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Dan J

Media and Candidate Methods of Counting Delegates Vary and So Do Totals

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Turn on MSNBC and you will learn that Senator Barack Obama has more delegates (861) than Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (855) in the Democratic presidential contest.

Visit Politico.com and you are told Mrs. Clinton is ahead, with 1,000 delegates to Mr. Obama’s 902. The New York Times, meanwhile, reports that Mrs. Clinton has 912 and Mr. Obama 741. And the campaigns offer up still more versions of the tally.

The greatly divergent delegate totals say as much about the byzantine nature of the Democratic nominating process as they do about the different counting methods of various news organizations. Add to that delays in reporting results from the bundle of states that voted on Tuesday and the loss of delegates for some states that moved their primaries up in defiance of party rules, and voters are left with a frustratingly unfocused picture of who is ahead in the Democratic field.

While such uncertainty over delegate counts has been a feature of previous campaigns, the stakes are much higher this time, as Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are locked in a fierce battle that places a premium on the perception of momentum. In this supercharged atmosphere, the disputed delegate count is more than a statistical exercise — it can influence a candidate’s ability to raise money, sway party leaders and get out the vote.

“The system is too complicated, and this is what happens as a result,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant in New York. “They are going to fight over every last delegate, because the delegates now have become a way for the candidates to claim momentum and everything that comes with that.”

The difficulty in assessing delegate strength lies in a multistep caucus system that is different from a primary, which is a one-day event where voters go to the polls and the results are usually binding. A caucus, on the other hand, is just the first stage of a process that can drag on until late spring before producing reliable numbers. As a result, some news organizations do not incorporate caucus results in projecting delegate counts, waiting instead until delegates from those states are officially certified.

As of Friday, seven states — Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada and North Dakota — had held precinct-level Democratic caucuses to choose delegates who will go to district-level or statewide party conventions in the coming months. It is at those conventions where delegates will officially be pledged to a candidate at the national convention in Denver, where 2,025 delegates are needed to win the nomination.

Until then, there is nothing to prevent the outcome of the caucuses from changing, and that is why The New York Times has not counted the 169 delegates from six of those states in its tallies (The Times is counting Minnesota, whose caucus results are binding). By contrast, news organizations that are reporting higher delegate totals — The Associated Press has Mrs. Clinton with 1,045 delegates and Mr. Obama with 960 — are projecting that the caucus results will ultimately hold up.

How best to account for the results of the caucuses has long been a subject of intense debate. Rhodes Cook, a nonpartisan political analyst who once covered elections for Congressional Quarterly, said he “was driven nuts by the delegate count” when trying to analyze the caucuses, and generally steered clear of predicting the outcome of subsequent intra-state conventions.

“I tended to do a conservative count and not project delegates from caucus states until the process had run its course,” Mr. Cook said. “At each stage of the process — the county conventions, the state conventions — you can get an altered count.”

Adding to the confusion this year is that the Democratic National Committee stripped the delegates from two populous states, Florida and Michigan, as punishment for those states moving their primaries up to a date earlier than party rules allowed. While voters went to the polls in those states, and Mrs. Clinton claimed victory in both, she earned no delegates as a result.

Problems in delegate tallying were also exacerbated this week because of delays in the official reporting of results in a handful of states on Tuesday, some caused by the severe storms in the South.

The fluidity of the delegate count is intensified by the presence of so-called superdelegates, party leaders and elected officials who can support whomever they choose independent of the caucuses and conventions. Of the 796 superdelegates nationwide, just 303 had publicly pledged support for a candidate as of Friday, according to a survey of the delegates by The New York Times and CBS News; other news organizations have their own methods of accounting for superdelegates, which may yield different results.

The vagaries of the process are on display in Iowa, where Mr. Obama was widely reported to have won the most support of caucusgoers in January. Fifty-seven delegates are at stake in Iowa, including 12 superdelegates. In just the last few days, one superdelegate moved from being uncommitted to backing Mr. Obama, and another switched to Mrs. Clinton after having supported John Edwards, who has since dropped out.

As for the remaining Iowa delegates, they will not be officially pledged to a candidate until after the party completes its county conventions on March 15, the district conventions on April 26 and the state convention on June 14, said Norm Sterzenbach, political director of the Iowa Democratic Party.

“Essentially, we start all over again at the county, the district and the state levels,” Mr. Sterzenbach said, adding that representatives of the Clinton and Obama campaigns remain in Iowa preparing for the coming conventions.

Mr. Sterzenbach said that in previous elections, a nominee had usually emerged by the time the party held its county conventions, and that most convention delegates simply gravitated to that person regardless of the outcome of the earlier caucuses.

But the tightness of the race this year makes the conventions all the more important.

Because of the heightened attention paid to the delegate count, The Times is working to change how it reports the tally, by explaining that some delegates have not been counted because of partial returns or the uncompleted caucus process.

“We’re trying to find a way to offer readers a quick snapshot of the moving parts,” said Janet Elder, editor of the news surveys department at the paper. “We think it will be helpful to begin to break down for readers the components of our tally.”



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