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The weird reason Hillary Clinton may need some supporters to vote for Martin O’Malley in Iowa

Hillary Clinton in Nevada in August. The strange system behind Iowa's Democratic caucus may lead Clinton to ask some supporters to vote for Martin O'Malley.
Hillary Clinton in Nevada in August. The strange system behind Iowa's Democratic caucus may lead Clinton to ask some supporters to vote for Martin O'Malley.
Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

Politicians often ask for your vote on Election Day. They don't often ask you to give it to one of their rivals.

But that may be exactly what Hillary Clinton's team will ask of its supporters in the Iowa caucuses on Monday night. Due to the primary's confusing delegate math, Clinton backers may be asked to break from their preferred candidate and strategically vote for former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has been struggling to gain traction in the race, according to multiple reports.

Why Clinton backers might move to O'Malley's group

This calculation is all about the ground rules of the Iowa Democratic caucus. As Vox's Andrew Prokop described, Democrats don't fill out a secret ballot, like in most elections. Voters instead physically move around a room in a raucous scene, standing with other supporters of their candidate and trying to convince people to join them.

However, a candidate needs at least 15 percent support within a given precinct to reach the "viability threshold" and be eligible for a delegate. If a candidate doesn't reach that threshold in a precinct, he or she is eliminated from contention there, and his or her former supporters have to back someone else (or not vote at all).

Though the situation will vary by precinct, it's clearly Martin O'Malley who's in the most danger of failing to reach the threshold. And if he's eliminated, Clinton and Sanders will split all of that precinct's delegates.

Yet under some scenarios, it might help one candidate to keep O'Malley's name in contention. If O'Malley reaches the threshold and qualifies for one or more delegates, those delegates would be subtracted from someone else's total. And depending on how the math for allotting delegates lines up, that could hurt either Clinton or Sanders.

Clinton's aim here would be to calculate in which situations she could afford to throw some of her own supporters to O'Malley so that O'Malley could win some of Sanders's delegates (without forcing Clinton to lose any of her own). And, according to BuzzFeed News, the Clinton campaign has distributed an app to its precinct captains to help them decide when to do this.

Sanders's campaign has criticized this tactic, but there is precedent

The Sanders campaign has said that it does not have similar plans to strategically defect supporters to O'Malley.

"It’s sad and telling that their campaign doesn’t think they can win without these kinds of tactics," a Sanders spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.

That said, Clinton is far from the first Democratic presidential candidate to use this kind of electioneering, and the approach was effectively used against her in 2008.

"Ceding support to a lesser-performing rival in order to minimize a better-performing one’s delegate count is hardly novel, having been used in 2004 by the Kerry campaign and by both Clinton and Obama against each other in 2008," Time magazine reports.

In 2008, Barack Obama benefited from winning Iowa caucus-goers whose first preference had been Chris Dodd and Joe Biden in the second round of balloting, according to Politico. Obama's camp was also suspected of having cut a deal with former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson for his second-ballot supporters during the 2008 Iowa caucuses, the New York Times reported.

At the time, Clinton's campaign was caught off balance by Obama's use of second-choice balloting. Her focus on the tactic in 2016 is part of what Bloomberg's Sasha Issenberg recently called the Clinton campaign's much stronger embrace, this time around, on the minutiae of the Iowa primary.

"In hindsight, Clinton’s approach to Iowa was part of an institutionalized disdain for the caucus process nationwide that ultimately helped to doom her first candidacy for president," Issenberg said. "Clinton appears to have spent eight years learning from every detail of that defeat."