Politics & Policy

Primary Rewind

Democrats' second thoughts on Michigan and Florida.

What a difference two seasons make in presidential politics. Last August, the Democratic National Committee officially punished Florida for moving its state primaries too far forward, to Jan. 29. The committee imposed similar sanctions on Michigan shortly thereafter for moving its primary to Jan. 15. It stripped both states of all delegates to the 2008 convention.

At the time, the party’s position was firm and considered appropriate by leading party lights. “It was hardly an extraordinary act,” DNC member and party operative Donna Brazile declared. “Failure to apply the rules would have been an affront to the states that adhered to them — and an invitation for more states to break them.”

But that was all before the Clinton-Obama winter showdown of 2008. The two remaining candidates appear deadlocked and headed toward a brokered convention, and DNC officials are looking back at those 366 discarded delegates from Michigan and Florida as a means of avoiding that unsavory result. Behind closed doors, they are discussing late caucuses in each state. The alternative would be to seat them by a vote of the 186-member convention credentials committee on whether to recognize the January primary results, the earlier penalties notwithstanding.

Leonard Smigielski, Democratic chairman of Michigan’s 7th Congressional District, dismisses talk of a do-over caucus in his state. It would be “a big waste of time and money. And the national party would have to pay for it. It’s too little, too late,” he told National Review Online Monday. “A caucus would come too close to our district conventions. They punished us, and now they’re in trouble. They’re coming back to us so that they can save face.”

Given Sen. Barack Obama likes where he is right now, “they” would be Team Clinton. Sen. Hillary Clinton carried both Michigan and Florida in meaningless primaries last month — primaries she would now like to make meaningful. Obama would be best served by the status quo. But a do-over caucus, while risky for him, could increase his chances of clinching the nomination without so much emphasis on the party’s large number of unelected delegates.

And regardless of the benefit to each interested party, it is unclear whether the reinstatement of Michigan and Florida delegates can help the Democratic party bring closure to its delegate hunt before this summer’s convention in Denver; it could even backfire by making the race closer than it is now.

Obama has a slight edge in the current delegate count — 1,262 to 1,213 according to CNN. Democratic voters have little chance of deciding the outcome without the help of the remaining uncommitted super-delegates, who will attend the convention and may vote as their conscience dictates, without respect to the results of their states’ primaries.

By CNN’s latest count, 235 of these super-delegates have publicly pledged for Clinton, and 160 are going for Obama. Four hundred remain uncommitted. Obama, who has been on a winning streak in recent weeks, needs 763 more delegates in order to clinch the nomination. After today’s Democratic contests in Wisconsin and Hawaii, primary and caucus voters have only 977 delegates left to elect. Thanks to the state parties’ proportional allocation of delegates, Obama would have to win nearly 80 percent of them in order to clinch without further fighting over super-delegates, perhaps even on the convention floor.

Hence the talk of putting the combined 366 delegates from Michigan and Florida back into play. Obama has every reason to object — after all, rules are rules. But he could also prevail in a do-over, now that he has a frontrunner’s momentum. Clinton won only 55 percent in Michigan despite running uncontested. If the delegates from these two states were still in play, he would only need to win 60 instead of 80 percent of the remaining elected delegates to win that convention game. It may sound like a risk, but the greater risk may be to engage the Clintons in a contest of who can best bribe and twist the arms of super-delegates.

The Clinton campaign opposes any do-overs — they want to award delegates according to the primaries their candidate already won. “You had 1.7 million people voting in Florida,” a Clinton spokesman said on Monday “Those people should be counted.” Harold Ickes, now a Clinton adviser, helped create the rules that have punished Michigan and Florida. In a Saturday conference call, however, he reversed his position, claiming that he wants those primaries to count, and that Obama is to blame for removing his name from the ballot in Michigan “to curry favor with Iowa.”

In addition to being self-serving, the Clinton plan to change the delegate rules in midstream would throw the delegate race into a near-tie today, perhaps defeating the purpose of delegate reinstatements. If a brokered convention with 4,000 delegates sounds undemocratic, what will they be saying when the 186-member Democratic-convention credentials committee decides whether to seat Florida and Michigan delegates in Clinton’s favor? A do-over caucus, the desire of some Michigan Obamaniacs, could produce the same result, and probably would not alter the delegate margin substantially even in the event of an Obama victory.

The real problem here is the Democratic party’s poorly crafted rules — specifically, as Smigielski points out, their insistence on proportional allocation of all delegates and their far too numerous super-delegates (who comprise nearly one fifth of the total, compared to the Republican equivalents represent an insignificant six percent). He’s not too worried though; the course the Democrats seem to be set on this election year suits him just fine. “That’s the way we always used to do it,” he said. “It will be fun and exciting, and I plan on being there.”

– David Freddoso is an NRO political reporter.

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