Parsing Tsunami Tuesday

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

On the morning of June 6, 1984, Walter Mondale's campaign aides woke the Democratic presidential candidate to inform him of a big problem.

California and New Jersey had held primaries the day before. The former vice president had confidently scheduled a press conference to announce that he had finally amassed enough delegates to claim the nomination over Colorado Sen. Gary Hart.

There was just one glitch: Mondale was about 40 delegates short. Hart had won California; even worse, Mondale had not done well enough there to pick up as many delegates as the campaign had counted on.

So frantic Mondale aides hit the phones to the superdelegates. These were the Democratic insiders who had been given a big new voice in the process, a change to party rules engineered by Mondale backers anticipating the need for just such a firewall.

Mondale managed to pull it off that day. Though the story may sound like ancient history, it remains relevant -- more relevant than it's been in years -- as a reminder of the importance of the arcane rules for choosing and allocating delegates.

Indeed, 2008 is looking like 1984 on steroids: For the poorly organized, underfinanced insurgent (Hart), substitute a candidate (Barack Obama) with the money and organization to compete with the establishment candidate (Hillary Clinton). For a front-runner about whom the party faithful are hardly enthusiastic (Mondale), substitute a candidate (Clinton) who has a loyal, energized following.

In addition, the biggest factor pointing to an extended, delegate-by-delegate slog is one that didn't exist in 1984: the relentless arithmetic of the party's proportional representation rules, in which candidates receive delegates according to their share of the vote in each congressional district and, for a smaller number, statewide. Although that provision was adopted in 1988, it has never become relevant, because a clear front-runner has emerged in every contest since.

However, in a close race, the rules make it difficult for a single candidate to pile up a big enough margin to amass the necessary number of delegates. Given the contours of this contest, that may well not happen in the supposed tsunami of voting on Feb. 5, at which point Democrats will have picked 1,818 delegates, 45 percent of the total.

One factor is that the biggest Feb. 5 prize, California, has an open primary on the Democratic side and a closed contest on the Republican side, meaning that independents, who tilt toward Obama, could bolster his showing there.

If the race continues beyond Feb. 5, as the Mondale precedent suggests it might, superdelegates could come into play. These bigwigs -- governors, members of Congress, Democratic National Committee members -- account for 796, or nearly 20 percent, of the Democratic delegates. They are finger-in-the-wind fickle. But they could be decisive in a close contest, a factor that would tend to help Clinton, who has already amassed a superdelegate lead.

Then there are the graduate seminar-level questions that could arise if the contest becomes really close or even heads into the convention unsettled. One is the Edwards Factor. Former North Carolina senator John Edwards's path to the nomination seems blocked, but that does not necessarily render him irrelevant. Edwards can keep collecting delegates so long as he receives 15 percent of the vote in a congressional district or statewide.

If so, he could have sway over a potentially decisive share of delegates whom he could urge to back a particular candidate, and his inclination in Obama's direction seems clear. Edwards's delegates would not be obligated to follow his direction, but his view would be influential.

Similarly, and this one is for real rules junkies, there could be a convention fight over seating the Michigan and Florida delegations. Those states have supposedly been stripped of their delegates as punishment for accelerating their primaries to before Feb. 5, but it's not entirely fanciful to imagine that a challenge to their credentials could determine the outcome.

With Mitt Romney's win yesterday in Michigan producing three different winners in the first three contested states, the Republican race appears so up for grabs at the moment that it, too, could last beyond Feb. 5.

Republicans crave an orderly process and like to coalesce around a front-runner. Moreover, the GOP does not have the same proportional representation rules. It has far fewer superdelegates. And GOP candidates -- except Romney, with his capacity for self-funding -- don't have the stay-the-course financial footing of Clinton and Obama. If one candidate took both South Carolina and Florida, that would propel him into Feb. 5 with significant momentum.

But it's easy to imagine the race remaining as scrambled as it seems right now, and the array of states voting on Feb. 5 producing a fractured outcome that would deliciously extend what once looked like an unalterably front-loaded campaign.

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