nevada caucuses showed that while Hillary Clinton might have been at a disadvantage in caucus states, she could compete in them. Neither candidate managed to earn a significant delegate advantage in those states, and Clinton actually won the “popular vote” in Nevada’s caucuses (though due to the vagaries of the Democrats’ delegate-allocation rules, she wound up getting fewer delegates than Obama).

If Democrats awarded convention delegates on a winner-take-all basis, there would be little point for a candidate to devote time, energy, and money to states he or she had no chance of winning. But proportional allocation means that margins matter. In a race as closely contested as the Democrats’ in 2008, there were few opportunities for either candidate to establish a commanding lead in delegates. And most of those opportunities were in caucus states where Hillary Clinton failed to make a serious effort.

Super Tuesday

February 5 – Super Tuesday – gave the candidates a shot at inevitability: with nearly half the total pledged delegates chosen on that day, a lopsided victory would have been nearly impossible to overcome. Hillary Clinton won the biggest Super Tuesday prizes, but Barack Obama won the day’s delegate race by a narrow margin of fifteen.



Obama’s command performance in Super Tuesday caucuses – impressive as it was – could not have withstood Clinton landslides in the much larger primary states. But Obama managed to keep the margins reasonably close in the states he lost while racking up some lopsided primary victories of his own. Illinois gave its senator a net gain of fifty-five delegates (nine more than Clinton netted in New York, a state that awarded one and a half times as many). Aided by overwhelming African-American support and a strong showing among white Atlanta suburbanites, Obama carried Georgia by more than thirty-five points and won thirty-three more delegates there than Clinton did.

Together, Illinois and Georgia awarded Obama eighty-eight more delegates than they gave Clinton, more than canceling out the New York senator’s advantage in the biggest prizes, New York and California (in which she netted a combined eighty-four delegates).


Table 3. Super Tuesday Primaries vs. Caucuses

Caucuses Primaries All Races
Contests won Delegates won Contests won Delegates won Contests won Delegates won
Obama 6 140 7 708 13 848
Clinton 1 66 9 767 10 833
Total 7 206 16 1,475 23 1,681
Obama net 5 74 -2 -59 3 15

The remaining Super Tuesday primaries broke in Clinton’s favor, while seven smaller jurisdictions held caucuses to allocate a comparatively paltry 206 delegates. Obama won landslide victories in every caucus state save one: American Samoa, in which a majority of the 285 people who participated preferred Hillary Clinton, giving the New York senator two of the western Pacific protectorate’s three delegate votes. (That contest holds the twin distinctions of having produced the lowest turnout of the season and of being the only caucus in which Clinton won more delegates than her opponent.)

Obama’s overwhelming victories in the February 5 caucus states (in which he won more than two thirds of the delegates at stake) more than erased the advantage Clinton had gained in primaries.

The Obama campaign’s organizational effort in Idaho paid valuable dividends: 16,880 Idahoans came out for Obama and gave the Illinois senator fifteen of the state’s eighteen delegates, a net advantage of twelve. (Clinton barely broke the fifteen-percent viability threshold, and Obama would have achieved a total shutout if a few hundred more caucus-goers had gone his way.)

Obama’s twelve-delegate advantage from the Idaho caucuses (in which 21,224 people participated) more than cancelled out the eleven delegates Hillary Clinton netted in New Jersey, a state whose primary she won by a comfortable ten points and in which 1,141,199 people voted. Super Tuesday offered a preview of the price the Clinton campaign would ultimately pay for having ignored every caucus except Iowa and Nevada, but that lesson came too late for anyone to do much about it.

Barack Obama’s Big Week

On Wednesday, February 6, the race for the Democratic nomination was virtually tied. With more than half the pledged delegates spoken for, Barack Obama led Hillary Clinton by about thirty. In the next seven days, Obama would turn his slight lead into an insurmountable one.

On the weekend after Super Tuesday, Maine, Nebraska, Washington State, and the Virgin Islands held caucuses to award a combined 129 delegates. (Louisiana, in which Obama was heavily favored, allocated its fifty-six delegates in a primary that Saturday.)

After seeing what had happened in the February 5 caucuses, the Clinton campaign undoubtedly knew what was coming and went into triage mode, flying twenty-two operatives into Seattle the day after Super Tuesday.

“It’s a huge shot in the arm,” remarked the director of Clinton’s previously all-volunteer Washington effort. The caucuses were three days away.

Despite the Clinton campaign’s last-minute organizational surge, Barack Obama successfully applied his Super Tuesday blueprint the following weekend. But there was one crucial difference: without any states in which Clinton could offset Obama’s strengths, he was able to translate his advantages into a massive gain in delegates. Together, those five jurisdictions gave Obama a net gain of fifty-five delegates.

On Tuesday, February 12, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia held primaries to award a combined 175 delegates. Clinton had hoped to do well enough in rural areas of Virginia and the Washington, D.C. suburbs to keep the results close, but the polls all seemed to be moving in Obama’s direction. With record-setting turnout, the Potomac Primaries added another fifty delegates to the Illinois senator’s total margin. (Obama netted another two delegates from Democrats Abroad, who caucused the same day.)

The Persistent Mathematics of Proportional Allocation

According to the typical mid-February horserace narrative, Hillary Clinton faced the challenge of overcoming Obama’s “momentum.” She had to inspire “buyer’s remorse” among Democrats and start “proving” she could win. But Clinton’s biggest problem was simple arithmetic.




