Will Democrats Have to Cut A Deal for Nomination?
By: Wall Street Journal
If No Leader Emerges, Pick May Be Negotiated; ‘Superdelegates’ Are Key
By JUNE KRONHOLZ
It is increasingly looking like next week’s Super Tuesday primaries won’t produce a Democratic front-runner. So then what?
The Democratic nomination isn’t likely to be settled on the floor of this summer’s convention, political experts say. But that doesn’t mean that a nomination brokered by party leaders is impossible — or that things won’t get even nastier.
“We don’t know what will happen if we end up with two candidates going into the Democratic National Convention with 40% of the delegates each,” says Norm Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
BRACING FOR A FIGHT
At that point, the loyalty of the candidates’ pledged delegates, the intentions of hundreds of currently unpledged “superdelegates,” the negotiating skill of party leaders and the outcome of a dispute over whether to seat delegates from Florida and Michigan each could prove decisive. “We’re flying blind,” Mr. Ornstein adds.
The stage for a negotiated outcome could be set if neither Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York nor Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois emerges as a clear winner from the primaries that begin Tuesday and continue into June.
In one possible scenario, one of the candidates might win the majority of delegates in some big states while the other could win the most delegates in a lot of smaller states with about the same number of popular votes. Even though neither candidate would have piled up enough delegates to sew up the nomination, both could claim front-runner status.
Just a few weeks ago, that sort of muddle seemed likelier for the Republicans. But the withdrawals of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson have narrowed the field, and Arizona Sen. John McCain’s victories in the Florida and South Carolina primaries have given him the political tail wind.
Among the Democrats, the possibility of a protracted fight and some sort of brokered settlement seems to be growing, taking the party into uncharted territory. The last time the Democrats held a seriously contested convention was in 1952, when Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson was nominated on the third ballot to run against Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.
Republicans had a similarly bruising 1952 national convention that ended only after Gen. Eisenhower challenged the delegates from three Southern states and replaced them with his own supporters. The sight astonished television viewers — it was the first time conventions were televised — and served up a lesson to party operatives: Keep the raw politics off screen.
The chances of the Democrats’ convention going that far are nil, say political experts. Rule changes since 1968 have eliminated the party bosses whose control over huge blocs of votes enabled them to swing the nomination at the convention, as they did with Mr. Stevenson.
Communication has improved, so campaigns and party leaders don’t have to wait until they meet on the convention floor to settle a rules dispute or broker a compromise. “The convention was a communications medium,” says Michael Barone, author of the Almanac of American Politics.
And with the Republicans looking likely to settle on a candidate soon, the Democrats will be under huge pressure from their supporters to come up with a nominee well before they meet in Denver on Aug. 25.
“No way could one party let the other party have a candidate while they sit and fight,” says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. Besides being a public-relations nightmare, the delay would give the Republicans an organizational and fund-raising head start, he says.
That means that any brokering or fights would take place well before the convention and out of public view. In that case, the party’s superdelegates and any decision about Michigan and Florida could be decisive and contentious.
The superdelegates account for 20% of the convention votes and include members of Congress and other party bigwigs. Superdelegates aren’t committed to a candidate, but they normally vote for the candidate who won their state’s primary.
If neither Mr. Obama nor Mrs. Clinton can knock out the other in the primaries, the superdelegates — perhaps led by House and Senate leaders — could begin pointedly siding with one candidate, says Mr. Sabato. Acting individually or in some coordinated way, the superdelegates could “make it clear to the second candidate that [he or she is] not going to win,” adds Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist.
Florida and Michigan broke party rules by holding early primaries, and the party has sanctioned them by taking away their delegate votes. Mrs. Clinton, who won those primaries, has said she would seat the delegates. They could clinch the nomination for her, but she may lack the power to seat them if she has less than a majority of convention votes.
Mr. Obama could lose the nomination if he agrees to seat the two states, but would face charges of disenfranchising millions of voters if he sticks by the party rules.
“Everyone in their calmer moments is going to try to avoid” taking the issue to the convention floor, says University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan. But any decision and any negotiation by superdelegates would still be rancorous, with the losing campaign charging backroom deals and perhaps race or gender bias, political experts say.
If the nomination comes down to a difference of a few votes, the candidates also could try to lure away one another’s elected delegates, and will battle for the 26 delegates pledged to former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who suspended his campaign. The Web site RealClearPolitics.com calculates that Mr. Obama has 63 elected delegates of the 2,025 total delegates needed to win the nomination, while Mrs. Clinton has 48.
Elected delegates are bound to their candidate by state laws in some cases, but party rules allow them to vote their conscience, says Mr. Devine, the Democratic strategist.
All that raises the possibility of the supporters of the losing candidate arriving in Denver unhappy and unreconciled with the winner. The chaotic 1968 Democratic convention, where angry supporters of Eugene McCarthy took to the streets, contributed to Hubert Humphrey’s loss to Richard Nixon.
“At some point, the nomination would become worthless” if it means a divided party couldn’t win in November, says Mr. Sabato.
Write to June Kronholz at email@example.com
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