The “faithless delegate” strategy

A senior Clinton campaign official tells Roger Simon that, if the delegate count is close in the run-up to the convention, the campaign plans to offer some of Obama’s pledged delegates “the sun, the moon, and the stars” to get them to switch sides.

[See update: both campaigns now say they wouldn’t pursue such a strategy.]

Roger Simon reports that a “senior,” “high-ranking” Clinton campaign official says that if the convention is close the Clintonites will try to “promise the sun, the moon, and the stars” to induce elected delegates pledged to Barack Obama to switch sides.

It’s possible that Simon got it wrong, of course, but so far we haven’t heard the indignant denial from the Clinton campaign that ought to have been automatic.

(The Obama campaign, which doesn’t rely as much on anonymous press handouts, is already out with a strong denunciation by David Plouffe.) And the story is credible on its face because it’s so much of a piece with stuff we know is true, such as the Clintons’ insistence that the rules about Florida and Michigan be changed to award her delegates “won” in uncontested primaries.

Shortly before Election Day of 2000 it seemed possible that Al Gore would win in the Electoral College vote while losing the popular vote. Back then, some Bush operatives were openly discussing pursuing a “faithless elector” strategy: inducing some of the electors pledged to Gore to defect to Bush. That would have been perfectly legal: in Constitutional theory, the electors are free agents. But the Bushoids’ mere willingness to consider such a strategy, and discuss it openly, was the first strong hint that they had no sense of limits.

We have now suffered for seven years with the consequences of putting such people in power.

Are we having fun yet? Do we want four or eight more years of the same thing?

No, planning to win the nomination by inducing pledged delegates to break their word isn’t at the same level of gravity as denying that Congress has the power of the purse, but it’s based on the same winning-is-everything principle. I’m willing to believe that HRC herself is a decent person. But she has surrounded herself with people who cannot be trusted with power.

Update Phil Singer of the Clinton campaign now denies any such intention. (Either the original article has been changed or I read it too quickly, but it now names Singer, though it doesn’t quite make clear whether he’s the “senior” “high-ranking” Clinton campaign official mentioned at the top.)

In the new statement as posted on the Clinton website, Singer doesn’t deny having been the original source, or accuse Roger Simon of misquoting him in saying that Singer “assumes” that the Clinton campaign was in fact going after Obama delegates. So the simplest reading here is that Singer was talking out of school, or that this was a trial balloon and the Clintonites folded quickly when they felt the sh*t-storm of denunciation.

I’m glad that they recognize some limits, if only the limits of what they can get away with.

Second update A Clinton supporter writes a furious email denouncing me for misrepresenting the Simon report. (Full text of that report at the jump.)

The question is whether the phrase “the sun, the moon, and the stars” is propertly attributable to the unnamed senior Clinton official, or whether it’s Simon’s contribution.

Here’s the relevant part of the text:

This time, one candidate may enter the convention leading by just a few pledged delegates, and those delegates may find themselves being promised the sun, moon and stars to switch sides.

“I swear it is not happening now, but as we get closer to the convention, if it is a stalemate, everybody will be going after everybody’s delegates,” a senior Clinton official told me Monday afternoon. “All the rules will be going out the window.”

Yes, this is ambiguous. But since the entire basis of the story was a Clinton campaign official’s suggestion that the Clinton campaign was going to go after Obama’s pledged delegates, and since that person says that “all the rules will be going out the window,” it seems reasonable to attribute the entire thought to the unnamed Clintonite. The notion that the Obama campaign would also be offering such inducements is nonsensical if it’s Simon’s own contribution, since he had already checked with the Obama camp and gotten no indication of any such intention. So I read it as reflecting what the Clinton official said.

But in the end it doesn’t matter much. It’s clear that the Clinton camp intended to try to flip Obama’s pledged delegates, that someone in that camp said as much to Simon, that either that person was Singer or that Simon confirmed it with Singer, and that the campaign backed off today when the proposed tactic drew universal denunciation.

