Friday, March 14, 2008

What should the Democrats do about Florida and Michigan?

Following up two previous posts about potentially damaging problems that have developed in this year's Democratic Presidential nominating process, "Rules, Rules, Rules" - Democratic nomination dilemmas and Democrats' dilemmas - Florida & Michigan ...

... some people would like me to declare more explicitly what I think the Democratic Party should do about the second of these problems, the question of delegates from Michigan and Florida. For what it's worth, here's what I think.

=> First, background: Florida and Michigan are both pretty big states--the fourth- and eighth-biggest, if I remember correctly. Between them, in the normal course of events, they would be sending 366 pledged delegates to the Democratic national convention, 156 from Michigan and 210 from Florida. Florida and Michigan also have 26 and 28 superdelegates, respectively (though there are complexities involved there that you don't even want to hear about, believe me), which brings the grand total to 420 delegates at stake. (A candidate needs 2,025 delegates to win the Democratic nomination.)

As you all know, back in 2007 delegates from Florida and Michigan were excluded from this year's Democratic convention because those states broke the Democratic Party's rules by scheduling their primaries in January 2008. There was certainly some justification for imposing sanctions, since the DNC had to keep the whole primary-and-caucus schedule from getting out of control and being pushed back into 2007. In retrospect, the state parties should just have waited until February (though the Florida Democrats have argued that the decision to schedule the state's primaries in January was not made by them but by the Republican-controlled state legislature). But what's done is done.

And at the time, no doubt, the rather draconian penalty imposed by the DNC may not have seemed 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.

=> So what should be done now? In principle, I think, the answer is pretty straightforward--though whether or not it can be worked out in practice is another matter.

No solution at this point can be perfect, since much of the damage has already been done, and any effort to repair it after the fact is bound to create new problems. But the least bad solution, on grounds of fairness, democratic principle, and pragmatic realpolitik, would be to re-run the primaries in both states.

That conclusion strikes me as pretty obvious, though I know that not everyone agrees. To spell out some of my reasons for reaching that conclusion, I suggest that we consider the alternatives.

The solution proposed by the Clinton campaign--to simply seat the Florida and Michigan delegates selected in January 2008--is ridiculous. It's hard to imagine the Obama camp ever agreeing to this, and I can't see any reason why they should (except, hypothetically, as a ritual gesture after they've already sewed up the nomination).

Clinton won the bulk of the (pre-disqualified) delegates in both states. But that was hardly a fair test, since none of the Democratic candidates campaigned in either state, and Obama's name wasn't even on the ballot in Michigan (even so, 40% of the votes went to "Uncommitted".) Also, though a substantial number of people did vote in the Florida Democratic primary (as I will mention in a moment), it seems pretty clear that more voters would have participated in both states if they hadn't been told in advance that their votes wouldn't count.

Changing the rules in order to achieve a result that could be recognized as (more or less) fair and legitimate is not out of the question--in fact, I think it would be a good idea in this case. But changing the rules in order to deliver a blatantly one-sided advantage to one campaign would not only be substantively unfair, but would also be widely and justifiably viewed as illegitimate.

So the Clinton campaign's official position on this matter is laughably indefensible. In fact, I suspect they recognize that themselves, and that they're just putting their proposal forward as an initial bargaining chip, not as a solution they seriously expect to see adopted.

On the other hand, the solution favored by many Obama supporters--to simply exclude Florida and Michigan from the nomination process--doesn't really make much sense, either. (Paul Starr laid out some of the reasons fairly cogently way back at the end of January.) Yes, one could argue the state Democratic parties deserved to be punished, and perhaps it's not "fair" for the Clinton campaign to make an issue of seating delegates from those states now, when they didn't do so at the beginning. But it's not all about them. There's also the question of whether it's "fair" to disenfranchise Democratic voters in those states and exclude them from what has turned out to be a closely contested nomination process--and whether voters in those states will regard this exclusion as "fair" and legitimate.

That last point, I submit, is the most crucial. Even if we leave aside considerations of abstract "fairness," which I think are ambiguous at best, it would be monumental folly for the Democratic Party to simply shut out Michigan and Florida entirely from the convention, thus alienating a great many voters in those states, merely for the satisfaction of punishing the state parties (and the Clinton campaign).

