The Democrats’ Color Scheme

Be still my heart! Political reporters like me might actually get the story we've been dreaming of, complete with enough complexities to keep us in clover all year long.

As the Super Tuesday number crunching continues, we know this: the Democratic nomination will come down to demographics and superdelegates, the 796 elected officials and party elders who are free to vote for whomever they choose. With Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama so evenly matched in both, the stage is now set for a brokered convention. I'd put the odds at 75 percent that neither candidate arrives in Denver in late August with the 2,025 committed delegates needed to get nominated on the first ballot.

The order of battle across the country is now clear. It's Black and Green versus Brown and Gray. Obama has an overwhelming advantage among African-Americans and wealthier and better-educated voters who care about issues like the environment and political reform. Clinton is well ahead with Latinos and with Democrats over 60, many of whom are on fixed incomes and vote reliably. Gender is more evenly balanced, with Obama leading narrowly among men and Hillary narrowly among women.

Based on demographic breakdowns, the primary schedule ahead favors Obama in February and Hillary in March, though anomalies and upsets are entirely possible. This Saturday, Feb. 9, there are caucuses in Louisiana (heavily African-American), Nebraska (where Sen. Ben Nelson supports Obama and the Clintons have always been weak) and Washington state (Yuppie green), all of which favor Obama. Clinton might catch a break in the Feb. 10 caucuses in Maine, where she is well organized. The Feb. 12 "Chesapeake Primaries" in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia are expected to go for Obama, in part because they have large African-American populations (and the endorsement of well-regarded Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine helps). Obama is also in good shape on Feb. 19 in Hawaii (where he was born) and Wisconsin (Black and Green). Hillary's aim is to survive February in order to get to March 4, where Ohio (a blue-collar state in which she enjoys the backing of popular Gov. Ted Strickland) and Texas (heavily Hispanic) look much better for her. Vermont and Rhode Island, which also vote that day, are more up for grabs.

Let's say Hillary pulls off several big February upsets, or Obama builds up enough momentum to defy demographics and win Ohio and Texas. Each would still need superdelegates to get to the magic 2,025. Even a big win in Pennsylvania on April 22 is not likely to reduce the role of these elected officials and party pooh-bahs. Hillary currently has about a two-to-one lead among the 300 superdelegates who have expressed a preference (the exact numbers vary, depending on which campaign is counting). That leaves around 500 up for grabs.

If you think these 500 superdelegates are going to commit quickly, you don't know politicians. They will want to be stroked by Bill Clinton or Chelsea Clinton (already at work courting them) or Ted Kennedy or Tom Daschle (Obama's top superdelegate hunter). Or, of course, by the candidates themselves. Some will ask for explicit favors in return for their commitment. Others, perhaps most, will make a cold-eyed assessment of which candidate has the longest coattails in their areas. After all, their own jobs could be on the line if the top of the ticket is weak in November. Of course, these superdelegates have a strong incentive to prolong their moment in the sun and return political power to where they think it belongs: with them.

Obama has lots more money now and deeper pockets moving forward. He raised $32 million in the month of January compared to about $14 million for Clinton. Only 3 percent of Obama's hundreds of thousands of small donors have "maxed out," which means that the campaign can go back to them again and again for more. By contrast, roughly 70 percent of Hillary's donors have contributed the $2,300 maximum allowed by law. (On Wednesday, Obama raised $3 million, while Hillary lent her campign $5 million from her personal account.) She is already facing a money crunch, though she's hardly broke. Besides, money is not likely to make a huge difference at this point. So-called "free media" (news coverage) is more important than "paid media" (TV ads).

What happens with that free media could be decisive. A gaffe or debate sound bite that once might have passed unnoticed outside the world of political junkies may now prove critical. More likely we're on a six-month march to Denver, with voters playing less and less of a role in the process.

Once delegates arrive in the Mile High City, the first order of business will be to resolve the seating of the Florida and Michigan delegations. The Democratic National Committee stripped those states of their delegates because they broke party rules by scheduling their primaries out of turn. Although all of the Democratic candidates agreed not to campaign in either place, Hillary won in both, and she obviously wants those delegations counted; Obama does not. Under pressure from the Obama camp, the DNC may require Florida and Michigan to schedule caucuses, probably in early June, to select their delegates. If they refuse, the Florida-Michigan question will be referred to the DNC's credentials committee, which is headed by Alexis Herman, a former secretary of labor and senior aide in the Clinton White House. She would presumably hold highly publicized hearings over the summer and issue a report.

The credentials committee's report would be debated on the floor of the convention on the first night. It would likely be the test vote to see the relative strength of the two campaigns. (Similar test votes on obscure party rules were held at the 1972, 1980 and 1984 Democratic conventions, when George McGovern, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, respectively, entered the convention just shy of the votes needed to nominate.) The winner of that vote on Monday, Aug. 25, would likely be nominated on Aug. 27.

Or maybe not. All we know about this wild campaign year so far is that predictions are worse than worthless. They impose on the process an order and rationality that have been defied by recent experience. But let's get ready anyway for what may be a back-to-the-future nomination, complete with politicians wheeling and dealing in convention hotel rooms. I can hardly wait.