Third update Another reader suggests an alternative hypothesis:

[Maybe] Simon was looking for a story or he was just sitting in a bar with a Clinton official and he’s spinning a theory of where the campaigns could go for delegates and he brought up whether pledged delegates could be induced to switch, and the stupid Clinton campaign official (Singer or whomever) goes along with it and “confirms” Simon’s scenario that both campaigns would end up competing in this way.

Never an intended strategy by the Clinton campaign, not a trial balloon… though you could read it as either loose morals or incredibly poor judgment (or both) by this one press buddy in the campaign.

The Obama campaign has certainly had better press discipline than the HRC one, which is a point in his favor &#8212 though of course its easier to have good press discipline when you’re the press darling already.

That could be right. Though if that were the case, it’s hard to see why the Clinton press release didn’t say so, and why it took the Clinton campaign six hours to say “No, we weren’t planning to poach delegates.”

Clinton targets pledged delegates

By: Roger Simon

February 19, 2008 12:16 PM EST

Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign intends to go after delegates whom Barack Obama has already won in the caucuses and primaries if she needs them to win the nomination.

This strategy was confirmed to me by a high-ranking Clinton official on Monday. And I am not talking about superdelegates, those 795 party big shots who are not pledged to anybody. I am talking about getting pledged delegates to switch sides.

What? Isn’t that impossible? A pledged delegate is pledged to a particular candidate and cannot switch, right?


Pledged delegates are not really pledged at all, not even on the first ballot. This has been an open secret in the party for years, but it has never really mattered because there has almost always been a clear victor by the time the convention convened.

But not this time. This time, one candidate may enter the convention leading by just a few pledged delegates, and those delegates may find themselves being promised the sun, moon and stars to switch sides.

“I swear it is not happening now, but as we get closer to the convention, if it is a stalemate, everybody will be going after everybody’s delegates,” a senior Clinton official told me Monday afternoon. “All the rules will be going out the window.”

Rules of good behavior, maybe. But, in fact, the actual rules of the party allow for such switching. The notion that pledged delegates must vote for a certain candidate is, according to the Democratic National Committee, a “myth.”

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“Delegates are NOT bound to vote for the candidate they are pledged to at the convention or on the first ballot,” a recent DNC memo states. “A delegate goes to the convention with a signed pledge of support for a particular presidential candidate. At the convention, while it is assumed that the delegate will cast their vote for the candidate they are publicly pledged to, it is not required.”

Clinton spokesman Phil Singer told me Monday he assumes the Obama campaign is going after delegates pledged to Clinton, though a senior Obama aide told me he knew of no such strategy.

But one neutral Democratic operative said to me: “If you are Hillary Clinton, you know you can’t get the nomination just with superdelegates without splitting the party. You have to go after the pledged delegates.”

Winning with superdelegates is potentially party-splitting because it could mean throwing out the choice of the elected delegates and substituting the choice of 795 party big shots.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has warned against it. “I think there is a concern when the public speaks and there is a counter-decision made to that,” she said. “It would be a problem for the party if the verdict would be something different than the public has decided.”

Donna Brazile, who was Al Gore’s campaign manager in 2000 and is a member of the DNC, said recently: “If 795 of my colleagues decide this election, I will quit [the DNC]. I feel very strongly about this.”

On Sunday, Doug Wilder, the mayor of Richmond and a former governor of Virginia, went even further, predicting riots in the streets if the Clinton campaign were to overturn an Obama lead through the use of superdelegates.

“There will be chaos at the convention,” Wilder told Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation.”

“If you think 1968 was bad, you watch: In 2008, it will be worse.”

But would getting pledged delegates to switch sides be any less controversial? Perhaps not. They were chosen by voters, but they were chosen to back a particular candidate.

And it is unlikely that many people, including the pledged delegates themselves, know that pledged delegates actually can switch.

Nor would it be easy to get them to switch.

If, however, after the April 22 Pennsylvania primary the pledged delegate count looks very close, the Clinton official said, “[both] sides will start working all delegates.”

In other words, Clinton and Obama will have to go after every delegate who is alive and breathing.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: