Florida-Michigan Fight Not About Clinton v. Obama

by Paul Hogarth on May 28, 2008

The May 31st DNC Rules Committee meeting to resolve the Florida-Michigan dispute has been framed as another chapter in the ongoing saga between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But even if Clinton gets everything she wants on Saturday, Obama will still be the party’s nominee. This skirmish will not decide the outcome, and the fact that we still have two candidates campaigning is just a distraction. What it’s really about is maintaining sanity for future primary schedules: if the DNC buckles so that Florida and Michigan get fully seated at the Convention, what precedent will that set for 2012 and 2016? Avoiding a “me-first” primary process is crucial to giving each state a fair shot at picking the nominee, and letting Florida and Michigan off the hook will only exacerbate this problem in the future.

Ignore Clinton’s hypocrisy of demanding that the “voters must be heard” after agreeing that these rogue primaries wouldn’t count. Both state legislatures in Florida and Michigan knew what they were doing when they moved up their primaries to January, and the DNC adequately warned them that they would lose their delegates. While voters in these states will be “disenfranchised,” they have no one to blame but their own state for putting them in this mess.

Florida and Michigan are playing a game of chicken with the DNC – believing that the party “wouldn’t dare” strip their delegates away. But Howard Dean must make sure that they will.

In early 2007, the DNC – hoping to avoid a “front-loaded” primary season and wanting to give small states with significant minority populations a voice – set up a schedule for the 2008 elections. Iowa and New Hampshire would go first (because they always have), followed by Nevada (with its large Latino population) and South Carolina (with its big African-American population.) No other state could go before February 5th, or else the primary would not be recognized and their delegates not seated at the Convention.

The only mistake that the DNC made was giving too much leeway for states to follow the rules: two dozen states (including California and New York) moved up their primary to February 5th, believing that they would have more clout. When you have a “me-first” primary process where each state selfishly wants to have the largest impact, inevitably you have a front-loaded schedule that shuts out candidates with the fewest resources.

So along came Florida, who figured that their 27 electoral votes and “swing state” status would make them impervious to sanctions at the Convention – and moved up their primary to January 29th. Michigan figured they could get away with it too – and moved up to January 15th. Both states gambled that at the end of the day, the Democratic Party would not alienate swing voters in a general election just to decide who gets to wear funny hats on the Convention floor.

Ironically, given how the primary season has dragged on far longer than anyone had anticipated, Florida and Michigan would have had more of an impact by sticking to the rules. Same goes with California, who joined the pack mentality of February 5th when it could have had a louder voice later. But now the DNC is faced with a simple task: will they admit that their own rules are meaningless, so that in future elections other states can likewise skirt the process?

The Clinton campaign has politicized the substance of this conflict – trying to pitch it as a partisan battle with the Obama camp. But she still won’t get the party nomination – even if the DNC caves on May 31st and agrees to seat all delegates chosen through these rogue primaries. If that happened, Clinton would net 38 pledged delegates from Florida and 18 from Michigan – not enough to close her current 200-point deficit with Obama. The only possible reason for waging this fight now would be to delegitimize an Obama victory at the Convention – claiming that it was achieved by “disenfranchising voters.”

The most likely scenario is a compromise – where Florida and Michigan will lose 50% of their delegates, but still have their primary results reflected proportionally in the delegate allocation. It’s probably a good idea, because it will still send the message that the rules matter – while avoiding a flare-up come November that the Democratic Party “doesn’t care” about these two swing states.

But the more important question is what comes next …

Already, efforts are underway to plan the 2012 primary schedule in a way so that we don’t have these problems in the future. There are different ideas in the works, but all involve some national co-ordination of the primary process. If we respect that process, no state will get to hi-jack the schedule for its own benefit. My favorite is the American Plan, which creates a mathematical formula that selects each state at random on who gets to go first – but other solutions should be actively discussed.

But if the DNC Rules Committee doesn’t enforce its own rules on Saturday, any future effort at reforming the primary process down the road will be pointless.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In his spare time and outside of regular work hours, Paul Hogarth volunteered on Obama’s field operation in San Francisco. He also ran to be an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention.


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