Once again the mainstream media miss the big picture. Instead of seeing the forest that is the Democratic primary system, they’re analyzing bark. Big mistake.
It’s always easier for talking heads to focus on the micro-level engagements that a camera can easily capture. But, when actual thought and knowledge of the Democratic primary system comes in, the picture quality starts to blur.
The big picture that the mainstream media is missing is that (a) the Democrats are in for a protracted battle for the nomination in which (b) no candidate may be able to garner a majority of the 3,500 pledged delegates. And (c) even if one candidate is able to get the delegates he needs before the process concludes, he will be bloodied and broke.
Republicans should be smiling.
Newsflash for mainstream journalists: Democratic presidential hopefuls do not actually win states. They win delegates proportionate to their support within that state (Article 2, Section 4b of their charter). The Democratic party’s primary system is not winner-take-all, like the GOP’s.
As an example, in 2000 Al Gore won 64 percent of the vote in Iowa. Bill Bradley won 35 percent of the vote. Gore received 29 delegates from Iowa and Bradley received 18 delegates. A similar split occurred in New York that year. Gore received 65 percent of the vote and 158 delegates. Bradley received 34 percent of the vote and 85 delegates.
John Kerry did not win all of Iowa’s convention delegates Monday night. He won approximately 38 percent of its delegates. This means that if we were to see the results in Iowa replicated in each and every upcoming primary contest (which we won’t), there would be no nominee with the delegates to lay claim to the nomination. Democratic presidential wannabes would then begin to wheel and deal and seek support from the roughly 800 Democratic super-delegates and from each other.
Will this happen? It is more possible than people think.
The four major contenders (Dean, Kerry, Edwards, and Clark) are most likely in this race for the long haul. Dean and Clark already have war chests that can sustain them. Kerry has theoretical access to ready money, and Edwards may be able to stay in the mix with his donor base of trial lawyers.
More importantly, the fact that the primary schedule is so compressed means that if these main four candidates hang on until March 2 (when more than 2,000 of the 3,500 pledged delegates will have been selected) and continue to split the vote, the odds of a majority winner will be thin.
And the dynamics are brutal. Like four angry men in a mud pit, anytime one appears poised to escape, the others will work to pull him back down.
Exacerbating this problem is the fact that a proportionate delegate system almost encourages candidates in a wide and undefined field to stay in the race for as long as possible. Why? Because they might as well collect delegates in as many states as possible and take them to the convention on the off chance that they can be bargained for a veep spot or Cabinet post.
And here’s the kicker. Even if one candidate is able to break the others and win a majority of pledged delegates, they are almost guaranteed to be bloodied and broke. The candidates are going to hammer each other in New Hampshire and in the seven states that vote on February 3, and the media is going to mercilessly review Kerry (Is a Massachusetts liberal with a Ted Kennedy voting record really electable?), Clark (You thought Dean was a flip-flopping, gaffe-machine?), and Edwards (Is America ready for a trial-lawyer president?)
The story is not that Gephardt was crushed and is shuffling off to the dustbin of history. The story is not that Kerry or Edwards did so well in a caucus that is a poor predictor of future success. The story is that Dean fumbled his chance to run the tables quickly and is now forced to use his money to defeat his opponents in a more protracted fight.
Like the armies during the Civil War, Dean and many of the pundits marched off to battle thinking the war would be short. They were both painfully wrong. They’re headed for a brutal war of attrition.
–Robert Moran is a vice president at Republican polling firm Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates.