The low-profile Democratic lawyer who played a central role in Barack Obama's and Hillary Clinton’s election campaigns, and who literally wrote the book on the obscure and crucial art of delegate selection, has gone to work for Beto O’Rourke.
There aren’t many presidential-campaign staffers whose hires are worth a news article, but this lawyer, Jeff Berman, is one of them. Though he doesn’t work in the visible part of politics — ad-making, messaging, communications, yelling at people on Twitter or cable news — Berman is America’s leading expert on the strange and at times undemocratic machine that is crucial to how parties select their candidates.
And his hire suggests that O’Rourke is trying to build a machine as well as a movement.
The hire “shows that we’re taking this seriously,” said O’Rourke’s campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, who was the deputy campaign manager on Obama’s reelection campaign and is one of a number of former Obama aides drawn to the El Paso, Texas, congressman's campaign. “It shows that the campaign understands that the path to win here is a delegate strategy.
“One of the most critical elements is a delegate strategy,” she said. “That’s how you’re going to win.”
O’Malley Dillon, who started full time on Monday, said Berman was the first person she called after O’Rourke announced her hire in late March. The El Paso–based operation, modeled in its early weeks in the loose, frenetic style the candidate made famous during his 2018 Senate race against Ted Cruz, has spent the last two months in a period of transition. Key department roles have remained vacant. Staffers have waited, unsure about staffing and strategy specifics, for O’Malley Dillon’s arrival this week. And O’Rourke has continued to move across the country at his usual pace, mounting tables in Iowa, driving himself up the 405 in California.
Berman, who operates with the same data-driven discipline as O’Malley Dillon, his former colleague, took the job after a meeting with O’Rourke in Washington.
The allocation of delegates in primaries is organized within states and territories, under quirky rules set by a combination of the Democratic National Committee and state Democratic parties. It’s a rough equivalent of the Electoral College — invisible political machinery that Americans suddenly become aware of when a contest gets close and voters realize that their votes are not, precisely, the thing that counts.
Berman became an expert on the system at Harvard Law School in the early 1980s, when he wrote his thesis on the constitutionality of the delegate selection rules. He met the chief of delegate strategy for John Glenn, the former astronaut and Ohio senator, in the process — and after he graduated, he went to work for Glenn’s campaign, which won no delegates.
But Berman deepened his knowledge for two decades and emerged as a legendary figure among political journalists on Jan. 19, 2008. It was late night in Las Vegas, and reporters believed that Hillary Clinton had won the state’s caucuses for the fairly straightforward reason that she had won about 500 more delegates than Obama in a wildly raucous caucus.
The Obama campaign put a patient, insistent Berman on a conference call with reporters to explain that Obama had actually won for technical reasons: National delegates are apportioned by congressional district, and Obama had been spending a lot of time — at Berman's urging and somewhat to the confusion of the press corps — in the state's rural north, which he won.
"Obama had a majority in the district that had an odd number of delegates, so he won an extra seat," Berman explained to flummoxed reporters that night. "Where Clinton won, the delegates were split evenly."
By the time Obama got the nomination, reporters were scoffing at the Clinton campaign’s earnest attempts to argue that she’d won the nomination merely because she got more votes than Obama. The delegates were all that mattered.
“He is the unsung hero of the Obama effort,” Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic consultant, said at the time.
Clinton hired Berman in 2016 to make sure she didn’t make that mistake again; her campaign, though unexpectedly weak, focused hard on the largely black Democrats in the South on Super Tuesday and ran up an insurmountable lead there.
Berman, it turned out, had been gaming out Clinton’s delegate and calendar strategy since as early as 2014, working out of sight alongside a small group of advisers.
This campaign has little in common with 2008 or 2016. Two dozen or so candidates make it incredibly complicated, and the process has changed, with candidates campaigning largely in open primaries or their rough equivalent — not the much smaller caucuses Berman and his colleagues steered Obama to dominate in 2008.
But the details remain incredibly complicated, and understanding them is central to decisions about where candidates spend their time and their money.
A leading California Democrat, Bill Carrick, recalled talking through some of those details with Berman back in 2008: “He said, ‘I want you to go through every congressional district with me in California’ — the odd-numbered and even-numbered districts and which ones they should play in and how they worked culturally. He was into this with an intensity that was just impressive,” Carrick said, referring to the fact that districts with even numbers of delegates often produce ties, while odd numbers mean that the winner gains at least one delegate more than the loser. “And with 53 congressional districts, that’s a long ... call.”
Berman would have been an obvious hire for almost any Democratic campaign, in part because there are vanishingly few people who understand the delegate system at all. That list consists largely of Berman himself and people he’s hired and trained, including Kamala Harris’s well-regarded adviser David Huynh.
The hire of the detail-oriented, fastidious Berman also indicates that O’Rourke plans to emulate Obama in building a technical campaign machine under the surface of what he hopes will feel like a movement.
Berman’s expertise may not wind up being central: Some campaigns effectively end when a candidate surges in Iowa and rides that publicity to the nomination.
“The easiest path is obviously to win Iowa, have a foundation, take that bump, and move it forward — and that’s obviously what everyone is shooting for,” said O’Malley Dillon. But, she said, she believes that more than three candidates may emerge from Iowa, and the primary contest may well extend through the spring.
O’Rourke, she said, will be ready.
“We’re going to take people from the Senate campaign, from the resistance organization, from the progressive movement — and people who have done this for a long time,” O’Malley Dillon said. “Beto can bring those people together.”