Two Problems

It’s a crazy election season, and one in which the Democratic party has more peril awaiting it than payoff.

Before this whole crazy thing got underway, it seemed as though a Democrat winning the White House was a solid bet.  Bush was showing historically low approval numbers and the even lower numbers posted up by Congress masked an underlying tension that the country wanted to shift not more to the right but instead to the left.  The war in Iraq was at a low point in the public’s opinion and there was trouble on the horizon for the economy.

It was the party’s contest to lose.

Unfortunately, if the Democrats don’t lose this election, it won’t be for a lack of trying.  This curiously enough when the Republican who did eventually win the nomination is perhaps the closest in political philosophy to the current unpopular president, and has embraced him on two of his most unpopular policies; Iraq for the left, immigration for the right.

To the Democrats’ credit, one of their problems on the surface seem hardly like a problem at all; having two very strong candidates both of whom able to drive record numbers of voters to the polls and encourage fierce and loyal support.  For all the bitterness that the battle between those two candidates has inspired, having the various traits that both Obama and Clinton bring to the table is among one of the better problems to have.

The other problem, though, stems from infighting and a lack of party discipline that resulted in what seems in retrospect to be a very boneheaded maneuver; the decision not to seat the delegates from Florida and Michigan.  To be fair, all parties are at fault here.  The state party establishments are at fault for deciding not to play by the rules.  The national party establishment failed because they did not come to a more amenable solution; the DNC should have worked around the clock with all parties involved until they had a firm and fair solution before the primaries actually began.  And the candidates themselves failed to a degree by standing by and letting it happen.  Here it’s difficult not to fault Clinton more than the rest of her competitors at the time as it would be she who would attempt to then use the situation for her own political gain under the guise of seeing Democracy’s work done.

While the first problem seems like hardly a problem at all, anyone who has followed the election closely up to this point knows the myriad pitfalls awaiting the eventual Democratic nominee.  There is the increased bitterness that has risen throughout and seems to be aimed as much at the opposing supporters as it is the opposing candidates.  As the primary continues on, the battle lines between the two camps on all levels seem likely to only grow and deepen. 

Then one must take into account the effects of two candidates who cannot deliver the knockout blow towards each other.  As the race proceeds, one can only assume that the swings taken by both campaigns are going to get harder and more damaging and are already dangerously close to feeding the Republicans ammunition for the General Election.

Finally, as Chris Bowers points out, the nature of the race, the back and forth between the two politicians, has created a situation where it is virtually impossible for either candidate to win the nomination with the wind at their backs.

For Hillary Clinton, there are only two clear paths to the nomination.  The first is to somehow overtake Barack in pledged delegates and let the Super Delegates push her over the line.  This would, of course, provide Hillary Clinton with a firestorm of momentum heading into the General Election, but the problem with this scenario is that it is virtually impossible.  It was highly improbable prior to the March 4th primaries, and when Clinton failed to pull the net delegate gain she needed to pull, her odds got worse.  Saturday Wyoming holds its contest where Clinton is likely to lose, and Mississippi comes on Tuesday where again Obama is favored to be the victor.  Both losses will only deepen the delegate math problems Hillary faces.  She would need an unprecedented blowout in Pennsylvania in April to launch herself back into the race at that point, and again, that is only to be in the hunt.

The second scenario is for Hillary Clinton to use Super Delegates to override Barack Obama’s pledged delegate and popular vote lead.  This scenario is also improbable primarily due to the reason that it is not a good idea.  Clinton winning the nomination in this fashion is likely to be looked upon with particular bitterness especially amongst Obama supporters but by those not firmly rooted in the Clinton camp as well.  It will look ultimately like a stolen election and the Super Delegates are not so dim as to not understand this nor the blowback such an act would cause.

That’s not to say that Obama has the best thing going for him either.  A quick look at the states ahead shows that he’s not likely to find as fertile of ground as he did in the post Super Tuesday February states.  He’ll win the next two, but prematurely Pennsylvania would seem to favor Clinton, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that she could hand Obama a string of losses following PA that may not get her ahead in the popular vote or in pledged delegates, but would raise some serious questions as to his viability.  The streak in February will by then be long gone and the only thing that will remain fresh in voters’ minds is how at the end of the primaries, Clinton, not Obama seemed to be the stronger candidate.

In other words the first of the two major problems that Democrats face going into the General Election is putting forth a candidate whose nomination is not viewed as legitimate by consensus thus splintering their base of support.  Let’s also not forget that Nader is running and Bloomberg is flirting too much with the presidential race for comfort.  A splintered base could result in precious electoral votes going to either of these candidates.

