Barack Obama wins San Francisco with a late surge of diverse supporters, but can he prevent the superdelegates from tapping Hillary Clinton?
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The Super Fat Tuesday presidential primary election in San Francisco was marked by some portentous trends and factors that could have a big impact on who becomes the Democratic Party nominee and whether that person will be accepted as the people's legitimate choice.
Consider the scene the night before the election. A small army of young people made its way up Market Street carrying signs and pamphlets supporting their candidate, Barack Obama, taking up positions outside Muni and BART stations and on high-profile corners to spread the message of change.
Meanwhile, inside the Ferry Building, Mayor Gavin Newsom and former president Bill Clinton convened one of several "town hall meetings" held simultaneously around the country to promote the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, who checked in on a satellite feed.
Among the many luminaries on hand was State Sen. Carole Migden, a superdelegate (one of 71 from California) who has not yet pledged her support to either Clinton or Obama and who could ultimately play a huge role in determining the nominee. Migden made a show of exchanging pleasantries with the former president, warmly embracing him in front of a crowd of about 250 people and more than a dozen news cameras before taking a seat nearby.
But Election Day was for the regular citizens, and once their votes were counted and analyzed, a couple of things became clear. Clinton won California with the absentee ballots that she had been banking for weeks thanks to her deeply rooted campaign organization. Her margin of victory among early voters was about 20 percentage points.
Yet a late surge of support for Obama caused him to win at the polls on Election Day, leading to his outright victory in San Francisco by a margin of about 15,000 votes, or almost 8 percentage points. It was a symbolic victory for progressives on the Board of Supervisors, who backed Obama while Newsom campaigned heavily for Clinton (see "Who Wants Change?," 1/30/08).
Obama and Clinton were close enough in California and the rest of the Super Fat Tuesday states that they almost evenly split the pledged delegates (those apportioned based on the popular vote). But if present trends continue, even after Obama's sweep of four states that voted the weekend after California, neither he nor Clinton will have captured the 2,025 delegates they need to secure the nomination before August, when the Democratic National Convention convenes in Denver.
That means the nomination could be decided by superdelegates such as Migden, a group comprising congresspeople and longtime Democratic Party activists, from party chair Art Torres down to those with key family connections, such as Christine Pelosi and Norma Torres.
And that could be a nightmare scenario for a party that hopes to unify behind a campaign to heal the country's divisions.
Political analyst David Latterman, president of Fall Line Analytics in San Francisco, said this election was marked by a higher than expected turnout and more people than usual voting on Election Day rather than earlier. In San Francisco turnout was more than 60 percent, including an astounding 88.4 percent among Democrats.
"In the last couple weeks there was a strong get-out-the-vote push by Obama's people," Latterman said during a postelection wrap-up at the downtown office of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), which he delivered along with campaign consultant Jim Stearns.
Latterman said that Obama surge, which drew out voters who were generally more progressive than average, may have been the margin that pushed Proposition A, the $185 million parks bond, to victory. It trailed among absentee voters but ended up less than five points above the 66.6 percent threshold it needed to pass.
"I don't know if this would have passed or not if it had not been for the Obama push at the end," Latterman said.
Stearns agreed, saying, "In some ways, we should name every park in the city Obama Park."
At the measure's election-night party at Boudin Bakery on Fisherman's Wharf (where some of the bond money will renovate Pier 43), Yes on A campaign consultant Patrick Hannan told us he was worried as the initial results came in.
"That is a high threshold to hit," he said of the two-thirds approval requirement for bond measures.
But as the crowd nibbled on crab balls and sourdough bread, the results moved toward the more comfortable level of around 72 percent support, prompting great joyful whoops of victory.
Recreation and Park Department executive director Yomi Agunbiade acknowledged that the decision to place the measure on the February ballot rather than June's was a leap of faith made in the hopes that the presidential election would cause a high turnout of Democrats.
"We're excited," Agunbiade said at the party. "This was a hard-fought race that involved getting a lot of people out in the field and letting folks know what this was about and we're definitely riding the wave of high voter turnout."
The strong turnout helped Obama win half of the Bay Area counties, Sacramento, and much of the coast, including both the liberal north coast and the more conservative Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
But Clinton's advantages of socking away early absentee votes and her popularity with certain identity groups notably Latino, Asian, and LGBT helped her win California.
Yet Obama's appeal reaches beyond Democratic Party voters. He got some late support from prominent local Green Party leaders, even though their party's candidates include former Georgia congressional representative Cynthia McKinney and maybe Ralph Nader (see "Life of the Party," 1/16/08).
Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, a founder of the California Green Party who also worked on Nader's 2000 presidential campaign, announced his endorsement of Obama at the candidate's Super Fat Tuesday event at the Fairmont San Francisco. Mirkarimi also noted the support of Greens Mark Sanchez, president of the San Francisco Board of Education, and Jane Kim, the highest vote getter in the school board's last race.
"I registered Green because I felt their values were closer to mine," Kim, who left the Democratic Party in 2004, later told the Guardian. "But I've always endorsed whoever I thought was the best candidate for any office.... I saw Obama as a candidate taking politics in a different direction that I hadn't seen a national candidate take things before."
If Obama's campaign can continue to develop as a growing movement running against the status quo, he could roll all the way into the White House. But it's equally possible to imagine the Clintons using their deep connections with party elders to muscle the superdelegates into making Hillary the nominee.
Stearns said this scenario could hurt the party and the country: "I can't imagine a worse outcome for the Democratic Party than to have Obama go into the convention ahead on delegates he's won and have Hillary Clinton win on superdelegates."
Amanda Witherell and David Carini contributed to this report.