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By Jay Cost

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Clinton's Plan B

New Hampshire Democrats appear to have tipped their hand. They like Obama. He has a lead in all of the major polls, and he is about 7 points up on Clinton in the RCP average.

If Clinton loses New Hampshire - as you, me, and everybody else expects her to - many pundits will declare her candidacy finished. This conclusion will be hasty. Not as hasty as declaring her nomination inevitable, but hasty nonetheless. Clinton still has a viable path to the Democratic nomination.

As I indicated yesterday, she has two real disadvantages that prevent her from reacquiring momentum before Super Tuesday. First, her opposition is not divided. While Edwards might hang around - he probably will not win any states. So, Clinton's loss is Obama's gain. Second, she does not have a geographical firewall. The race is not coming "home" to her.

So, she has lost Iowa. She will probably lose New Hampshire. Many expect her to have trouble in South Carolina and Nevada. Having been stripped of their delegates, Florida and Michigan are non-factors. This means that Obama will probably go undefeated before Super Tuesday. Accordingly, he will be a major force on that day. The latest Gallup poll of the nation's Democrats, which shows a remarkable turnaround for Obama, gives us an indication of just how competitive he will be on February 5th.

What the Clinton campaign needs to do is build a new nomination strategy around this expectation - though it should still work like the dickens to eke out a win in South Carolina or Nevada. But I do not think her campaign can count on these states rescuing her.

It needs a strategy that does two things. First, it appeals to the Super Tuesday states so as to at least split that day's vote with Obama. Second, and what I will talk about today, it borrows from the thinking of the Giuliani campaign: it is all about delegates.

As you probably know, voters do not directly elect nominees. They register their preferences for presidential candidates - either through primaries or caucuses - and those preferences determine how many of a candidate's delegates go to the national convention. The nominee is the person who wins a majority of delegates. Strange indeed - but delegates, just like the conventions they attend, are holdovers from the era of state party dominance.

There are two features of the Democratic nomination process that could help Hillary.

First, Democratic primaries and caucuses allocate delegates proportionally. Candidates win "pledged" delegates based not on whether they win a state - but on how many voters support them. So, for instance, even though Clinton and Edwards lost Iowa, they still won a few delegates.

Second, about 20% of all delegates to the Democratic convention are "super" or "unpledged" delegates. This quirky provision - which does not have a corollary on the Republican side - has its origins in Chicago, 1968. In the wake of that disastrous convention, the DNC formed the McGovern-Fraser Commission to recommend improvements for the nomination process. McGovern-Fraser suggested that the process be opened to rank-and-file Democrats on the principle of "one Democrat, one vote." The reforms contributed to George McGovern (the same McGovern from the commission) winning the nomination in 1972. The party establishment did not like this. So, it added the super delegate provision to serve as a check on the party rank-and-file.

This year, according to the indispensable Green Papers, there will be 798 super delegates at the convention in Denver. They include all elected members of the Democratic National Committee, all current Democratic members of Congress (including non-voting delegates), all sitting Democratic governors, and past party luminaries (e.g. former presidents). Unlike pledged delegates, who are bound to particular candidates, super delegates are free to vote their consciences.

Here is how these rules could help Clinton.

Suppose that Clinton stumbles early, but rebounds later. By the end of the nomination period - she draws even with Obama in the primaries. She wins 45% of the aggregate vote. He wins 45%. Edwards, who in this scenario dropped out some time before the end of the season, wins 10%. That could yield the following count among pledged delegates:

Obama: 1,464 delegates
Clinton: 1,464 delegates
Edwards: 325 delegates

This leaves the 798 super delegates, who can support whomever they choose. Let us suppose, in this scenario, they divvy up the way the Hill reports declared members of Congress have so far split their support between the three major candidates: 62% for Clinton, 25% for Obama, and 13% for Edwards. That would change the delegate count to:

Clinton: 1,967 Delegates
Obama: 1,664 Delegates
Edwards: 420 Delegates

A candidate needs 2,026 delegates to win the nomination. In this scenario, Clinton goes from being tied for first to having a solid lead, and just 58 delegates short of the nomination. If she could persuade about three-fifths of the Edwards' super delegates to back her, she would win.

Now, this is not a prediction about what will happen. It is simply meant to illustrate that the rules of the nomination process give Clinton two advantages.

First, the proportional allocation rule buys Clinton time to get her campaign back on track. This is critically important. Most people assume that February 5th will be the end of the nominating season. Not necessarily. Remember that 44% of all pledged delegates will not be allocated until after Super Tuesday. Clinton could use the proportional allocation rules to keep the delegate count close through February 5th - and then draw even with Obama toward the end of the season. Perhaps as the press starts to examine him with the scrutiny that they give to frontrunners, Democrats will come back to "old rough and ready" Clinton.

Second, a tie between Obama and Clinton would probably be broken in Clinton's favor, thanks to the super delegates. Note that Edwards could diminish the effect of this. If he stays strong - say around 15% of the vote through the primaries - he might have enough delegates to swing the nomination to Obama. However, I doubt that he will stay that strong. He has a hard core of supporters, but like all candidates - many of his voters are strategic. They will abandon him if they realize that he is not viable.

Of course, these advantages alone will not be sufficient to swing the nomination to her. There are caveats. For starters, Clinton needs to tie Obama in the aggregate primary vote to retain her super delegates. They are party elites who would surely recognize the peril of not nominating the candidate who won the most primary votes. She probably could not count on her super delegates to stay with her if the final primary vote is, say, 45% Obama to 35% Clinton. This means that she will have to surge at some point. Relatedly, there are probably a number of super delegates waiting to throw their support behind whoever wins more pledged delegates - Clinton would have to pull even with Obama to pick them up. Also, while delegates make the formal difference, the press, and therefore the electorate, does not see it that way. Clinton will need to win a few important contests soon so that she is still perceived to be viable. This concern may be especially acute, given news reports that she is a little short on resources.

But, the bottom line is this: the rules give Clinton some real advantages. The proportional rule buys Clinton some time to change the dynamic. It will take Obama a while to develop an insurmountable lead among delegates. The super delegate rule gives Clinton the inside track if she does manage to change the dynamic. If she pulls even with him among pledged delegates - the smart money would be on her.

Since George McGovern won his party's nomination - never once has an insurgent candidate defeated an establishment candidate to acquire the nomination. That goes for both parties. In the 220 year history of presidential nominations, insurgents have defeated establishment darlings only a handful of times. A big reason is that the establishment sets the rules. An insurgent candidate riding a wave of grassroots support still has to contend with them. This does not mean that an insurgent cannot beat an insider. It just means that it is hard. Obama will probably win New Hampshire tonight. And he is in a very good position to win his party's nomination. But don't count Clinton out. She's the insider, the candidate of the establishment - and they have a habit of winning.

-Jay Cost