WASHINGTON -- Fist fights. Fire marshals. Veiled threats of violence. Ballot boxes disappearing into bathrooms.
These were among the most chaotic moments of the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. But they didn't happen on the day of a primary or caucus. They occurred at county and state conventions that are an overlooked, unnoticed part of the electoral process.
The extraordinary details are part of a new book by Jeff Berman, a Washington attorney who served as President Barack Obama's national delegate director. Berman wrote the book, and self-published it, to detail the exhaustive, painstaking process he oversaw to make sure Obama won the key battle with Hilary Clinton.
The book, "The Magic Number," includes Berman's first-person account of the tumultuous Clark County convention in Nevada, which had to be shut down after it spiraled out of control. Berman explains that Clark County officials were unprepared for the large number of delegates and alternates who flooded the convention, and their venue and registration process were overwhelmed.
Berman, in an interview with The Huffington Post, said he believes that the state conventions in the Republican primary process, coming up over the next few months, could be as chaotic as the 2008 Democratic primary, and perhaps more so.
In his book, Berman describes a scene of "bedlam" in Clark County, where thousands of delegates were stuck in line and became outraged when told that their seats inside the convention were being filled by alternates. The county officials running the convention were Clinton supporters, so Obama delegates believed Clinton supporters were filling their seats and "stealing the convention for Hillary."
In the main hallway, people are packed together like sardines in a can and screaming in every direction. Every now and then political chants rise up from the din: 'Hillary! Hillary! Hillary!' or 'Yes we can! Yes we can! Yes we can!' As the chaos in the building escalates, the police arrive. They immediately set up barricades in the main hallway, hoping to stem the movement of the crowd toward the overloaded convention hall. Rumors begin to swirl among Obama delegates blocked by the barricades that the presidential voting has begun and the barricades are intended to keep them from voting. Determined to protect their candidate, the Obama delegates push forward to break through the barricades.
As a campaign official, I'm permitted to slip past the barricades to enter the convention hall. Once inside, I can see the scene inside is no more orderly than elsewhere in the building. Delegates are shouting and the aisles are jammed with delegates. I can see that the convention vote for president in fact has begun. I struggle to reach the front of the room, from where convention officials are attempting to lead the balloting. One Obama delegate recognizes me and shouts to me that the ballot boxes are not secure. I look around, and sure enough, I see a ballot box being carried above someone's head straight into the Men's Room. I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it.
With convention center officials, police officers and fire marshals breathing down their neck to clear the building, the convention officials were forced to cancel the meeting and reconvene a few weeks later.
In San Antonio, a similar scene led to delegates throwing punches at one another in the parking lot. In south Texas, state party officials who inquire about attending some county conventions to ensure a fair vote are told that their presence is not "needed and perhaps their safety couldn't be guaranteed."
After returning to Obama headquarters in Chicago from the Clark County convention, Berman delivered a message to the rest of the campaign brain trust: "Expect Amageddon Day in every convention hall."
The message still applies. Primarily, he said, state parties with caucus systems that make state conventions a free-for-all for delegates may be overwhelmed and unprepared for a competitive convention. State parties administer caucuses, and state government elections officials -- who tend to be better trained and more experienced -- run state primaries. And state parties have already encountered major problems in administering a basic vote at caucuses in Iowa, Nevada and Washington. But administering a convention -- where delegates are supposed to have been elected in county, precinct or congressional district caucus votes -- is a more complicated task.
"The Republican campaigns may find the county and state conventions to be a real challenge," Berman wrote in an e-mail. "As I describe in rich detail in my book, the 2008 Democratic county and state conventions often were chaotic. Their organizers frequently were overwhelmed by the size and logistics of these events, many of which had as many delegates as a national convention.
"We found, for instance, there sometimes would be no record of who was elected as a delegate to the conventions," he said, referencing the legislative district conventions in North Dakota. "But organizers and the campaigns made the system work, and I expect the Republicans will also."
At first glance, all this fluidity with delegates might seem to be an advantage for former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Because so many of the delegates are "unbound," and can be moved into a candidate's column either at state conventions that precede the national convention, or at the GOP convention in Tampa, that may undermine Mitt Romney's claim to a big delegate lead at this point.
A Romney adviser said it herself in a briefing entirely for the purpose of talking about delegates at the campaign headquarters in Boston Wednesday,
"They're not real. They're just fictional at this point," the Romney campaign official said.
And senior Santorum adviser John Brabender told Huff Post that "there's a lot of delegates that are on the table because they're not binding."
But the problem for Santorum is that most of his wins have been in caucus states. So this means his hold on the delegates he is estimated to have won in many of these states is tenuous, so much so that the Republican National Committee's count of delegates won, which does not count unbound delegates from caucus states, has former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) ahead of Santorum, 107 to 95.
The RNC does not count the 79 delegates that Santorum is estimated by the Associated Press to have won in Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota and North Dakota.
So any effort to win over delegates from other candidates will be complicated by the fact that Santorum has a big enough job already just in making sure he fills his own delegate spots, and will have to fight to do so at the state conventions.
The process to either retain delegates already won, or to woo a rival's delegates to your candidate, comes down mostly to one thing: organization. And Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has a significant upper hand over Santorum in that department.
Romney's political director Rich Beeson and the campaign's chief counsel, Katie Biber Chen, have been working since early last year on their delegate operation. Ben Ginsberg, a Washington attorney who is a veteran of multiple Republican presidential campaigns and is an authority on the laws and rules involving electoral politics, is one of Romney's top advisers.
Santorum, who has already missed out on delegates because he has not had his name on the ballot everywhere, hired a delegate director, Michigan Republican operative John Yob, in the past week. Yob was the deputy national political director on Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign.
"The Romney campaign has demonstrated expertise on delegate issues. Santorum is getting a late start at this, but is focusing on it now, and will narrow the gap between the campaigns. His challenge will be to close enough of the gap in time to compete effectively in the state conventions and other coming phases of the delegate contest," Berman said.
But the state conventions promise to be interesting, even if Santorum and Gingrich fade, thanks to Rep. Ron Paul's campaign. Paul (R-Texas) and his supporters have been preparing to make their presence felt at the state conventions for a long time. Paul's national campaign chairman, Jesse Benton, said he is confident the campaign can "win multiple state conventions and state delegations."
Paul is focused on caucus states like Iowa, Minnesota, Maine, Washington and Nevada, Benton said.
In Iowa, for example, the Paul campaign handed out sheets of paper at events that instructed supporters not only on how to attend a caucus and vote in the presidential preference poll, but on how to get themselves elected as delegates to the district conventions and the state conventions.
The two-sided pieced of paper listed two goals. The second was, "WIN the Iowa Caucus Straw Poll." But the first was, "Have a majority control of all the delegates at the State Convention and at the District Convention, allowing us to win all 25 available delegates for the Republican National Convention."
On the back side, the paper said, "Delegates are elected by a plurality of votes, meaning the top vote getters win. Usually, the first person to raise their hands gets to go, so make sure to raise your hands first."
"You don't need to worry about this now," the sheet said. "Just become a delegate at the Precinct Caucus, and the campaign will be there to instruct you on the next steps you need to take."
After the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, Paul was estimated to have won no delegates, since he received 21.4 percent of the popular vote in the "straw poll," compared with Santorum's 24.6 percent and Romney's 24.5 percent.
But if Paul was successful in getting large numbers of supporters elected delegates to the state convention, then it is very likely that some, if not a good number, of the state's 28 delegate slots will go to Paul loyalists.