It's about the delegates, stupid

It's about the delegates, stupid
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The American media loves a political horse race. Their — and as consumers, our — perpetual obsession with polling has Twitter and cable news abuzz, predictably. It’s hardly for naught. The Democratic National Committee has established specific eligibility rules for its upcoming debates in Miami and Detroit. Fetch 1 percent in three different approved national polls (or in state polls among the first four primary states) and you’re eligible. Candidates are also eligible if they raise money from 65,000 individual donors, including at least 200 donors from 20 states.

You might think I’m here to gripe about the DNC’s debate rules. I’m not. They’re generous rules, inclusive perhaps to a fault, since achieving 1 percent in a poll of 600 respondents means that 6 of 600 people chose you. That’s hardly laudable.

It’s early, which is what everyone says when they’re hovering at 1 percent or having to use unsustainable fundraising practices like begging for a buck on Facebook just to hit the 65,000 threshold. Even still, seeing the folly of the Republican debate structure in 2016, the Democrats went the inclusive route. It was the right approach, although some, like Montana governor Steve BullockSteve BullockPress: Another billionaire need not apply Obama's former chief economist advising Buttigieg The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump says Dems shouldn't hold public hearings MORE, still aren’t pleased. Hey, you can’t win them all, right? 

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The threshold for the third Democratic Party debate is higher: 2 percent in four approved polls from June 28 – August 28. To that point, let’s be clear and fair: If, by the eve of Labor Day, your campaign does not have 12 supporters out of 600 respondents to a national poll, what’s the argument for a position on the debate stage? 

I cannot think of a good one. 

The Democratic Party nomination ultimately has everything to do with delegates. Yes, the infamous D-word that sent Bernie and his bros storming through the halls of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia claiming the nomination had been stolen from them (Full disclosure: I was a delegate for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment Outsider candidates outpoll insider candidates MORE in 2016). It hadn’t, of course, but that didn’t mean the antiquated rules governing superdelegates (unpledged party leaders, elected officials, and activists) were worth saving.

In 2018, the DNC smartly reformed the system, and at the 2020 convention in Milwaukee superdelegates are prohibited from voting on the first ballot. This makes it impossible for superdelegates to change the outcome of the pledged delegates’ will. That has never happened since the superdelegate system was instituted, but it had to be done if for no other reason than to quell any doubt that the process was rigged (a more inclusive debate program has helped, too). 

Which brings me back to the notion of polling. 

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Unlike Republicans, the Democrats have a proportional voting system in place for its presidential primaries and caucuses, and the threshold to secure even a single delegate is 15 percent. A recent Des Moines Register/CNN poll in Iowa showed Joe BidenJoe BidenDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report Giuliani pens op-ed slamming 'unprecedented' impeachment inquiry MORE with 24 percent followed by Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Overnight Health Care: Top health official defends contract payments to Trump allies | Vaping advocates confident Trump will turn from flavor ban | Sanders gets endorsement from nurses union Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment MORE (16 percent), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Overnight Energy: BLM staff face choice of relocation or resignation as agency moves | Trump says he's 'very much into climate' | EPA rule would expand limits on scientific studies Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment MORE (15 percent), Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Saagar Enjeti rips Buttigieg for praising Obama after misquote Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment MORE (14 percent), and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisOutsider candidates outpoll insider candidates Poll: Buttigieg leads Democratic field in Iowa Press: Another billionaire need not apply MORE (7 percent). Combined, that is 76 percent of potential caucus-goers, leaving another 24 percent spread among most of the remaining candidates. 

Is it possible that another candidate currently polling at 1 or 2 percent is able to consolidate support? Sure. It’s also probable that, by virtue of earned media attention and money, this first tier crystalizes, and, based on caucus rules, votes get spread among them. Either way, the Democrats stand to see a handful or more candidates emerge from Iowa in strong position. New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada each possess different political dynamics, and with the rules the way that they are, it may not take long to do the math and determine that the path to a majority of the pledged delegates is improbable, at least on the first ballot.

Having worked on a number of presidential campaigns and seen delegate operations up close, it’s a complicated, strategic, highly detailed, and technical process, and that’s even true when the candidate is a lock for the nomination. 

The Democrats have not had to endure a serious delegate battle in the modern era, but with Biden coming back to the field, Bernie stagnant, Warren and Mayor Pete surging, and Harris lingering, it’s difficult to imagine anything but that happening in Milwaukee, assuming the current trend continues (and there’s nothing at this point suggesting it won’t). 

In that case, the campaign with the best delegate operation is the one that will emerge victorious.

The creators of “The West Wing” couldn’t script it better.

Blake Rutherford was a delegate from Pennsylvania for Hillary Clinton in 2016. He also worked on the Clinton-Gore ’96 presidential campaign, the 53rd Presidential Inaugural Committee, and the Gore 2000 presidential campaign. He is a member in the Government and Regulatory Law Group at the Cozen O’Connor law firm in Washington, D.C. He’s the former chief of staff and special advisor to the attorneys general of Arkansas and Pennsylvania, and previously served as vice president of McLarty Companies, led by former Clinton White House chief of staff Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty, where he provided strategic counsel, executive management, communications strategy, and legal guidance. Follow him on Twitter @blakerutherford