Thursday, March 06, 2008

Primary Thoughts: Gingham Dogs & Calico Cats

March 6, 2008, 12:30 p.m.

Nobody "Wins States"

Following Super Tuesday I commented here about what seemed to me the media's misrepresentation of the story. Nicholas Johnson, "The Meaning of 'Win,'" February 6, 2008.

To borrow and play on James Carville's wall poster for Bill Clinton, "It's the delegates, stupid!"

Once again the media talks of state "wins." Obama has "won" 12 straight primary and caucus states. Clinton "won" three out of the four states March 4 (Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island); Obama "won" Vermont.

Of course, the only reason "winning states" is of any consequence at all is because the media says it is. It represents "momentum" for the same reason -- the media bestows it on the "winner."

But the fact remains that what determines who gets the Democratic Party's nomination for president is not who "won" the most states -- or, for that matter, who gets the largest total popular vote.

It's who gets the most national convention delegates -- a calculation admittedly complicated by the so-called "super-delegates" -- but nonetheless a matter of delegates.

So by that standard -- the only standard that really counts -- Obama had over 100 more delegates than Clinton before March 4, and still had over 100 delegates more than Clinton on March 5. Once the delegates awarded that evening were sorted out and allocated she ended up with 12 more than he did -- by some counts. That's what she "won" -- not "three states."

By other counts (namely, those of the Obama camp) the results were even less decisive. There were 370 delegates up for grabs in the four states. Clinton's net gain, they say, was four delegates -- roughly 1 percent of the 370. Her "win" in Texas -- after the caucus delegates are tallied -- may be no more than one delegate more than those Texas delegates now aligned with Obama.

To put this in perspective, Obama had net gains from prior primaries as follows: Georgia, 33; Washington state, 12; Nebraska, 8; and District of Columbia, 9.

After next week (Wyoming and Mississippi, 45 delegates total, and both states in which Obama should do well) there will be no more than 566 pledged delegates. The Obama folks say they now have a 150 pledged delegates lead. If true, that would mean for Clinton to tie she would need to win 358 (566 less 150; divided by 2; plus 150), or roughly 63% of all the remaining delegates -- something somewhere between impossible and extraordinarily unlikely.

In addition to the moral and political force of these numbers ("pledged delegates") for a political party's selection of its nominee, there are also the "super-delegates" -- who also gradually seem to be moving toward Obama as well.

[ (drawing on the AP and other sources) reports:

Of the 795 super delegates, 207 have indicated support for Obama; 242 for Clinton (a 35-vote lead). Among pledged delegates, 1366 are Obama's, 1222 are Clinton's (a 144-vote lead for Obama -- which, even after subtracting Clinton's 35-vote lead among the super delegates, still leaves him with 109 delegates more than Clinton)., using the same general sources reports that -- including super delegates -- Obama has 1564 and Clinton 1463.]

Gingham Dogs and Calico Cats

As a result of these numbers, the perpetuation of the primary fights -- especially given the Clinton camp's effort to win them with "kitchen sink" negative attacks on Obama -- reminds me of Eugene Field's poem about the Gingham Dog and Calico Cat, containing this excerpt:

. . . [T]he gingham dog and calico cat
Wallowed this way and tumbled that,
Employing every tooth and claw
In the awfullest way you ever saw-
And, oh! how the gingham and calico flew!

. . .

Next morning where the two had sat
They found no trace of the dog or cat;

. . .

[T]he truth about the cat and pup
Is this: they ate each other up!
Eugene Field, "The Duel," Poets' Corner.

For Clinton and Obama to continue with attacks and counter attacks weakens the Democratic Party in general and both of them in particular. It consumes tens of millions of dollars that might otherwise have been available for the general election. It increases the difficulty of bringing the Party together around the ultimate nominee.

Polls have consistently shown Obama beating McCain by significantly larger percentages than Clinton. Moreover, she's starting off with relatively high negatives in the public's mind. If Clinton is ultimately successful -- notwithstanding the fact Obama won more pledged delegates -- because she narrowed the gap with the aid of negative campaigning, or because she wins the right to count "her delegates" from Michigan and Florida, or because enough super-delegates vote for her, or through some other manipulation perceived by party members and public alike as fundamentally unfair and "old school politics" -- the Democratic Party may once again succeed in demonstrating its magicians' uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of what would otherwise have been certain victory.

The sooner the Party can put all of this behind it -- as the Republicans, characteristically, have already succeeded in doing -- the better off it will be. Maybe this could be accomplished with some agreement between the two candidates. Maybe it could be done by large numbers of super delegates (who will be necessary for the ultimate nomination) talking with each other and agreeing to delare themselves now as either (a) supporting Obama, or (b) agreeing to support whoever ends up with the most pledged delegates. Neither option seems likely. But the Party fails to act at its peril -- thar is, if it wishes to avoid finding that its candidates, like the Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat, "ate each other up."

Florida and Michigan

All of which brings us to Florida and Michigan.

I'm fuzzy on the details, but the bottom line as I understand it is that the Democratic National Committee announced that any state that moved its primary or caucus earlier in the year would thereby forfeit its right to have its delegates seated at the national convention.

Notwithstanding this rule, Florida (via a Republican governor) and Michigan did so.

A part of the Party's rule was that candidates were not to campaign in those states. Most (there were more than just the two now left standing at that time) stayed out of those states and off of their ballots. Clinton, however, put her name on the ballot (and yet, even with no organized opposition, managed to get no more than about 54% of the votes in Michigan as I recall).

Now there is a movement on the part of Clinton supporters -- including those who voted for the rule excluding Florida and Michigan -- to either (a) count the delegates Clinton won in those two unauthorized primaries, or (b) have "do-over" primaries in which she would get to run a second time.

My own compromise preference -- sort of the "least worst option" -- would be to have delegates from both states, but require them to cast their states' votes at the convention in the same proportion as the proportion of total pledged delegates nationally for each candidate.

The Party will do itself great damage, in my opinion, if it is seen -- by public and Party members alike -- as having established a rule resulting in two states not having delegates, which it then changes with a sort of "oh, never mind" when objections to the rule are raised after the fact. Especially is this so if (a) it is done at the behest of supporters of one of two candidates in a close contest, and (b) doubly especially when, instead of having no delegates these two states are actually rewarded (by circumstance) with the opportunity to have their delegates determine who the nominee will be -- after all the other states (which complied with the rule) have voted.

Anyway you slice it, as Oliver Hardy used to say, "This is a fine mess you've gotten us into" Democrats.

But then there's always a slight change in the lyrics of Merle Haggard's "If We Can Make it Through December":

"If we can make it through November
Everything's going to be all right, I know . . ."
Unfortunately, whether we make it through November is going to turn in large measure on whether we make it through March and April.

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