How Did Clinton and Obama Win the Nevada Caucus?

So the Clintons like Nevada after all.

Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama by about six points in the state's caucus on Saturday, netting 12 of the 25 delegates at stake. But Barack Obama won the number that could matter most, earning 13 of Nevada's national convention delegates, which ultimately determine the Democratic nominee. That made for a "split decision," according to Congressman James Clyburn, an influential member of the House Democratic leadership who is unaffiliated with any candidate. Obama sounded even more confident on Saturday, saying "we came from over twenty-five points behind to win more national convention delegates than Hillary Clinton because we performed well all across the state, including rural areas where Democrats have traditionally struggled." But it's not that simple.

Rural areas did secure Obama's delegate edge. His five-point lead in the rural section of Nevada's Second Congressional District, which stretches across most of the state north of Las Vegas, won him the single delegate at stake there. With one delegate in play, caucus math is winner-take-all. So while Clinton won about 43 percent of the area, she had no delegates to show for it. And the delegates are weighed by past voter registration -- not the actual turnout on Saturday -- which can also widen a gap with the true popular vote. But the popular vote is not actually available.

The Nevada Democratic Party only released a statewide tally of local delegates. There are over 10,000 of them; Clinton has about half (5,335). But local delegates do not reflect a pure popular vote. Just like national delegates, if a local precinct only has one delegate, then it's winner-take-all. Precinct totals can exaggerate the support for the candidate in the lead, and minimize the totals for a trailing candidate. (That's why John Edwards' Nevada turnout appears unusually low.) If you think reading about this system is hard, just imagine caucusing.

Or just try explaining it. The AP and cable networks initially misreported Obama's delegate count. (The Nation first reported Obama's delegate lead.) The AP quickly caught the error, but its new article still incorrectly refers to the precinct totals as a "popular vote." And on caucus night, the pundits were already talking about John Edwards' collapse, as if the statewide tally was a popular vote.

The arcane caucus rules are not only important because they determine -- and potentially distort -- the voters' will. The caucus itself was a controversial issue all week, as the Clinton campaign said parts of the system were unfair and potentially illegitimate. President Clinton ratcheted up the rhetoric on Friday, saying he personally witnessed voter suppression by members of a union backing Obama, an explosive charge that senior Clinton aides could not substantiate. (NBC's Chuck Todd pressed the issue on a Saturday conference call for reporters.) But in another curveball for this primary season, Hillary Clinton actually benefited from the caucus arrangements her campaign assailed, especially on the Las Vegas Strip. She dominated turnout at the 9 major casinos, which made an arrangement with the state party so that employees could caucus away from home. She won the most "at-large delegates," which President Clinton slammed as patently unfair because they counted "five times as much as everybody else." And her statewide numbers may be slightly higher than the true popular vote. Obama benefited too, of course, nabbing a national delegate in a region where Clinton's support was perfectly strong.

It all comes back to national delegates, since they pick the nominee. After Nevada, the Obama Campaign began circulating delegate-obsessed quotes from Clinton aides. ("You've got to remember this [is] about getting delegates." Terry McAuliffe! "This is a race for delegates...It is not a battle for individual states." Howard Wolfson!) But Nevada, like many states, does not bind national delegates by the actual turnout. Delegate preferences can technically change at the Nevada state party convention, held in April. (Many state parties operate on the premise that the nominee will be decided by the time of their conventions, anyway.) The Clinton campaign invoked the convention in a three-sentence rebuttal to Obama on Saturday night: "Hillary Clinton won the Nevada Caucuses today by winning a majority of the delegates at stake. The Obama campaign is wrong. Delegates for the national convention will not be determined until April 19." Jill Derby, Chair of the Nevada State Party, also spoke out on delegates as the results came in. She emphasized that national delegate counts are "based upon an assumption that delegate preferences will remain the same," when in fact they could change at the convention. Derby added a disconcerting line to hammer the point home: "We look forward to our county and state conventions where we will choose the delegates for the nominee that Nevadans support."

Translation: If this thing is close, "we" party insiders will "choose" for the rest of the state.

At least the sparring over delegates has forced out a rare political confession, helping expose the distortions of these party rules. And the reforms present themselves: Require binding votes, absentee voting rights, proportional measurement and a true popular vote.

Updates: OpenLeft's Chris Bowers compares media coverage of indirect democracy in Nevada and in the electoral college. CNN breaks down the numbers. At Daily Kos, kid oakland tees off this column to question Bill Clinton's role in voter suppression. And The Nation's Chris Hayes goes rural.