In the early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, the presidential candidates pushed hard for victories that would yield few delegates but garner them momentum and media buzz, and separate them from the rest of the pack. But now that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have reached February 5's almost-nationwide primary, they've adopted a new strategy: pushing for "close enough."
It's a product of the all-powerful but little-understood role of delegates in deciding primary elections. In this historic and unique election, the technical details of how delegates are awarded may have more to do with choosing a Democratic nominee than all the media buys, GOTV operations, and newspaper endorsements put together.
Under Democratic Party rules, states divide their delegates proportionally according to vote totals at the state and district level. The rules for awarding delegates are very complex and vary from state to state (which will make figuring out the true results of Super Duper Tuesday a challenging task for the media). But in most places, the system works like this: say four delegates are up for grabs in a congressional district; if one candidate wins 30,000 votes in that district and the other wins 20,000, both will take home two delegates.
In the example, one candidate won 60 percent to 40 percent—a very substantial victory. But in order to give three delegates to the winner and a single delegate to the loser, the final vote would have had to be closer to 75/25. The less unfair but still imperfect way to divide the district's four delegates is to give two to the winner and two to the loser.
This creates a focus on districts that have an odd number of delegates. Districts which, through the quirks of state party rules, have five delegates will give three to the winner and two to the loser in even a 51/49 split of the popular vote.