Politics & Policy

Hacking Michigan

Donkeys in the elephant cage.

Republicans in states that haven’t voted yet can look at the early states with some consternation.

Iowa? Where only 100,000 of the state’s Republican voters participate, with the caucus format preventing night-duty cops, firemen, and hospital workers from taking part? A state with a minimum of military voters and 60 percent evangelical Christians? Where ethanol subsidies are a dominant issue?

New Hampshire? Where 34 percent of Republican primary voters were not actual registered Republicans?

Well, the good news is we’re on to Michigan, where . . . once again, a large number of non-Republicans can have a say in who wins the Republican primary.

To refresh: Michigan, like many other states, looked on in envy as Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina dominated the attention of presidential candidates. Unsatisfied with their own relatively early date in the process, state lawmakers scheduled their primary even earlier. The two parties’ national committees objected — yes, someone tried and failed to keep some order in this chaotically front-loaded process — and have threatened to punish the states by cutting their delegations to the national convention. The Michigan Republican delegation is slated to be cut from 60 to 30; the Democratic state delegation of 156 is supposed to be eliminated entirely.

So on paper, there shouldn’t be any delegates at stake for Democrats on Tuesday — an enormous incentive for the state’s Democratic voters to ask for Republican ballots, where their votes might mean something. But the state Democratic party is threatening to scream bloody murder over “disenfranchisement” if their delegates aren’t seated. Could the nominee, and/or chairman Howard Dean, withstand the chants of “count every vote” and “my fathers fought for the right to vote,” from a heavily black state? Would they want that to be a noisy subplot at their convention in Denver? What if those 156 delegates could make the difference between Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama becoming the nominee?

Local Republicans are even crowing that if the Democratic National Committee refuses to recognize the results of the state’s primary, the national Democratic leadership will so outrage the locals that the state and its 17 electoral votes will turn red in November.

Most candidates buckled under to the DNC pressure, pledging not to campaign in the state and removing their name from the ballot. Well, except for Hillary Clinton. She is the only major Democratic candidate on the ballot, and could — in fact, should — walk away with the vast majority of the 156 delegates. CNN currently puts the delegate fight relatively close — Obama leading with 25, Hillary just behind at 24, and Edwards at 18. But the network puts Hillary way ahead when the votes of “superdelegates” — high-ranking elected officeholders and party officials — are counted: she has 183 to Obama’s 78 and Edwards’s 52.

So if you’re Obama or Edwards, you don’t want Democrats crossing over to play mischief in the Republican primary, as Hillary could easily throw more than 100 delegates onto her pile, which may or may not be counted later. (Pulling out of Michigan in accordance to the DNC’s wishes is going to look like a mistake on Obama’s part.) It seems reasonable to conclude that a state that is 14 percent African-American may have some votes for Obama, and that a state with a workforce that is 21 percent unionized may have some support for the economic populism of Edwards. But since their names are not on the ballot, the best they can hope for is for Michigan Democrats to vote “uncommitted,” and for those uncommitted delegates to vote Obama or Edwards.

There are also Michigan Republicans who’d prefer that their primary not be swamped by crossover Democrats. These GOPers have a few unexpected allies: Senator Carl Levin and Congressman John Conyers are touting “Detroiters for Uncommitted Voters.” Conyers and his wife, Detroit City Councilwoman Monica Conyers, will begin airing radio ads this week urging voters to cast their ballots for uncommitted.

The candidates have pledged to honor the DNC’s ruling, and are not campaigning in Michigan. But the Obama campaign is touting grassroots efforts to “Get Out the Uncommitted Vote.”

They’re joined by state Democratic party chair Mark Brewer, who is telling Democrats to vote in their own party’s caucus. The state is shelling out between $10 million and $15 million to run the elections, and more than a few Michigan taxpayers are grumbling that they’re shelling out for a primary, when under the previous caucus system, the parties covered the costs.

A state primary in which a significant number of the state’s Democrats didn’t bother to vote in their own party’s contest — in a historic, hard-fought battle between the potential first black nominee and the first woman nominee — would be a serious embarrassment.

Not everyone got the memo: Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas called for Michigan Democrats to vote for Mitt Romney. Reaction to the post ran the gamut: from those who incredulously objected to “tell[ing] Democratic voters in Michigan to keep the candidacy of a photogenic white guy with lots of money (and the ability to tap corporate interests for more) alive,” to those who felt other GOP candidates were more deserving of their faux support, to those who objected on principle to interfering with the other party’s primary. More than a few thread respondents recognized that the plan would more or less hand the primary to Hillary. Strikingly rare were any self-identified Michiganders pledging to follow the Kos plan.

One Romney campaign insider said that they were aware of the Daily Kos “endorsement,” and characterized it as, “neither good [news] nor bad. Just interesting, because we had expected Dems to vote for McCain.”

One poll has been conducted in the state in the new year, by East Lansing–based Denno Noor. They offered 300 Democratic primary voters the options left on the ballot and found Hillary Clinton at 48 percent, “Uncommitted” at 28 percent, “unsure” at 11 percent and “other” at 10 percent. The other named candidates were afterthoughts — Dennis Kucinich at three percent, Christopher Dodd (who dropped out, but whose name remains on the ballot) at one percent and Mike Gravel at one percent.

Obama and Edwards have to be concerned about their commitment from uncommitted voters. Uncommitted delegates will not be counted unless “uncommitted” tallies at least 15 percent in the primary. Even then, there’s no guarantee that those delegates will support the candidates who complied with the DNC and removed their names from the ballot. It is presumed that most uncommitted delegates will favor Obama or Edwards — after all, Hillary supporters can still find her name on the ballot — but once the convention starts, those delegates can support anyone, even Hillary. As Captain Ed noted, “Vote now for no one, and we’ll use your vote . . . wisely. Uh-huh.”

With the array of forces urging Democrats to vote in the Democratic primary, the crossover vote should be limited. If registered Democrat turnout is high, but the vote total in their primary is low, it will be a supreme embarrassment all around — particularly for the state party.

Under that scenario, Michigan could find itself shut out in any future, modified primary system. Why give Michigan Democrats an early say in their party’s process, when their state’s voters are more interested in mucking up the Republican selection?

— Jim Geraghty blogs at “The Campaign Spot.”

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