Big question remains for Nevada caucus: Who won?

By Stuart Silverstein

Los Angeles Times

Eight days after the presidential candidates finished battling for the hearts and minds of Nevada voters, a big question remains: Who won the Democratic contest?

Did Hillary Rodham Clinton score a clear-cut victory, as the Los Angeles Times reported? Or was the outcome a split decision between the New York senator and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, as The New York Times initially said?

The two campaigns, which quickly departed after the Jan. 19 caucuses for new political battlegrounds, continue to squabble over the point. On Wednesday, they also traded allegations of dirty politics in the Nevada contest and called for an investigation by the state's Democratic Party.

No one disputes that Clinton took away a majority in last weekend's precinct voting, defeating Obama, 51 percent to 45 percent.

But since then, the two sides have argued about potentially crucial national convention delegates. Obama campaign officials quickly asserted that he narrowly edged Clinton in "pledged" national convention delegates, 13-12.

The Obama campaign put out a statement, saying that "we came from over twenty-five points behind to win more national convention delegates than Hillary Clinton because we performed well all across the state, including rural areas where Democrats have traditionally struggled."

The claim was highlighted in initial reports of the caucuses, and a New York Times headline Sunday morning declared: "Obama 2nd, but Takes 1 More Delegate."

Political experts and party officials say that the Obama campaign's claim, at least in its original form, was wrong. The Democrats haven't awarded any national delegates from Nevada.

In a more general sense, the assertion had some foundation. Obama could win more national convention delegates if some assumptions prove to be on target.

All told, the flap highlighted some of the complexities of the presidential caucuses and the delegate-selection processes, complexities that can confound voters, and open the door to political gamesmanship.

"There is a lot of misunderstanding not only among voters, but apparently with the Obama campaign as well," said David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"It is a confusing process," he added, "and it's the first time we've done something like this on this scale in the state."

One of the most misunderstood points: The 51 percent-to-45 percent results in Clinton's favor reported Saturday weren't vote totals. The percentages reflect the breakdown of the nearly 11,000 delegates chosen by voters to go to conventions in the state's 17 counties in February. That is a key issue because, even though those delegates have expressed preferences for candidates, they aren't bound to vote for them.

What's more, by the time those delegates get whittled down to the 25 pledged delegates who represent Nevada at August's National Democratic Convention, rural parts of the state -- where Obama, as his campaign said, fared well Saturday -- will carry extra weight. For the same number of residents, rural areas get more delegates.

Because of this, the connection between caucus voters and the presidential nomination decision can be very loose.

"It's never about one man, one vote in these caucuses," said Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at University of Nevada, Reno.

Though those complexities opened the door to conflicting claims, the confusion appears to have been fanned Saturday by two statements from Nevada Democratic Party Chairwoman Jill Derby. The first appeared to shoot down the Obama campaign's national delegate claim, saying, "Just like in Iowa, what was awarded today were delegates to the county convention. No national convention delegates were awarded."

But nearly 90 minutes later, Derby issued a vague "clarification." It indicated that Obama's national delegate total could exceed Clinton's "if the delegate preferences remain unchanged between now and April 2008," when delegates to the state convention will pick delegates to the national convention.

The Obama campaign's contention also may have been given momentum by Clinton's own hesitant comments at a news conference after the caucuses. When asked about Obama's delegate claims, she replied, "Well, nobody really knows. We're looking very good. This is about delegates, but it's also about what people are voting for."

Later, however, Clinton officials issued a forceful rebuttal, which concluded: "The Obama campaign is wrong. Delegates for the national convention will not be determined until April 19."

Experts such as Damore agree with the Clinton camp. He said that the Nevada caucuses were only the first step in a multistep process of picking national convention delegates. Damore declined to predict the number of national delegates from Nevada each candidate ultimately would capture.

"It's too soon to say," he said, adding that "what happened on Saturday is nonbinding."

Still, Obama's assertion makes some sense if one assumes that the county delegates elected Saturday - as well as the state delegates whom they, in turn, will pick in February -- stick with the candidates with whom they currently are affiliated.

"His math checks out," Herzik said.

But, he added, there is no guarantee of the outcome, because neither the county nor state delegates are bound to a particular candidate.

"If delegates start to defect, it might come out differently," he said.

In recent days, Obama campaign officials appeared to back away slightly from their initial delegate victory statement, but continued to assert that they were on solid ground.

"Caucus results are always interpreted," said Jeff Berman, the Obama campaign's national director for delegate operations.

"That's the way it's been done for Iowa and it'll be done that way for the other caucuses also."

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