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Michigan, Florida Options Shrinking

By Reid Wilson

Democrats, faced with two candidates nearly three-quarters of the way to the magic number required to secure their party's presidential nomination, face what can be described as a nightmare scenario. Better positioned for victory in November than any party since 1984, Democrats are close to throwing that advantage away, and options for salvaging a unified party by the late August convention are dwindling.

Florida and Michigan, both states who jumped ahead of the party's pre-approved window in which they were allowed to hold nominating contests, are now casting about for a way to have their delegates seated in Denver this summer. That's not the way their gambit was supposed to go.

When both states' legislators moved their contests to January 15, in Michigan, and January 29, in Florida, they thought they knew exactly what they were doing: While the DNC might strip them of delegates, the eventual nominee would instruct credentials committee members to allow the two states' slates to sit n the convention floor. But that plan did not factor in the possibility of a contested convention.

Now, based on delegate allocation, it looks almost certain that votes to seat the delegations in their current iterations - both overwhelmingly favoring Hillary Clinton - will not exist. Examining the 186 members of the DNC's Credentials Committee, which would decide any contested delegations, the deck is heavily stacked against both states.

Of the twenty eight members DNC chair Howard Dean appointed, five have already voted to strip the states' delegates. Committee chairs Alexis Herman and Jim Roosevelt, along with members Ralph Dawson, Tina Flournoy and Janice Griffin, all served on the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee, which decided the punishments for non-compliant states. The remaining twenty three members will likely follow suit and vote to uphold the rules.

Based on results so far, it appears that Barack Obama's team will control at least 68 seats on the credentials committee, after an estimate that is, if anything, generous to Clinton. Clinton's wins have netted her 55 seats, while states that have yet to hold contests -- Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennyslvania, South Dakota, West Virginia and Puerto Rico - have yet to allocate their combined 22 seats. With Dean's selections voting to uphold the rules and Obama's delegates voting in their candidate's interest, 96 delegates would vote to keep Michigan and Florida out.

While the committee is slated to have 186 members casting 183 votes (delegates from the territories are given a quarter of a vote, though all four voted for Obama, suggesting they will cast their combined one committee vote for him), Florida's and Michigan's combined 14 delegates are still allowed at the convention, but they cannot vote on matters involving their own states.

Even assuming Florida votes to seat Michigan's delegates and vice versa, the coalition voting against Clinton's delegations from both states will likely add up to more than half of the remaining 180 votes (with Florida delegates voting) and 178 votes (with Michigan delegates included). Obama can't use that majority to seat a friendlier delegate slate, though, as Clinton would benefit from Dean's contingent, again voting to uphold the rules rather than in her favor, and could block new delegate slates.

In short, the only ways for Florida and Michigan to find their seats on the convention floor would be for the Clinton and Obama camps to reach a deal and together outvote Dean's credentials committee faction; or for the two states to hold some kind of revote, either a primary or a caucus.

A caucus in either state is unlikely to fly. Clinton, who has found herself at a disadvantage in those contests, has already declared she will not accept caucuses. The New York Senator also has an advantage on the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee, through which any new Florida and Michigan plans would have to be approved. Twelve of the 28 committee members are publicly backing Clinton, while seven have said they support Obama. Clinton would need just three additional votes to block a caucus plan, and several committee members are said to back Clinton but are withholding public endorsements.

Too, Clinton and Obama are unlikely to come to an agreement on how to split the delegations fairly. Any agreement that advantages Clinton, she will argue, is only fair, since she won both states. But Obama is still free to walk away from that agreement, and he has no reason to accept a plan that puts him at anything resembling a disadvantage. Clinton would probably veto a plan splitting the delegations evenly, which would only make the magic number climb higher, from 2,025 to slightly north of 2,200, making her overall quest more difficult.

That leaves both states contemplating a primary, something that would cost each tens of millions of dollars. The trouble is that neither state has the resources to pay for the primaries, and barring a massive infusion of soft money from wealthy donors, the DNC or the candidates themselves, they won't be able to afford do-over contests.

The DNC option is off the table: Dean offered to pay for alternate primaries last year, but was refused. In a phone call last week with Senator Bill Nelson, of Florida, Dean told Nelson the party could not afford it now; through January 31, the DNC had just over $3 million in the bank, less than one-tenth what contests in both states would cost.

In short, neither Michigan nor Florida will benefit from taking their cases to the credentials committee. Both states will have difficult times financing new primaries, relying on wealthy donors pouring in millions of dollars of soft money, which state parties can accept under campaign finance laws, or on Clinton and Obama donating toward a do-over.

Democrats already caught bad luck when John McCain won the Republican nomination, as the rival party chose the candidate who would be strongest in November. Now, faced with the option of holding new contests in Florida and Michigan or nominating a presidential nominee without input from two key swing states, Democrats are seemingly losing the choice they would clearly prefer, the revotes.

A party whose fortunes looked so brilliant just months ago could be on the brink of the most public collapse since 1968. After riots in Chicago that year, Democrats rewrote their rules to resemble those they operate under today. The rules are clear, and everyone knows what they are. The trouble is that neither candidate seemed to imagine that the rules would actually have to be enforced.

Arcane political party rules are not what voters looking for change want from their candidates. Thanks to two strong, and stubborn, candidates, the Democratic Party is seriously in danger of taking what was once an embarrassment of riches and turning it into a plain old embarrassment.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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