Monday, February 18, 2008

"Rules, Rules, Rules" - Democratic nomination dilemmas

This post is going to end by recommending that you watch this VIDEO, but first let me explain what it's about.

=> I don't know why it took them so long, but during the past week people are finally beginning to notice that the rules of the Democratic Party's nominating process add up to an immensely complicated Rube Goldberg contraption that was just waiting to blow up under the right (or wrong) circumstances. I hope it doesn't happen this year, but it might.

(The Republican Party's delegate-selection rules have their own arcane peculiarities, and under certain circumstances they might also lead to confusion & contention, but this year they haven't.)

The two issues most likely to produce a crisis, as everyone is now aware, are the following:

(1) The role of the so-called "superdelegates," who will constitute about 20% of the delegates at the convention. (More details HERE.) It is now close to mathematically impossible, and is certainly impossible in practice, that either Obama or Clinton will secure enough "pledged delegates"--i.e., the ones chosen in primaries and caucuses--to secure the nomination. Therefore (as some people were prescient enough discern as a possibility more than a month ago), the final result will depend on the votes of the elected officials, party leaders, activists, and others who get automatically seated as "superdelegates"--and who are not obligated to support the candidate who got the most pledged delegates (or who carried the superdelegate's own state, Congressional district, or whatever).

The idea that the superdelegates were supposed to exercise "independent judgment" about what was best for the party was a quite deliberate part of the original plan. but apparently it has just occurred to many party notables, the commentariat, and bewildered ordinary citizens that this could result in having the superdelegates overrule the aggregate outcome of the primaries and caucuses. That doesn't seem democratically acceptable to many people ... but if it would be illegitimate in principle, then why have "superdelegates" at all?

(Well, maybe they should just get rid of them. But here is one argument that might imply a different conclusion. Meanwhile, there they are--including superdelegates committed to Clinton in states carried by Obama, superdelegates committed to Obama in states carried by Clinton, etc.)

I suppose it's possible that, in the unlikely event that either Clinton or Obama establishes a commanding lead in pledged delegates over the next several months, then a decisive majority of superdelegates might rally to the front-runner in order to forestall a fight at the convention. But at this point the chances of either candidate running up a commanding lead strike me as slim. Barring that, any outcome involving the superdelegates has the potential of leaving some sectors of the Democratic Party feeling aggrieved. Someone had better come up with a generally acceptable solution, somehow (and I don't know what it might be).

(2) What to do about the delegates from Michigan and Florida, who were excluded from the Democratic convention because those states broke the Democratic Party's rules by scheduling their caucuses (in Michigan) and primaries (in Florida) too early. At the time, no doubt, this rather draconian ruling didn't seem like a big deal, since no one even considered the possibility that the nomination might still be contested when convention time rolled around. Now, the result is a bit of a nightmare.

Clinton won the bulk of the (hypothetical) delegates in both states--but none of the Democratic candidates campaigned in either state, and Obama's name wasn't even on the ballot in Michigan. If those Clinton-heavy delegations are seated, the Obama camp will justifiably scream bloody murder (in fact, even the prospect that it might happen has gotten them and their supporters started). On the other hand, realistically speaking, can the Democratic Party simply exclude the elected delegates from two big, important, swing states without paying some electoral cost for it in November? If that happens, then not only will the Clinton camp scream bloody murder, but so will both of those state Democratic parties.

That's especially true for the Florida Democrats. The hard fact is that over 1,684,000 voters participated in the Florida Democratic primary (as compared with, say, about 1,244,000 Democratic primary voters in Massachusetts and about 530,000 in South Carolina). If the Florida delegation is totally excluded from the Democratic convention, you can expect to hear a lot of angry accusations that all those voters are being "disenfranchised," that their votes aren't being counted, and so on--just as happened, people will point out, in a year that is seared into the memory of every Democrat, 2000. Think all that can simply be waved away? I doubt it.

Frankly, I can't see a good solution to this dilemma, but then my imagination might simply be too limited. One plausible solution might be to run new primaries and/or caucuses in those states, but somehow I doubt that will actually happen. (And if the idea is seriously raised, expect a bitter fight between the two campaigns about whether they should be primaries or caucuses.) I guess we'll have to see.

=> Either good luck or the exercise of collective ingenuity and reasonableness may prevent either or both of these dilemmas from precipitating a full-scale crisis. I can't foresee a happy resolution myself, especially concerning the Michigan and Florida delegations, but I also wouldn't feel confident in predicting that disaster is unavoidable.

I may (or may not) post a more substantial consideration of the issues and dilemmas involved here. Meanwhile, the folks at TPM put together a nice VIDEO that quickly surveys these increasingly rancorous disputes in a package that is at once concise, interesting, and funny (in a grimly amusing sort of way).

As Sen. Chuck Schumer correctly observes in one of the clips collected in the video, "Each candidate is going to proffer the rule that is in their best interest right now"--and each campaign has, in certain respects, been proffering different rules for different issues. You can watch them do it HERE.

Yours for democracy,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. And by the way, speaking of Florida ... I mentioned that over 1,684,000 people voted in this year's Democratic primary in Florida. To put that figure in perspective, it might be worth adding that only 753,762 people voted in the 2004 Florida Democratic primary. That means that this year's Democratic turnout was more than twice as great as the 2004 turnout--despite the fact that it had been announced in advance that the Florida delegates wouldn't be seated at the convention. That's impressive--and I think we can assume that if the primary had just been held in February, and hadn't been written off by the Democratic National Committee, then the turnout would have been even higher.

(This year's turnout for the Florida Republican primary was actually higher than the Democratic turnout--1,920,350 voters--which runs counter to the pattern in most other states. But the national Republican Party had not stripped Florida of all its delegates, merely cut them by 50%. This suggests to me that the DNC's ruling that the Florida primary wouldn't count at all must have had a significantly discouraging effect on Democratic turnout, as one would expect. Nevertheless....)

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