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Obamagram: Learning the Process
CHAPTER #1 – “BASEBALL RULES” 3-18-08
Memorize this number: 167
It’s the middle of the night in Chicago, and I can’t sleep. Something’s bothering me about that number. So, I thought I’d write an Obamagram.
My sense of unease started to build when I read a headline on nytimes.com on my BlackBerry on Wednesday morning, March 4th. I was just getting off the plane for a short trip to London. The headline – from the New York Times, of all places – read something like “Clinton Gets Big Wins in Texas and Ohio.”
It turns out that that headline was misleading. According to the rules of the game – the Democratic nominating process – Obama won Texas! That’s because this particular game – like all games – has a scoring system. The system counts “Pledged Delegates.” They really should be called “elected delegates” because that’s how they are selected. A supposedly democratic process.
While there is still some counting going on, it looks like Barack won 99 Pledged Delegates, to Sen. Clinton’s 94 in Texas. That looks like an Obama win to me. Doesn’t it?
Sure, it’s more complicated than that in Texas. There was a “primary,” in which Sen. Clinton got 51% of the vote, 3 percentage points more than Barack’s 48%. But, after the polls closed, those who voted in the primary were eligible to participate in a caucus; it is estimated that more than a million voters did that. Barack won the caucus by 12 percentage points. Complicated – but those are the rules established by the party.
Maybe the media was impatient or they don’t know how to keep score, so they immediately “called” Texas for Sen. Clinton. They persist in this misleading characterization to this day – saying she won the Texas “primary” – which is technically true about that part of the process – but ignore Obama’s bigger win in the Texas “caucus” – and therefore his overall win in Texas.
So this travesty has awakened me. I worry deeply that complication has led to confusion. Confusion is never good.
I think it’s time we all tried to understand the complication. In my own simple way, in a series of Obamagrams over the next few weeks, I’m going to attempt to explain how I understand the Democratic nomination process. I am no expert, so I’m bound to make mistakes. When you find them, please let me know.
We have all been invited into this nominating process. Most of us have voted or caucused. Many of us have volunteered or donated. We all must continue to own this process. We must insist that it remains transparent and does not disappear behind closed doors. Our responsibilities have not ended; they are just beginning.
As Barack has repeatedly said, if he is elected, he will only be able to make change happen if we continue to participate as citizens. We might as well get in the habit now.
Our first obligation is to fully understand the process and its rules. If we throw up our hands and say it is out of our control now, it will be – with unknown consequences.
In this series of O-grams, I will try to deal with one topic at a time.
Let’s start at the beginning. What is this high-stakes game we are playing? How can be we begin to understand its complicated rules?
The best way I have found to explain the nomination process to myself is by using a “baseball” metaphor. The great American pastime.
We all know the basic rules of baseball. Why don’t we make a reasonable effort to learn the rules for selecting a presidential candidate?
So let’s begin. Think of the Democratic Party as the American League, the Republicans as the National League. Same game, different rules. The American League – the Democrats – drew up the rules roughly as follows.
- The Game. The entire nominating process resembles 1 very long baseball game.
- Innings. The game was originally designed to have 56 “innings,” rather than the standard 9.
- Stadiums. It is played over a 6 month period with each inning being played in 56 different stadiums in each of the 50 states and in 6 additional territories, districts, or other sites.
- Elimination. Originally there were multiple teams playing in the game, but all but 2 would voluntarily drop out after a few innings.
- Runs. Obviously, the team that scores the most runs – cumulatively – wins the game.
- Limited Runs. Unlike real baseball, under the American League rules, there are a limited and pre-determined, but highly variable, number of runs that can be scored in any individual inning. Think of “Pledged Delegates” as the equivalent of runs. Late in the game, it can be impossible to overtake the leader due to the limited number of available runs remaining.