The second problem has come back to be bigger than some seemed ready to handle.  The governors and state parties of Michigan and Florida demanded their delegations be seated and now Dean is on the hot seat in order to make sure whomever is the Democratic nominee ends up on the ballot in the General Election or at the very least to ensure that Democratic turnout is not driven down by antipathy caused by the delegations not being seated.  As a result negotiations are happening now that should have happened a year ago.

The DNC seems to be sticking by their guns, saying the delegations won’t be sat based on the primaries that have already been held, but they are free to hold do-overs in order to have their delegates seated.

This would be the most reasonable of solutions as the inherent lack of fairness of uncontested primaries is obvious.  Yet there are inherent problems with this solution as well.  For one, Florida doesn’t seem either capable or willing to go through with a do-over, citing three standards that won’t be met:

-Allowing full participation of both candidates

-Paying for the effort

-Enfranchising all voters including military personnel abroad

Thus at this juncture the best result we can seem to have is Michigan doing the primary over while Florida abstains, a situation which is likely to create even further problems in Florida which is a vital state come time for the General Election.

Not seating the delegates from Florida or Michigan is likely to play hell in the General Election for Democrats, yet finding a way to seat them at this point doesn’t necessarily guarantee things will be much better.  Seating them based upon the earlier primaries will cause a revolt amongst Obama supporters who will take issue with states being seated that he did not compete in.  This will be especially true for Michigan where he was not even on the ballot yet exit polling shows that had he been he may have won by a significant margin.

Even do-overs come with their own problems and the results from such contests are likely to be hotly contested by partisans of both camps.  If caucuses are chosen, for instance, one could expect the Clinton campaign and its supporters to point to a disparity between popular voting and caucus results and claim the results invalid.

These are very turbulent waters we are in right now, all of which made worse by a single fact; McCain is already the Republican nominee.  The disarray of the Democratic party right now is set against the backdrop of a quickly unifying Republican party that will attack at leisure whichever Democratic candidate they feel is most likely to win the nomination at the time.  Given that momentum and media narratives will likely make this a back and forth effort, the perception of the presumptive nominee is likely to change giving Republicans the opportunity to smear with equal opportunity both Democratic candidates.  More likely, though, Obama is the one with the advantage in pledged delegates and the popular vote, so in the sake of keeping the primaries going, expect the Republicans to continue to attack Obama even as Clinton does.

Waging a war on two fronts may make Obama the tougher candidate and stronger for the General Election.  But that is a risky proposition.  As Bowers points out, Obama (and Clinton as well) would be considerably weakened by the opponent dropping out while there is still a possibility for said candidate to win.  I think the risk of the former outweighs the risk of the latter, though, but there can be a middle ground.

Pennsylvania is Clinton’s next “firewall” even if the campaign has yet to use the term there.  Let Pennsylvania be the guidepost, but in a more intellectually honest fashion than Texas and Ohio.  In Texas and Ohio Hillary had mathematical standards to meet to stay viable in this race and she failed to meet those.  She still was able to walk away like the conquering hero though and perhaps more life was breathed into her campaign than reality should have provided.  Let’s crunch the numbers and find out the delegate pick up Hillary Clinton needs to stay viable in Pennsylvania and let that be the benchmark.

Using Slate’s delegate calculator, I went through the remaining states.  We have little polling data on the states left in play, but for the sake of fairness, I gave Hillary Clinton a 60-40% split in all states including Wyoming and Mississippi and gave her all of Guam’s delegates.  From here the rough calculation is that Clinton would have to pull a net gain of 44 delegates from Pennsylvania to overcome Obama’s pledged delegate lead.  Let that be the benchmark.

60-40 for every single state left in play is already a pretty high bar to clear, but we’re giving her the benefit of the doubt, she just needs to come up big in PA with a 64-36 split, and she continues on.  If she doesn’t, she would not be allowed to let Obama even break forty percent once throughout the rest of the season in order to catch him on pledged delegates.

If she drops out after not making a 44 net gain in delegates in PA, then yes, we’ll have to deal with a nominee that may seem illegitimate or weak, but it is far better than having to deal with the repercussions of overriding pledged delegates or having the pledged delegate leader have his momentum deteriorated.  Also, since most believe Michigan and Florida if they were to perform do-overs wouldn’t likely do so until June, it would also mean that we may get to dodge the Michigan and Florida bullet to a degree.  We’ll still be damaged, but not fatally so if those states are irrelevant by the time we get there.

This solution isn’t perfect, but at this point, no solution is, and at least this gives Clinton one last shot to actually drag herself back in the delegate hunt, and if she can’t, Obama gets to seal the nomination without too much blowback.

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