DEMOCRACY RULES

The Race's Real Winner

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By Alan Wolfe
Sunday, May 11, 2008

In 1968, Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination for president without entering, let alone winning, a single primary. This time around, Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton will have entered 16 caucuses and 37 primaries (39 if you include Michigan and Florida) by the time the contest comes to its likely conclusion on June 3. Guam voters had more influence in 2008 than New York state's voters did 40 years earlier.

After last week's Indiana and North Carolina primaries, Obama has all but won the nomination -- but democracy has been the real winner of the process. According to the Associated Press, 3.5 million newly registered voters appeared during the 2008 primaries, including unusually large numbers of women and African Americans. Turnout reached historic highs in many Democratic primaries; indeed, more Democrats turned out this week in both North Carolina and Indiana than voted for Sen. John F. Kerry in those states in 2004. Both Clinton and Obama raised more money during a single month than most candidates in previous elections raised during the entire primary season. Moreover, the bulk of that money came from small donors; in fact, 1.5 million individuals, an unprecedented number, contributed to the Obama campaign. By every measure of individual interest in politics, this campaign has grabbed the public's attention.

I'm as surprised as I am delighted by this raft of broken records. American democracy has not been in the best of health the past few decades, as I have been but one of many to repeatedly point out. In fact, my most recent book somewhat glumly concluded that American democracy had stopped working particularly well. Now I'm watching an extended rebuttal in the form of this Democratic race.

Recent elections have been marked by high levels of voter ignorance, low turnout, polarization between the parties and media coverage as broad as it was shallow. But within the Democratic Party this time, we have been witnessing the exact opposite: engagement and excitement. Pundits worry that the long race hurt the Democrats' chances in the fall, but it's hard to share their gloom when the whole exercise has been so good for our civic health.

It is not just turnout and fundraising that have made this Democratic contest so, well, democratic. Voters in states that traditionally have played no role in choosing the nominee were courted, and their votes proved decisive. Although the Democratic race featured its share of trivia, including all too much highlighting of supposed sniper fire at the airport in Tuzla or the rantings of a once-obscure Chicago preacher, the two candidates discussed at length their differences over health insurance early in the process, explored in the Los Angeles debate at the end of January in mind-numbing detail. Through the example of the gas-tax holiday that emerged during the final days of campaigning in Indiana and North Carolina, they told voters about their competing approaches to policymaking. Both held large rallies and spoke to small groups, and neither got much sleep. They earned every single one of the many votes each of them won.

Even two major factors that should have made the contest less democratic somehow wound up helping. The first is the role of those unelected "superdelegates." Despite Obama's convincing win in North Carolina and impressive performance in Indiana, neither candidate can win at the convention in Denver by racking up a majority of the primary and caucus voters; afraid of contests like the one we have just been having, party officials created a process in which they would have a major voice in deciding a close race. But even though the final choice rests in the hands of office holders and party professionals, few expect the superdelegates to override the choice of the voters; in fact, some high-profile Clinton supporters defected to Obama to respond to the will of constituents. To act as an independent agent would be to ignore the views of the citizens -- something that most superdelegates are simply not prepared to do.

The second seemingly undemocratic feature is the potential exclusion of voters in Florida and Michigan. Counting them offers Clinton her only hope of victory. But giving the large majority of both states' delegates to her because she "won" those contests would not be democratic either: The candidates did not campaign in either state, and Obama's name was not even on the ballot in Michigan. The most undemocratic outcome, of course, would be to ignore public sentiment in these states in the final delegate tally. To avoid that, someone will likely find a way to include both delegations in the inevitable Denver lovefest.

Now that Obama is the likely winner, the question is whether his party's democratic way of choosing its nominee will hurt his chances against Sen. John McCain in the fall. Prevailing political science holds that it should. Many political scientists, myself included, once waxed nostalgic for the era of long-gone party bosses. A party helps itself most by nominating the candidate most likely to win, this point of view holds, and party professionals (many of whom are running on the coattails of their nominee) are best positioned to do so. Let less informed, more passionate voters make the choice, and the party is more likely to wind up divided -- and stuck with a candidate whose views delight the party's base but rattle general-election voters.

That conventional wisdom is being proven wrong in 2008. For one thing, the deep divisions that emerged between Obama and Clinton will not necessarily produce a divided party. Exit polls in both Indiana and North Carolina suggest that roughly one-quarter of the Democratic electorate would vote Republican if their favored candidate lost. Don't believe the hype: Most observers agree that by the fall, those who supported the loser in the primaries will vote for the winner. They may feel disappointed, but they cannot feel betrayed. The process was so open and fair that the losing side will have no ground for questioning the legitimacy of the results.

Nor did the party's highly democratic procedures produce an ideologically extreme nominee. If anything, the intense campaigning between Clinton and Obama pushed both candidates toward the center: Clinton adopted the Republican playbook by portraying herself as the candidate of Joe Six-Pack, while Obama, as his North Carolina victory speech suggested, successfully spoke the language of American patriotism.

Republicans will nonetheless try to portray Obama as a leftist radical in the campaign -- no doubt citing the National Journal's ranking of him as the most liberal member of the Senate in 2007, no doubt bringing up his ties to 1960s extremists such as William Ayers, a member of the Weather Underground. But Obama is not as liberal as Michael Dukakis and George McGovern or as elitist as John Kerry. Huge numbers of Democratic voters wanted their party to nominate a candidate who could appeal to independents, and they got one.

Even the most seemingly absurd feature of the way Democrats select their nominee has had positive results: the allocation of delegates by proportional representation. Before this election, Beltway consensus held that allocating delegates this way was a recipe for disaster. Just a month or two ago, it seemed as if the Republicans had been blessed by their commitment to a winner-take-all process: They settled quickly on their nominee and sat back to watch as the Democratic Party's ultra-democratic procedures led to seeming chaos and indecision.

But the earlier choice for the Republicans has not proven a blessing, and the delayed one for the Democrats has not been a curse. Even with McCain as the presumptive nominee, there were Republican as well as Democratic primaries last week -- and Republicans not named McCain won 24 percent of the vote in North Carolina and 23 percent in Indiana. Traditionally, Republicans may not love their candidate, but they unite behind him. Conservatives, however, may well not rush to McCain this time. There is also no proportional delegate consolation prize for the votes of losers in the GOP's winner-take-all system, which is bound to exacerbate Republican unease with McCain.

For the Democrats, proportional representation, rather than producing chaos, underscored the party's commitment to inclusion. Democrats are more likely to speak about equality, social justice and fairness in election campaigns than Republicans, and proportional representation is more compatible with those themes than a winner-take-all method. We live in democratic times in which people get to choose the churches to which they belong and the television stations they want to watch. Under such conditions, a party that opens itself up to its members invests them in its decisions -- not only in the election coming up this fall but in future contests as well. More people became Democrats in 2008 than became Republicans, and more of them were younger. Exciting and open contests can do that sort of thing.

Assuming that Obama is the nominee, one question remains: Who will the party select as its vice-presidential candidate? It may not be Clinton. But if it is, democracy will once more have worked a certain magic: A decision to go with the what some called a "dream ticket" would clearly be a response to a widespread desire among Democrats to bring the party's two stars together.

It seems right that a party named after democracy ought to practice it. Even if that means that the Democrats have to campaign all the way to San Juan (an increasingly unlikely outcome), that is not the worst state of affairs. After all, practice makes perfect.

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and the author, most recently, of "Does American Democracy Still Work?"


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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