Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Denver's perfect storm

During the tense weeks following the 2000 election, every new development seemed to fall neatly into a pattern that would inexorably place the final determination before the Florida legislature or the U.S. House of Representatives. If the result in Bush v. Gore had been different, that "perfect storm" might've been realized. [1]

And so it seems once again, seven years later, as the cumbersome nominating machinery grinds toward a possible contested Democratic convention in Denver starting on August 25th.

The Democratic primaries have failed to produce an early winner even though the whole electoral system was redesigned to avert a long, internecine conflict that might produce a divided party on Labor Day. With two compelling candidates and an electorate that seems evenly split in many states, the delegate selection process could easily produce a nightmare scenario in Denver that may yet deliver the presidency to John McCain. The irony of that result, after two terms of the worst administration in U.S. history, would be overwhelming.

The doomsday scenario for Democrats seems more plausible today than it did on Monday. Hillary Clinton emerged from Tuesday's four primaries with a net gain of only 12 delegates, leaving her behind in the current count by 111 (according to CBS). Yet she has clearly blunted the impressive momentum that Obama has built up after twelve straight wins during the last month. She has exploited vulnerabilities in Obama's resume and, incredibly, argued that only she and John McCain are qualified to serve as commander-in-chief. [2] Obama remains in a very strong but weakened position.

So imagine the following sequence:
  1. Clinton wins Pennsylvania on April 22, but not solidly enough to capture the lead in delegates.
  2. The candidates split the remaining primaries, but due to proportional voting neither one emerges with anything approaching the 2,024 delegates needed to win the nomination.
  3. The superdelegates who haven't yet committed to either candidate agree to withhold judgment until all the primaries are over.
  4. A nasty fight develops over seating the Michigan and Florida delegates, who would support Clinton and possibly even put her over the top. But neither the party nor the courts are likely to seat delegates elected in primaries that weren't supposed to count. That result would be grossly unfair to Obama and all the other candidates who didn't campaign (or even get on the ballot) in those two states. [Variation on nightmare scenario: a lawsuit captioned Obama v. Clinton that's resolved 4-3 by the U.S. Supreme Court.]
  5. Florida and Michigan vote again in July but neither candidate wins decisively.
  6. Obama goes into the convention with slightly more popular votes in all the primaries combined, but the total difference is less than 1%. [Until yesterday, he led Clinton by about a million votes nationally.]
  7. Obama wins the most states (27 so far), but Clinton has carried the most populous states (including California, New York and Texas) along with several swing states (like Ohio) that Democrats need to carry in November.
  8. Neither candidate—understandably, in such a close competition—is willing to withdraw for the sake of party unity
  9. All the while, both candidates attack each other relentlessly and raise each other's negatives, turning off many voters and demoralizing party activists.
Now imagine that you're one of the 794 superdelegates in Denver (and, technically speaking, none of the superdelegates is legally bound to any candidate). Here are your options if this perfect storm scenario exists:
  • You could choose whom you'll support based on the total popular vote, but our assumption is that it's very evenly split. (It would be equally complicated if Clinton increases her percentage of the popular vote, or even emerges with a majority).
  • You could choose based on the number of states carried by the candidate, which would favor Obama but ignore many of the larger states.
  • You could go with your instincts and vote for the candidate you deem most likely to win in November. Or,
  • The party leaders could negotiate a deal that results in the withdrawal of one candidate with the understanding that he or she would be the vice-presidential candidate (or perhaps majority leader of the Senate or secretary of an important cabinet post).
Any one of these choices will be denounced as "undemocratic" by loyalists to the losing candidate and a large segment of the voting public, and the mainstream media will have a feeding frenzy over the inevitable smoke-filled-room metaphor.

If there's an upside to all this, it pales in comparison with the dangers. But a few points are worth mentioning:
  • McCain and the Republicans won't be able to focus their attack on either candidate (but see item #9 above).
  • Participation in the primaries could remain very high, with unprecedented numbers of people taking part as voters and campaign workers (item #9 again).
  • The candidates will have extended opportunities for free media as public interest in the campaigns remains high.
  • Both candidates will be tested to the limit and forced to refine their messages for the fall campaign.
With the focus off McCain, he gets something like a free ride (with a few exceptions) while the Democrats spend money attacking each other. And McCain may have relatively little money to spend, thanks to his current dispute with the FEC. Though he wouldn't get as much free media as the Democrats, an adoring press is unlikely to ignore him.

As in 2000, a lot of contingencies have to fall into place in order to produce a perfect storm in Denver. But so far events seem to show an uncanny ability to do just that.


[1] As I interpreted the situation back then, the constitutional process would've still produced a Bush victory, and it would've been even more protracted and controversial.

[2] The red phone ad may be counterproductive for Democrats. If the question is "who would you rather have answer the phone at 3:00 a.m.?" a lot of voters might respond "John McCain."

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