Four Rules That Could Be Decisive

By David S. Broder
Thursday, February 21, 2008

The details of the process for choosing and allocating delegates to the parties' national conventions are usually sleep-inducing to all but the most dedicated political junkies. But in this year's Democratic race, as Barack Obama searches for the last votes he needs to defeat Hillary Clinton, the rules of the delegate game have become more and more important.

Last week, my efforts to analyze the rules disputes that have burst out between the two campaigns were bolstered by a conversation with Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who is neutral in the Clinton-Obama battle.

He pointed to four separate rules that could well determine the outcome. One is the decision by many states to choose delegates through caucuses rather than primaries. Turnout at caucuses is much smaller than in primaries -- even in states such as Iowa, where candidates invest heavily in ads and campaign time.

Obama has rolled up a big margin in caucus states. Clinton has complained that the restricted hours and requirement for in-person attendance at the caucuses disadvantage the blue-collar workers from whom she has her strongest support.

But Hart pointed out that caucuses are traditional in the states that hold them and that both candidates knew well in advance they would be competing in them.

The second area of controversy is the national party rule that delegates must be allocated in proportion to the vote, with no winner-take-all contests allowed. On the Republican side, John McCain secured the nomination, for all practical purposes, through victories in California, New York, Arizona and New Jersey, among other states, garnering a huge infusion of delegates under the GOP's winner-take-all rules.

Clinton won all of those states, too, but the Democrats' proportional rule limited her delegate haul, boosting Obama's fortunes.

Again, Hart notes that proportional representation has been in the rules for many years and that it can hardly be seen as an Obama contrivance.

The third controversy centers on the 795 superdelegates, elected and party officials who get to vote at the convention by virtue of their positions. Clinton leads by 70 votes among those who have expressed a choice, but nearly 400 of them remain uncommitted.

With Obama leading Clinton by about 150 delegates after his latest wins in Wisconsin and Hawaii, he is closing in on the nomination. But he probably cannot get to his goal without significant help from the superdelegates.

Like Clinton, Obama is assiduously wooing those superdelegates, but he is also arguing that they have a duty to ratify whatever the results of the caucuses and primaries show about grass-roots Democratic sentiment. Clinton, on the other hand, says they were placed at the convention as a leavening force of experienced politicians who should use their own, best judgment regarding the person to lead the Democratic ticket.

Hart says -- and I agree -- that 20 years of history clearly show they were intended to be free agents, not something comparable to the members of the Electoral College. They were empowered because of respect for their judgment.

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