Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Democratic Presidential Nomination: Spinning The Rules

At times, Barack Obama sure looks like one skilled politician, particularly when it comes to working the media.

Skilled, for a Democrat, anyways.

I mention the Party in this context simply because Mr. Obama must have borrowed heavily from the Karl Rove playbook in developing and executing a communications strategy that, more often than not, has yielded a national media ready and willing to report the candidate's pure spin as hard fact.

With this in mind, I want to take a brief look at the Rules.

By that, I mean the actual delegate-selection rules governing the Democratic Party's Presidential nomination process.

Mr. Obama has been behind a very steady drumbeat that purports to make it plain that only delegates selected by voters through state caucuses and primaries have any moral right to decide the party's nomination. In other words, "superdelegates" have an ethical, democratic duty to do only as the voters have done. If Mr. Obama has the most directly-elected delegates, he contends, superdelegates must fall in line and nominate him.

End of story.

There has been quite the media echo-chamber, endorsing this translucent posture without question, as if it is a self-evident truth.

Well, I'll suggest it is not necessarily the truth.

And it certainly is not inherently right - not in the face of party nomination Rules that so clearly state otherwise - the superdelegates are by definition unpledged to any candidate and entitled to freely vote their consciences.

There is much that is oddly undemocratic, or just plain odd, in the Democratic Party's 2008 nomination processes.

The strange, caucus system is an obvious starting point.

I can't quite shake the image that the caucuses have more in common with a local square dance than a legitimate polling process.

Evidence abounds as to the democratic shortcomings of the caucus system. Most notoriously, balloting is open and public, not secret. The bustling, heated caucus atmosphere is certainly not inviting to the shy, timid, infirm or slightly anti-social. The voting itself occurs during very limited evening hours that make attendance logistically impossible for many shift-workers, single parents, and absentees. And when the weather is lacking, only the most-committed politicos are likely to be in attendance.

In other words, the process, while historically charming, leaves much to be desired as a true bellweather of community opinion. At best, caucuses sample only an unrepresentative slice of the electorate. A political poll conducted with such a methodology would be savaged.

Yet Hillary Clinton, notoriously unsuccessful in such caucuses, does not argue for the marginalization of caucus-goers, or the lessening of their voices at the party Convention.

Of course not. The Rules may give caucus-voters disproportionate influence, but the Rules are the Rules.

The ongoing primary fiascos in Michigan and Florida come next to mind as democratic anomolies arising from the party's nomination procedures.

With a population of approximately 16 million, Florida ranks as America's fourth most populous state. At approximately 10 million, Michigan is the nation's eighth-largest. The two states' combined populations comprise nearly 10 percent of the nation's.

Voters in both states have spoken. Michigan voted January 15. Florida voted January 29. Voters in each state chose Hillary Clinton.

But the results will not count. The two states' delegates will not be seated.

Why? Because each state broke the Rules.

Each held its primary in January, earlier than allowed by the Democratic National Committee.

In Florida, Mrs. Clinton won 108 delegates, while Mr. Obama won 77. In Michigan, where Mr. Obama was not on the ballot, Mrs. Clinton added 73 pledged delegates. The net pick-up from the two states for Mrs. Clinton is 104 delegates.

With several key primaries ahead, and as the charts above from DemocratWatch blog illustrate, the delegate tallies including these two states leave the candidates' pledged delegate totals in a near dead-heat. Mrs. Clinton is the clear front-runner when committed superdelegate votes are counted.

Without these states, Mrs. Clinton is behind.

Mrs. Clinton, of course, does not contend that the Michigan and Florida primary results must be counted - that the voters' voices must be recognized by seating their delegates.

They are currently disqualified for non-compliance with the Rules.

And that is that

It remains open to both states to seat legitimate delegates if they hold subsequent primaries that accord with Party regulations.

They likely will. It will be tedious, expensive and inconvenient. Mrs. Clinton has favoured mail-in re-votes to select delegates from these states in a process sanctioned by the Party. Mr. Obama has been strangely silent on the issue. Bottom line, though, is that until these states follow the Rules, they will not get delegates at the Convention.


The same Rules that permit state caucuses rather than primaries, and currently disqualify Michigan and Florida, also appoint the superdelegates. These are 796 unpledged delegate positions, automatically granted to Democratic National Committee members, sitting Members of Congress, Governors, former Presidents and Vice Presidents and other "distinguished party leaders."

Superdelegates make up approximately 20% of total convention voters. Their role as free voters is spelled out, mandated and codified by Party regulation.

They may vote as they choose. And it is their legal and moral imperative to do so according to the Rules.

So who came up with the grand notion that the superdelegate independence Rules are pliable or dispensable, while all other nomination Rules require strict compliance?

Where did the idea arise that Rules disenfranchising 10% of America's population in Florida and Michigan - and disproportionately favouring results from unrepresentative, undemocratic caucus straw-votes - must be followed, while Rules appointing Democratic Party leaders and elders as automatic, free superdelegates must, as a matter of democracy, be abandoned midstream?

Sounds like well-executed spin to me.

And the media have swallowed it - hook, line and proverbial sinker.

So, I still don't know about Mr. Obama as a candidate.

But I sure do hope his media/communications team plays a leading role in the Democratic Presidential campaign - whomever the nominee may ultimately prove to be.

Because Mr. Obama's communications team is damned good.

- Garry J. Wise, Toronto

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