Scrambling for Delegates? Remember 3 Lessons From Scrabble for Politics

Scrabblesteine / pieces of scrabble
Scrabblesteine / pieces of scrabble

There comes a time in every cycle when we the people prepare to elect our president, only to peer into the rulebook and ask "what is this hodgepodge?" I love Scrabble and play it daily as a release from politics and law. As the race for Barack Obama's successor heats up, herewith three lessons from Scrabble for politics: knowledge, vision, and flexibility.

1. Knowledge: Learn the rules and stipulate to them ahead of time.

Scrabble has a lot of rule variations -- nine tiles, seven tiles, word scoring, bingos, time limits and a variety of potential dictionaries. Whatever they are, the key to a civil match is to stipulate before you begin.

Similarly, the Democratic and Republican party committees require states to present Convention Delegate Selection Plans and advertise them before the voting starts. Go to or RNC website and that of your state party to learn the charter, bylaws, call to convention and delegate rules. Not on election night -- now. Be assured that Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and all candidates for President of the United States have done so and understand the undertaking. Democratic delegates are pledged to a candidate. A candidate can release their delegates to vote for someone else. Sometimes those released delegates stick with their original candidate; more often they move -- as when Hillary Clinton released her delegates to Barack Obama in 2008 -- but the choice is theirs. That's in the rules and something the candidates know.

2. Vision: Build your board.

Scrabble has all sorts of words that you've never heard of except in, well, Scrabble. The more you learn, the better you will do. Experience counts.

Presidential campaigns have caucuses and primaries and superdelegates -- some like me elected to four years of service on the Democratic National Committee, others like elected officials who serve the four days of convention. Some caucuses have vote by mail; others do not. Each primary is a statewide vote conducted by a variety of voting methods, from hanging chads to algorithmic machines, with varying degrees of voter empowerment. Volunteers and staff must learn how people vote before calling into a state or a county within a state and urging people to vote.

When it comes to the superdelegates, as I said here on Huffington Post in 2008, our purpose is to serve the grassroots who elect us for four years. We are part of the 'board" -- a network of enthusiastic servant leaders who put in the time to engage and mobilize. We get "discovered" every four years, but actually we are there week in and week out advocating for democratic candidates and causes. Presidential candidates must earn our votes -- Hillary Clinton earned mine two years ago -- and activists should know that many of us have deep roots in our communities and fond relationships with volunteers on all sides of a primary. Other superdelegates are elected officials -- designed to have convention votes so that our party leaders are running with not from the nominee. You can say that having us at the convention is unfair to your candidate because you prefer we did not have a role in the party -- but do not presume that we would "deny" the very democracy to which we dedicate our public service.

3. Flexibility: Give up the bingo -- be nimble, creative and opportunistic.

Scrabblers love going for the BINGO -- using all our tiles and getting extra points. Good players know the rules, build their board, can identify a potential bingo -- but must be ready to give it up if the letters don't come n.

Likewise, presidential campaigns have to know when to give up the bingo and be "nimble, creative, and opportunistic" in the words of the late Larry Scanlon, AFSCME's political director with whom I ran Congressional Candidate boot camps for many years. Larry's point was that campaigns have to adjust. Sometimes you're winning big in a state; other times you're going to have to hold on til the next round. With several caucuses and primaries coming fast and furious in March 2016, there will be plenty of places where campaigns have to give up the bingo and stretch themselves.

Of course Scrabble is a game and presidential politics is real life -- all the more reason for activists to engage with knowledge, vision, and flexibility to make sure that we've brought our best. We are always looking to make the process more fair -- so activism beyond the convention to change the rules is also essential ion keeping the process honest and accessible. Our ultimate goal is to elect a person who can bring the party together and the country forward toward a more perfect union. If we engage with the higher goals in mind, we can reach higher ground together.