Click image for a full-size version to appear in a pop-up window


By the morning of February 13, Barack Obama had amassed a pledged-delegate lead of 135 over a six-week period in which 2,178 delegates had been selected (almost all of them in the previous eight days). The remaining contests (which were spread over three and a half months) would allocate about half as many delegates. Reversing the trend would not be enough; to catch up, Clinton would have to do, on average, more than twice as well as Obama had in the early contests, a task that would become progressively more overwhelming with each election she failed to win in a landslide. Since the Clinton campaign had been planning to score a knockout on Super Tuesday, it was ill-prepared and under-financed for the long road ahead.

Barack Obama would suffer a punishing couple of months during the Spring, but the delegate math would remain predictably unchanged. Despite the crises of March and April – episodes which could have doomed his candidacy if they had erupted two or three months earlier – the Illinois senator endured the remaining contests with pledged-delegate lead largely intact.

The campaign entered a new phase in which winning over elites would be more important than persuading voters. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton continued to campaign hard for the next three and a half months.

But the race for pledged delegates was over.

Three Long Months

Between the Potomac primaries and the beginning of May, thirteen states and territories allocated a combined 858 delegates, and together those contests added twenty-four delegates to Barack Obama’s pledged-delegate lead.


Date State Type Clinton net gain Delegates awarded
Feb. 19 Hawaii Caucus -8 20
Feb. 19 Wisconsin Primary -10 74
Mar. 4 Ohio Primary 7 141
Mar. 4 Rhode Island Primary 5 21
Mar. 4 Texas Caucus -7 67
Mar. 4 Texas Primary 4 126
Mar. 4 Vermont Primary -3 15
Mar. 8 Wyoming Caucus -2 12
Mar. 11 Mississippi Primary -7 33
Apr. 22 Pennsylvania Primary 12 158
May 3 Guam Caucus 0 4
May 6 Indiana Primary 4 72
May 6 North Carolina Primary -19 115
Total -24 858

The most interesting contest of the early Spring was in Texas, the only state in the Union to hold a hybrid caucus-primary, dubbed the “Texas Two Step” by the media. Hillary Clinton prevailed in the Texas primary by just under four percentage points, but Barack Obama had the edge in the caucuses and wound up winning three more delegates in Texas than Clinton.

Texas allocated more caucus delegates than all but two states: Washington and Minnesota. If Obama had performed as well in Texas as he had in any other post-Nevada caucus state (leaving aside American Samoa and Guam), he would have netted more than twenty delegates. Instead, he won just seven more than Clinton.

Obama’s blowouts in caucuses held on Super Tuesday and the week after obviously taught the Clinton campaign a lesson: ignoring those contests had cost dearly, and the New York senator could not afford to take another drubbing. Had Texas voted on Super Tuesday, when the Clinton campaign would surely have ignored its caucuses completely, Obama would probably have done much better than he did.

The Endgame

Between May 13 and June 3, Hillary Clinton netted more pledged delegates than she had during any month of the process, winning impressive (though not unexpected) landslides in Appalachia and Puerto Rico.


Date State Type Clinton net gain Delegates awarded
May 13 West Virginia Primary 12 28
May 20 Kentucky Primary 23 51
May 20 Oregon Primary -10 52
May 31 Florida *Primary 19 93
May 31 Michigan *Primary 5 64
Jun. 1 Puerto Rico Primary 21 55
Jun. 3 Montana Primary -2 16
Jun. 3 South Dakota Primary 1 15
Total 67 374

On May 31, the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee voted to seat Michigan and Florida to Clinton’s advantage (though not as large an advantage as her supporters would have preferred) and the Party did so with the Obama campaign’s acquiescence. For months uncommitted superdelegates had been breaking for Obama by a margin of more than two to one, pushing the Illinois senator to within a few dozen delegates of the nomination. By the time the DNC addressed Florida and Michigan, Obama could afford to be more generous than he (or his opponent) would have been if the nomination had been in doubt.

After five long months, South Dakota and Montana closed out the season on June 3, awarding a combined thirty-one pledged delegates. In a familiar pattern, the two historic candidates split the difference, with Clinton carrying South Dakota and Obama prevailing in Montana. Giving Obama a combined net advantage of just one delegate, those two states did not make an appreciable difference in the pledged-delegate math. Those races were significant only because they were last.

At 7:30 p.m. on June 3 – just a couple hours before the polls closed on the last day of voting – Barack Obama’s campaign plane touched down at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Thanks to a carefully choreographed rollout of superdelegate endorsements over the previous forty-eight hours, Obama earned enough delegates on the last day of the primary season to claim the mantle of presumptive nominee.

Like any presidential campaign would have, Obama’s carefully chose the site of the candidate’s victory speech. Minnesota will be a competitive state in November, one the Democrats cannot afford to lose, and St. Paul’s Xcel Arena, the venue in which the Illinois senator spoke, will host the Republican National Convention this summer.

But the Twin Cities had symbolic value for another reason: four months earlier Obama had won a two-to-one landslide in Minnesota’s caucuses, winning forty-eight of the state’s seventy-two delegates, a net gain of twenty-four. Minnesota and caucus states like it had never played a significant role in presidential nominating politics. Few people – least of all Hillary Rodham Clinton – had imagined those states would propel Barack Obama to victory in one of the most stunning upsets in American political history.



* The author wishes to thank Sara Belmont of Two Rivers and Julie Sizemore for their invaluable help in producing the graphics for this article and Tony Roza of thegreenpapers.com, the Web’s most authoritative delegate count.