By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 7, 2008
As Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama competed through more than 40 contests over the past two months, Michigan and Florida remained on the sidelines, barred from participating in the Democratic presidential nomination process because they violated party rules. Now, with neither candidate likely to win enough delegates to capture the nomination, the question is whether the two states will end up deciding the race by holding do-over contests this spring.
Clinton's victories on Tuesday have put renewed pressure on the Democratic National Committee to resolve a months-long dispute over whether the Michigan and Florida delegations will be seated at the national convention in Denver in August. Political leaders in the two states, whose decisions to schedule primaries in January in violation of the rules led to their disbarment, are under similar pressure to find a way out of the stalemate.
Elected officials from Michigan and Florida have called on the national committee to relent, arguing that to do otherwise means disenfranchising several million voters from two battleground states. DNC Chairman Howard Dean has been equally firm in arguing that changing the rules could split the party and undermine confidence in the entire nominating process.
The stakes are huge. Florida and Michigan would have had 366 delegates between them. If Clinton or Obama were to score sizable wins in revotes, the states could have a major impact on the delegate margin between the candidates. Obama now has a lead of 140 pledged delegates.
Clinton won both disputed primaries, and she has called for the delegations to be seated. Clinton officials estimate that she would add about 180 pledged delegates to her total if the delegates were awarded on the basis of her vote percentages. Because Obama was not on the Michigan ballot, there is no way to estimate how many he would receive.
Obama campaign officials have insisted just as vociferously that, unless the DNC finds a solution, neither delegation should be seated. To simply seat the delegates, they argue, would amount to changing the rules midstream. Allies of Obama have quietly floated the idea of allowing the delegations to be seated, but with the delegates allocated evenly between the candidates.
Regardless of those public statements, both campaigns are open to new, DNC-sanctioned contests. But what they want most is a quick resolution to end the uncertainty. "We can't have this hanging over the nomination for another 60 days," said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. "Whatever the resolution is, we hope that it is soon."
In an effort to resolve the impasse, officials in both states this week have publicly floated the idea of holding do-over contests -- in essence, newly sanctioned primaries or caucuses or, in the case of Michigan, a hybrid "firehouse primary."
Talk of revotes has produced a flurry of meetings, phone calls, e-mails and negotiations, all aimed at resolving a situation that has become an embarrassment to all sides and an irritation to the campaigns. So far, however, there is more stalemate than progress. On Wednesday night, Democratic members of Congress from the two states met to discuss possible solutions but quickly found there was little consensus.
Michigan and Florida officials are confronting the obstacles to scheduling and organizing new contests and, especially, finding a way to pay for them. Elected officials in both states have resolved that taxpayers would not be asked to foot the bill, while Dean has told them not to look to the national party for support.
Florida officials have thrown out a variety of estimates for what it would cost to run a new primary, including a high of $25 million. Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D) said yesterday that redoing her state's primary could cost as much as $10 million.
"Although there have been a lot of conversations about how to assure that our delegation is seated, the logistics and cost of any firehouse primary may simply be insurmountable," said Liz Boyd, Granholm's press secretary.
Granholm's comment instantly deflated hopes in Michigan of finding a solution, barely a day after expressions of optimism. "That took the oxygen out of the room," said one Democrat in the middle of the discussions, who talked about the deliberations on the condition of anonymity. "I'm regrouping."
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) wrote to Dean yesterday urging the national party to underwrite the cost of a new primary in Florida. But Dean said the DNC needs its money for a general-election campaign against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and he threw the issue back to the states. Nelson and Dean spoke late yesterday with no resolution, although Dean pointed out that the Florida party can raise soft money -- large contributions that the national party no longer can legally solicit.
The Democrats find themselves struggling with this problem because of jealousies and competition among the states over the timing of their nominating contests. Michigan Democrats, led by Sen. Carl M. Levin, have long objected to what they consider the privileged positions given to Iowa and New Hampshire, states that traditionally vote first. Florida Republicans wanted their state's primary to become the premier early Southern contest.
When the two states decided to move their primaries to January, they were punished by both national committees. Republicans stripped them of half their delegates; Democrats barred them from the convention entirely.
After that decision, Clinton, Obama and the other Democratic candidates pledged not to campaign in either state, in deference to party rules and as a way to curry favor with voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early-voting states.
Obama and other Democratic candidates asked that their names be removed from the Michigan ballot, leaving only Clinton's on it. Both Clinton and Obama were on the Florida ballot, but neither campaigned in the state.
Months ago, few Democrats worried about solving the issue, assuming that the eventual nominee would agree to seat the delegations. Now, with the nomination potentially in the balance, a resolution may be far more difficult to find.