By Steven Hill
From the New America Foundation
Saturday, February 2, 2008 12:00 AM
With Super Duper Tuesday looming on Feb. 5, the presidential horse race is about to move into its mid-game. At the end of this process, we may end up with the first president in history who is a woman, or an African American, or a former prisoner of war, or a Mormon or an ordained Southern Baptist minister.
Beyond the headlines and election results, when you lift up the hood of our nation's nominating process, you see a pretty gnarly sight. There's nothing simple or easy to understand about it, in fact it has evolved into a complex, chaotic snarl with a number of oddities that, in a close contest, could make the difference in who wins.
On the Democratic Party side, there is this little business of what is called "superdelegates." Superdelegates are members of the House, Senate, governors and other party leaders -- party insiders -- who are a virtual state unto themselves, voting for whomever they like.
There are nearly 800 superdelegates, about 20 percent of the total delegates (and 40 percent of the number needed to win the nomination). Being party insiders, the assumption is that Team Clinton will reel in the lion's share, making most of these votes Hillary's to lose. Current estimates are that Hillary has 187 or so of these delegates, Barack Obama 93 and John Edwards 27, according to the 2008 Democratic Convention Watch. But the unpledged superdelegates can change their choice at will, so nothing is yet in the bank.
Another factor to watch in the Democratic primaries is who is allowed to vote, according to the rules of each state. In all states but South Carolina, so far Clinton has led or tied Obama among registered Democrats. Obama has been drawing tremendous support from independents and even Republicans in the open format of Iowa and New Hampshire. But in the closed primary formats like that used in many other states, where only Democrats can vote, Clinton may fare much better.
Democratic primaries that are closed to independents include some of the largest states, like New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Arizona and North Carolina, as well as Kentucky, Oklahoma, Oregon, Connecticut, Delaware, Washington D.C., Maryland, Nebraska, South Dakota and West Virginia.
On the Republican side, delegates are selected differently than in the Democrats' process. On the positive side, they have only a handful of superdelegates, which means party insiders don't have as much pull. On the negative side, many states use a "winner-take-all" allocation of delegates, meaning that the candidate with the highest number of votes -- even if far less than a majority -- wins all of the delegates for that state.
In the recent Florida primary, John McCain won only 36 percent of the vote, but as the frontrunner he was awarded 100 percent of Florida's 57 delegates. Most of the largest, most delegate-rich states -- California, New York, Michigan, Arizona, New Jersey, Ohio and Virginia, in addition to Florida -- use a winner-take-all allocation. On Feb. 5, 15 states will use a winner-take-all election to dish out delegates, as will many states after Feb. 5.
The practical effect of this is that a candidate with a small core of support but not a broad base can walk away with the nomination. This becomes especially operative in the GOP split field, where no candidate yet has reached 40 percent.
Complicating matters, different candidates may be more popular in certain regions and state -- McCain in states with more moderate Republicans, such as in New York and New Jersey, and Huckabee in the Bible Belt. With winner-take-all rules, this kind of sectionalism could lead to fractured results and a nominee who cannot unite the party behind his candidacy.
A better GOP selection process would be to use the proportional allocation used in the Democratic primaries, where each candidate wins a share of delegates that matches their proportion of the statewide vote. The Republicans do that in a few states, but not enough.
With Super Duper Tuesday looming, nearly half of the delegates needed for the nomination will be decided on a single day. Having a single primary day with so many states gives great advantage to those candidates with the most campaign cash and name recognition to compete in so many states simultaneously.
It creates a virtual wealth primary in which some candidates will be quickly eliminated, even though half the states will have not yet weighed in. Certainly this was a big factor in John Edwards, Rudy Giuliani and other candidates dropping out recently. Hardly super duper, this fiasco should be called Super Stupid Tuesday.
A national primary system with four separate primary days, where the 13 smallest states go first followed by the medium states and finally the largest states, makes a lot more sense and would ensure that all states and all voters have a say in the nomination process.
Given all these procedural oddities from state to state, it's unlikely any single candidate will deliver a knockout blow on Feb. 5. We still have a ways to go, and it's hard to know at this point whether the preacher, the prisoner, the woman or the ethnic minority will win. Some surprises may still await, especially with such murky rules for selecting the nominees to become our nation's most powerful political leader.
Steven Hill is director of the political reform program at the New America Foundation and author of "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy."