Sanctioned States Put Democrats in Quandary

Hillary Rodham Clinton held a victory rally in Florida after its primary. But the state, along with Michigan, lost its delegates after violating Democrats' rules.
Hillary Rodham Clinton held a victory rally in Florida after its primary. But the state, along with Michigan, lost its delegates after violating Democrats' rules. (By Lynne Sladky -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 9, 2008

The clever people in Michigan who decided to get into a game of chicken with New Hampshire last fall over the timing of their Democratic primary should be having second thoughts this weekend.

Had Michigan Democrats not engaged in gamesmanship over the shape of the nomination calendar, they would be holding the premier contest on today's slate, by far the biggest and most influential of the events between Super Tuesday and next week's Potomac primaries, rather than the nonbinding event that was held Jan. 15.

Michigan Democrats long argued that the party needed a major industrial state playing an early and influential role in the nominating process. Instead, Michigan Democrats -- and those in Florida -- have left their party with a monumental problem: what to do about their delegations to the national convention in Denver in August.

There is a growing sense of urgency about the need to deal with the Michigan-Florida issue, but no easy resolution. What happens could decide whether Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama becomes the party's presidential nominee.

The Democratic National Committee sanctioned Michigan and Florida for moving up their nominating contests in violation of party rules; it declared their primaries unofficial and denied them the right to seat their delegations in Denver. At the time of the sanctions, there was a widespread assumption that the eventual nominee would relent and allow both states full participation at the convention.

That was when it was also assumed that there would be an early outcome to the Clinton-Obama contest and that the winner could appear magnanimous toward two states with pivotal roles in the general election. That was when it was assumed the delegates wouldn't matter in the nomination battle. Today, it's clear they could.

Clinton won both Michigan and Florida handily. She won Michigan in part because Obama and other Democrats took their names off the ballot in solidarity with the DNC and as part of a pledge to Iowa, New Hampshire and other early-voting states not to participate in unsanctioned contests.

Obama and John Edwards were on the ballot in Florida because there was no way to remove their names, but none of the candidates campaigned there. Clinton flew in the night of the primary for a victory party in an effort to blunt Obama's momentum after his win in South Carolina.

"The Florida and Michigan situation is untenable in its current form and unacceptable to go into a nominating convention [where Clinton and Obama] could be separated by the number of delegates in those states," said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist and veteran of presidential delegate wars. "If you go into the convention with that kind of cloud hanging over your head, it's a very dangerous situation."

Under the original allocations, Florida was to have 210 delegates and Michigan 156, making Florida's the third-largest delegation to the convention and Michigan's the fifth-largest. The Democrats might have done what the Republicans did to states that violated the rules, which was to cut their delegations in half. Instead, the DNC took the nuclear option. Now everyone is left to clean up the mess.

One solution is for the two states to organize caucuses for this spring, perhaps in May. But the cost and complexity of running caucuses in states as large as Florida and Michigan make this more difficult than it sounds.

When the DNC was still trying to decide what to do about Florida's decision to move up its primary, there was talk of setting up 150 caucus sites. That compares with the almost 2,000 sites that Iowa had, and ignores the reality that Iowa has a long history of running caucuses and Florida does not.

There is talk among Michigan Democrats now about trying to set up caucuses, but nothing official has happened. Before anything could take place, the states would have to submit plans to the DNC and have them accepted. So far, there's no movement. Meanwhile there is growing ill will between supporters of Obama and Clinton in Florida and the potential for that to get worse.

Short of scheduling sanctioned events, this will have to be resolved by DNC Chairman Howard Dean and the two presidential campaigns. But the campaigns are already dug in, if the rhetoric about Florida is any guide. Clinton has called for seating the state's delegation, and under the results of the beauty-contest primary there, she would be awarded 105 delegates to Obama's 67, with the rest going to Edwards.

Devine believes that Clinton and Obama should look to resolve the issue through the DNC long before they go to Denver. The challenge will be finding a solution that does not trample on the voters but that also takes into consideration that the candidates did not truly compete in those states. Devine said what's needed is "a mechanism that takes account of what has happened but doesn't unfairly penalize Senator Obama for not fully participating."

It's possible that this will turn out not to be an issue, but only if Clinton or Obama gets on the kind of winning streak that produces calls from within the party for the trailing candidate to withdraw, to give the leader the chance to do what Republican John McCain already is doing -- uniting his party and sounding a general-election message.

The worst possibility for the Democrats would be failing to resolve the problem before everyone arrives in Denver. That could produce an ugly rules or credentials fight that would leave the loser's supporters bitter and demoralized. The situation cries out for leadership. As one Florida Democratic Party official put it: "Anybody know what George Mitchell's doing?"

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