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Old Rules Hurt Today's Democrats

By Peter Brown

The Democratic Party's politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s had handicapped its presidential candidates until Bill Clinton offered a more centrist message in 1992.

Now, 40 years after the more liberal elements of the party seized control of its presidential selection process from the political bosses in smoked-filled rooms, the Democrats may again pay a big price for those reforms.

Their slavish commitment to representation for all led to rules, still in effect today, that have produced a seemingly unending fight for the presidential nomination. This battle between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama could leave the eventual winner at a disadvantage when it comes time to focus on the November election.

President Clinton's more centrist approach left an indelible imprint on Democratic policies by questioning the party orthodoxy, which led even liberals to repackage their rhetoric and proposals. But he did not tinker with the nominating process.

The result today is that the Democrats are playing by rules enacted at a time when the party still dominated American politics. At that point, winning was often taken for granted. Now, Democrats have lived through three decades of GOP White House dominance and have 12 years of Republican control of Congress fresh in their minds.

But the rules enacted back then have the practical effect of lengthening the primary process, thereby slowing the Democrats' ability to settle on a presidential nominee.

The quicker a party can settle its internal battle and focus on the November electorate, the better its chances of winning. That's because once a candidate wins over party activists by catering to their ideological priorities, he or she can focus on the much larger and less ideological group of voters who decide the November election.

Those rules that govern selection of the party's presidential nominee are based on the bedrock principle that a candidate should get the same share of nominating delegates in a state that he or she gets of the popular vote. Reformers who wrote them thought "fairness" was most important.

This concept of "proportional representation" can mean, because of rounding rules, that when one candidate gets 42 percent of the popular vote and the other, 58 percent, both candidates split the available delegates down the middle.

That makes it very difficult for a candidate in a close race to pull far enough ahead to convince the other that it's time to give up.

Moreover, the power given the Democratic National Committee to rule the delegate-selection process -- also a product of the '60s and '70s reforms -- with an iron fist has also backfired.

The DNC's decision to strip Florida and Michigan of delegates for holding their primaries too early threatens to make the Obama-Clinton battle even longer and more bitter. Whether those delegates are ultimately seated -- and who they would back for president in the event of a contested convention -- could become a very divisive issue.

Conversely, the Republican rules provide strong incentives for a quick nomination by allowing states to allocate their delegates on a winner-take-all basis or to follow the winner-take-all principle on a congressional district basis.

For instance, on Feb. 5, Missouri awarded all of its 58 Republican delegates to Sen. John McCain, even though his margin of victory was fewer than 6,000 votes out of almost 600,000 cast. But Obama, who received 10,000 more votes there than did Clinton, split the state's Democratic delegates evenly with her.

The Republican National Committee penalized Florida and Michigan for voting early and gave them half their normal amount of delegates at stake.

So while Clinton and Obama are in the midst of a fight that may well go all the way to the party's nomination convention in late August, McCain has effectively wrapped up the Republican nomination.

That will allow McCain to quickly consolidate the support of his own party's conservatives, who are innately suspicious of everything he does. But even with that assignment, he will be able to begin focusing on the November election months before the eventual Democratic nominee can do so.

Time will tell whether McCain can eventually win in an election year in which all sides agree the playing field tilts toward the Democrats. But the head start toward November produced by the difference between the Democratic and Republican rules can't hurt his chances.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at

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