Politics & Policy

Primary Pondering

What if ... ?

There may be no second acts in American lives, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once suggested, but that doesn’t keep us from second-guessing politics, politicians, and the art of campaigning.

The 2008 election is no exception: Should Hillary Clinton have paid more attention to those caucuses in February instead of going for a Super Tuesday knockout? Would the Republican contest have turned out any differently had Rudy Giuliani contested Iowa and New Hampshire, or if Mitt Romney had not so steeply immersed himself in conservatism? And where would we be without YouTube, talk radio, Matt Drudge, and the 24-hour news cycle?

With all of that in mind, here are four more “what if?” questions to consider . . .

What If . . . Democrats Had Changed Their Delegate Math.

“If we had the Republican rules, I would already be the nominee, Hillary Clinton told reporters in the days leading up to the Indiana-North Carolina doubleheader. For good measure, she voiced the same thought the day after splitting the vote.

Whiny though it may sound, Hillary has a legitimate beef. She won the popular vote in every “mega” state save Illinois, but because her party allots delegates proportionally, as opposed to the Republicans’ winner-take-all rules, those wins didn’t translate to an insurmountable delegate lead. This negated a big win on Super Tuesday: though she won handily in California, New Jersey, and her adopted New York, Clinton‘s lead grew by a mere 44 delegate by night’s end on Feb. 5. March and April were no kinder. Hillary scored victories in Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania, but due to the Democrats’ quirky rules those three states added up to a net gain of only 14 delegates — an advantage offset alone by Obama’s landslide win in South Carolina, a net pickup of 13 delegates.

Apply the GOP’s delegate rules to the Democratic primary and it’s a different story. Rather than trailing in the delegate count. Hillary would have a plus-400 lead and the nomination would be hers. Twenty years ago, Democrats instituted a new set of rules that turned their party’s delegate selection into the political equivalent of a kids’ soccer game, where everyone goes home a winner.

As Rev. Wright would say, that chicken has come home to roost.

What If . . . Republicans Played by the Democrats’ Rules.

So what if all GOP delegations were chosen proportionally? John McCain doesn’t begin to distance himself from the field after winning the Jan. 29 Florida primary (McCain edges Mitt Romney 36 percent -31 percent, but claims all 57 delegates). A week later, on Super Tuesday and thanks to different rules, McCain doesn’t achieve closure. He wins nine states that day, but six are no longer winner-take-all. The 309 delegates he wins in those states are more like 142. California doesn’t help matters. Instead of capturing 158 of 170 delegates, McCain’s 42-percent performance is worth only 71 delegates, a net loss of 87.

McCain is not the strongest of frontrunners — in his home state of Arizona, he wins on Feb. 5 with only 47 percent of the vote. And he’s strapped for cash. Perhaps this encourages Romney, who has won seven Super Tuesday states, to dig deeper into his personal fortune and prolong the race to March 4 (Ohio, Texas) and beyond. Maybe Air America seizes on the confusion in the Republican ranks and launches its version of Rush Limbaugh’s Operation Chaos. Then again, given Air Americas puny listening audience, would anyone notice?

What If . . . California Didn’t Vote Until June 3?

The Golden State holds a primary on the first Tuesday in June, which is when it would be weighing in on Obama vs. Clinton if the state’s leaders hadn’t opted to advance the presidential primary to Super Tuesday. The political elite got what they wanted: California mattered (kinda, sorta), with Obama and Clinton working the state and flooding its airwaves. What they missed out on was the big enchilada. June 3 is the Democrats’ last hurrah, with primaries that day in Montana and South Dakota. Add California to the fold and the Golden State becomes Hillary’s Alamo — two weeks of campaigning, after the May 20 vote in Kentucky and Oregon, to plead her case to the super-delegates.

And it would have meant life in a Democratic parallel universe. That June 3 vote comes one day before the 40th anniversary of the fabled California primary fight between Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy. McCarthy entered that contest as a practitioner of “new politics” and the darling of college campuses. Kennedy, he of the family legacy, trailed in delegates and popular vote and desperately needed a California win to gain momentum heading into the national convention. Kennedy got his win by stitching together a coalition of working-class whites and minorities (most notably, with the help of United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez). Forty years later, Clinton campaigned with Chavez’s sister-in-law and UFW co-founder, Dolores Huerta. By the way, California was a winner-take-all state in 1968. Sorry, Mrs. Clinton.

What If . . . Obama Decided Long, Long Ago That Wright Was Wrong.

Instead of the clumsy one-two in the past two months — equating his pastor to his white grandmother, then parting ways with his spiritual mentor when it was no longer politically tenable — let’s suppose Obama decided a year ago to distance himself not only from the controversial minister, but also the larger issue of religious hate speech.

In an address at the National Press Club in the spring of 2007, soon after announcing his candidacy, Obama takes on Rev. Wright in particular and, without naming names, black leaders who engage in racial ambulance-chasing. Perhaps the speech generates positive press and cements Obama’s image as a spokesman for the post-civil-rights generation. It almost certainly guarantees a fight with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. All of which means that race, an issue that didn’t come to the forefront of the Democratic race until Obama’s speech in Philadelphia in mid-March 2008, appears much sooner on the campaign trail and dogs the candidate as he tries to amass delegates. Perhaps it doesn’t matter to Democratic primary-goers. But it might weigh heavily on the minds of super-delegates, thanks to the constant reminder from Clinton surrogates.

What If . . . Hillary Had Parted Ways Long, Long Ago with a Key Strategist.

You were expecting Mark Penn, but that’s too obvious. The question here: what if Bill and Hillary had gone their separate ways once he had left office and she had secured her Senate seat? A freed Hillary would not have been dogged by questions about the complexity of her marriage or how she intended to keep her ex-husband largely contained to the East Wing of the White House. And, as a divorcee, she could better relate to an under-minded portion of the electorate that the Democrats need come November: only 59 percent of single women came out for the 2004 presidential election, compared to 71 percent of married women.

But Hillary’s newfound freedom might have come at a very tangible cost: the financial freedom to keep her struggling campaign afloat with personal loans. According to the Clintons’ 2005-2006 joint tax returns, she earned $1.05 million in Senate salary, plus nearly $10.5 million in book income. The former president, meanwhile, collected $1.2 million in White House pension, $29.5 million in book income and a whopping $51.8 million in speech income. Hillary’s no pauper, but without her husband’s income stream (or a sharp divorce attorney) she might not have had the kind of deep pockets that enabled her to twice make personal loans to her campaign.

As political commentators scramble to prognosticate about the outcomes of this unusual election cycle, the retrospective“what if” is a question we’ll continue to ask ourselves.

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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