Based on the information I've seen so far, this strikes me as being especially true for Florida. The hard fact is that 1,684,390 people voted in the Democratic primary there--more than twice as many as in 2004--and it is clear from public opinion polls as well as other evidence that many Florida voters and activists are very upset by the prospect that their votes will just be flushed down the toilet. I suspect that such feelings of resentment would only intensify if the nomination were decided with no participation by Florida--let us not forget that, after the 2000 election, the specter of votes in Florida going uncounted is seared into the collective consciousness of the Democratic Party. Whether this resentment would be "fair" or not, I don't think it would be sensible for the Democrats simply to hand Florida to John McCain on a platter. Ditto for Michigan.

No, let's get real: The Democratic Party had better come up with some workable solution that can (somehow) command consensus and also mollify potentially disaffected Democratic voters in Michigan and Florida. Any such solution would have to be a package deal that included both states, for reasons that I don't think need to be spelled out. And any new contest in each state should take a form as close as possible to what would have happened if the two state parties had played by the Democratic Party's rules in the first place. All things considered, the best (or least bad) way to meet these criteria is simply to re-run the primaries in both Florida and Michigan.

=> One practical advantage of such a solution is that it offers advantages to both the Obama and the Clinton campaigns, even if neither would regard it as ideal from their perspective. If a new Florida primary is held, it seems plausible that Clinton would win again. But Obama could almost certainly raise his share of the vote by campaigning actively there (and if he couldn't, then that might raise legitimate questions about whether he really would be the strongest general-election candidate). And in Michigan, it's difficult to believe that Clinton could do as well as she did when she was running against no serious opponents.

Of course, it's hypothetically possible that Clinton might come out ahead in all three of the remaining big states--Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida. But since Democratic delegates are allocated (roughly) proportionately in each state, it seems unlikely that re-runs in Michigan and Florida would decisively alter the balance of pledged delegates between the two campaigns. In the end, even if Clinton did manage to pull off her best-case scenario, coming out ahead in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Michigan, the odds are that Obama would still lead in pledged delegates. If Clinton were to lose the nomination under those conditions, there would be no grounds for her supporters to raise questions about the overall legitimacy of the process. (And if Clinton were to lose even one of those three states, that would be a blow.)

On the other hand, it's understandable that the Obama campaign might feel reluctant to gamble on narrowing their pledged-delegate lead, and to take the chance of losing several big-state primaries, even if they wind up retaining an overall delegate lead in the end. From their perspective, a string of big-state victories might give Clinton an appearance of "momentum" that could influence wavering superdelegates, and there's even a danger that she might edge ahead of Obama in overall popular-vote totals (which might give the Clinton camp a moral claim to counter Obama's pledged-delegate lead). (Update: For a perceptive discussion that usefully highlights these factors and brings out their implications, see Lane Kenworthy's post on "Electability".) So it's probably true that this solution would offer more risks and fewer potential benefits to the Obama campaign than to the Clinton campaign.

But if Obama is the Democratic candidate in November (which looks most likely at this point), he has an interest in avoiding the impression that his campaign worked to disenfranchise Democratic voters in Michigan and Florida.

Also, everyone in the Democratic Party should be working feverishly to avoid a wildly divisive and globally televised floor fight at the convention over seating delegates. That would almost certainly be a worst-case disaster scenario.

=> Let me repeat that, at this point in the game, no solution could be ideal in all respects. It's now abundantly clear 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. Those circumstances have materialized, and the result is a big--and potentially disastrous--mess.

With respect to the dilemmas posed by Florida and Michigan (ignoring, for the moment, the controversy over the role of superdelegates), the Democrats need to come up with a workable solution that (1) doesn't tear the party apart and also (2) doesn't gratuitously alienate Florida and Michigan voters. As I've explained, it seems clear to me that the best solution by far (at least, in comparison with the available alternatives) would be a joint do-over of the Florida and Michigan primaries.

Will that actually happen? Maybe, maybe not. At the moment, many complications stand in the way--financial and logistical as well as political. Those practicalities would require a long discussion, which I will avoid getting into right now. The Democrats may well blow it ... but according to the old saying, politics is supposed to be the art of the possible, so I hope they can manage to work out a stop-gap solution (and there are some signs that they might be able to do this).

Then they have until 2012 to try to fix the system. (Good luck!)

Yours for democracy,
Jeff Weintraub