Shifting Standards of Victory

January 20, 2008 · 3:48 PM EST

With less than a handful of states under our belt in the presidential race, it’s time for both the candidates’ campaigns and the media to agree on a uniform way of evaluating the results and determining candidate placement on the medal stands.

Post-Nevada, both the Clinton and Obama campaigns are claiming victory, and each has a reasonable explanation. Sen. Hillary Clinton defeated Sen. Barack Obama 51% to 45% in the Silver State’s popular vote (which, more accurately, reflects delegates to the state convention). But Obama appeared to edge Clinton in national delegates 13 to 12, because of how the national delegates are proportioned.

The newfound focus on national delegates is fascinating since no one talked about Clinton taking more national delegates than John Edwards in Iowa. Instead, observers near and far were anxious to shove the New York Senator into third place in the first critical contest because it made for a better storyline.

In Iowa, Clinton earned 15 national delegates, one behind Obama (16), and one ahead of John Edwards (14). But that didn’t stop Edwards from swiping the rhetorical silver medal. The former North Carolina senator edged Clinton 29.748% to 29.468% in state delegates, but if Clinton had received a single state delegate more (she already had 737) she would have been at 29.5% and her percentage would have been rounded up to 30%, putting her in a statistical “tie” with Edwards.

So, if all of the sudden national delegate counts are the new fad, Edwards has three third place finishes under his belt.

In fact, both “votes” and delegates matter. And in the case of Nevada, Clinton and Obama finished in a near dead heat. One “won” in delegates, while the other “won” in caucus votes. The reality, however, is that the Nevada results, by themselves, don’t boost either Democrat’s prospects dramatically.