- “Winning Innings Does Not Matter. Cumulative runs scored are all that matter. The number of innings “won” does not matter! This is critical. This is baseball, not tennis. Many of the “sportswriters” covering the game, whether through ignorance, laziness, the desire to sustain the drama or whatever, will choose to merely report which team wins which innings. This is irrelevant and misleading. This distracts us from focusing on runs scored, in the inning and cumulatively, and who’s ahead and by how much -- the only metrics that matter. Some observers or participants will even try to confuse us by arguing that runs scored in larger stadiums matter more than those scored in smaller venues. Not in baseball.
- National League: Winner-Take-All. Critically, the National League (Republicans) has some distinctly different rules. Over the same time period, it is playing the same number of innings, in most of the same stadiums, and mostly on the same dates. Like in the American League, there are a fixed, but variable number of runs available in each inning. But here’s the big difference – and endless source of confusion – whoever scores more runs in a particular inning gets to add all of the available runs in that inning to his cumulative total of runs scored for the game. The loser in the inning gets zero. Winner takes all. Therefore, only in the National League, who wins each inning, greatly matters. So, it confuses the heck out of the media – and the rest of us – when they are simultaneously reporting results from the National and American leagues. That is also why a National League team can get to the slaughter rule faster.
- Slaughter Rule. Back to the American League rules. Borrowing from Little League rules, there is a “slaughter rule”, so the game can be halted early if one team reaches a certain run total.
- Owners. The slaughter rule can be invoked in a second way. The League’s “owners” (think “Super Delegates”) can award up to a pre-determined number of “unearned runs” in order to end the game if they think it is in the “best interests” of the League to end the game early. In designing the rules, the owners reserved this power for themselves presumably not to dictate who wins in games fairly played by worthy opponents. Rather, the owners wanted a safe guard provision to halt a game where one team is cheating or doing something else that would be considered detrimental to the long-term interests of the American League. Once the game has started, however, the owners should be loath to turn this game of baseball into a “gymnastics meet” or “figure skating competition” where the owners become “judges” who take it upon themselves to decide, on purely subjective bases and in secret, the outcome of the competition (I will write a separate O-gram on Super Delegates.)
- Exhibitions. Before the game began in January, due to some irregularities on the part of 2 host stadiums, all of the teams agreed to shorten the game by 2 innings, to 54. These 2 host stadiums invited some of the teams to visit anyway, but to play 2 purely exhibition innings, and some of the teams accepted. But, all the teams agreed that any runs scored in these exhibition innings would not be added to the official run totals of any team.
This is how I see the rules of the nomination process. I think it is incumbent on each of us to become familiar with them. With our work and our money, we bought very expensive tickets to this game. We should demand that it is played by the rules. We should object loudly if anyone tries to change the rules, especially this late in the game.
MY NEXT O-GRAM WILL FOCUS ON PLEDGED DELEGATES
Barack’s lead in Pledged Delegates is virtually insurmountable at 167. This lead is the most important single factor to focus on. Sen. Clinton would have to score more than 66% of the available runs in each of the remaining 9 innings to catch Barack in Pledged Delegates. Even if the owners decide to replay the two exhibition innings, she would have to score over 60% of the runs in each of the then remaining 11 innings. She has reached the 60% mark only 4 times in the 45 innings played so far. Barack has reached that mark 21 times – in many cases exceeding it by wide margins. That’s why his lead is so large. Forget who “wins” Pennsylvaniaor any other inning. The only thing that matters is Barack’s lead, and whether it increases or decreases and by how many runs. It is highly unlikely that Sen. Clinton can overcome Barack’s big lead. So, that’s why she is trying to change the rules.
You will see various Pledged Delegate counts from different sources due to some technical reasons. The differences are minor. Don’t let this confuse you. The conclusions are the same. The 167 run lead is based on numbers the Obama campaign is using. I will say more about this in my next O-gram.
More than ever, it is important for you to pass this along to as many people as you can. And start educating people about the rules. Start telling people that Barack won the inning played in Texas – a “big” state, by the way, with the 2nd largest population in the country. Finally, tell everyone to focus only on the size of his lead – 167.
Your comments, corrections, and suggestions are most welcome.