the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2008 March 10


See, the way an election works is, there are two guys, and everybody gets to pick one of the guys, and whichever guy gets picked by the most people, that guy wins. I would not want to call something an election if it did not have that basic format. Allowances can be made if, for example, a multiple-candidate race must go to a runoff. But the Democratic nominating process is not an election; and I would expect the Democrats to be the last persons on Earth to call it so.

It was the Democrats, not eight years ago, who suffered through another farce carelessly called an election. At the end of that process, the Supreme Court decided by one vote that George Bush won Florida by five hundred votes, allowing him to win the Electoral College by four votes, even though Al Gore had won the country by five hundred thousand votes. It was the nationwide popular vote that seemed most like a real election. Everything else was rightly portrayed as a series of cynical maneuvers designed to foist something unpopular on the populace. The party that had refused to accept the plurality victory of a candidate in 1992 was suddenly and stridently insisting on the victory of their own candidate, who only finished second.

Constitutionally, the Democratic Party is free to select its nominee by any process it chooses, down to letting national chairman Howard Dean trade the nomination for a case of beer. The current process seems more democratic than that, but that is not to say that it is democratic. The option most clearly democratic would be a direct vote for candidates, held among registered Democratic voters on a single day, after a national campaign. This is the sort of poll that Barack Obama would not have won even after a year of campaigning. Hillary Clinton would have crushed him. Fortunately for Obama and his enthusiasts, the process is less direct and transparent than that, by far. The nomination is actually determined by a vote of delegates at the Democratic National Convention in August. The delegates are chosen on a state-by-state basis that is remarkable for its inconsistency. In some states only registered Democrats can participate; in other states independents can participate as well. In yet other states, anyone, even registered Republicans, is allowed an equal say in the outcome. Delegates in every state are awarded proportionally, rather than as winner-take-all; but the meaningful proportion is not the statewide tally, but the split in individual congressional districts. Each district has a fixed number of delegates, often determined by Democratic votes in past elections, and therefore not dependent on actual votes this year. Districts have a handful of delegates which are difficult to match to the real proportion of the vote; in districts with an even number of delegates, the most likely outcome is equal delegates for each candidate. Finally, and most importantly, many states hold caucuses instead of primaries. Unlike primaries, which are open all day, held at the usual polling stations, and require a few minutes to complete ― just like real elections ― caucuses involve attending a public meeting for an hour or two, at a fixed time, sometimes under the supervision of untrained and even obviously-biased administrators, with all sorts of social inducements to switch support to another candidate.

It has been argued, including by me, that caucuses, with their low relative turnout, restricted to those with the luxury of a few hours in a given evening, are far less representative of voter sentiment than a straight primary. That seemed an unprovable supposition; but Texas helpfully provided us with an experiment. It held a primary under the sort of rules that you might expect ― each interested voter went to the polls and cast one vote for the Democratic nominee for president. But then it invited all those who had cast a vote to attend a caucus that evening, often in a different place, where they could vote again on the very same question. Here, in stark juxtaposition, was the difference between the two contests. In the primary, nearly three million individuals voted; Clinton outpolled Obama by a hundred thousand votes. In the caucuses, the participation was perhaps a third of the primary. The results, for which actual voter breakdown is not being released, will determine a third of the delegate allocation, and are currently favoring Obama, so much so that his campaign is predicting a strong victory, and is expecting to win more delegates overall in Texas. This despite the fact that he lost the popular vote by four percent.

Clinton has won one caucus state to Obama’s twelve, or thirteen if we eventually count the Texas caucuses. It is worth noting that Clinton won the Nevada caucuses by 51% to 45%, and yet Obama received one more delegate than she did. In four of the caucus states, we have no numbers about voter support, as the state parties will not release the information. We are expected to assume that the winner had majority support among caucus participants in those states; and we are expected to assume that the winner had majority support among general Democratic voters in all of the caucus states. But the example of Nevada and especially Texas disprove the assumption. In fact, as we only have one side-by-side comparison, our only rational assumption is that Obama would have lost a popular vote in all eleven states. This is surely not true, but it is the only assumption with a basis in evidence.

After the preponderance of caucuses, the second major deviation from the national election model is that certain states are privileged to vote first. The first state, in fact, holds caucuses. So candidates spend a year or two campaigning in the first two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, especially in Iowa, and taking those states’ concerns as gospel. This includes the concern that they perpetually be allowed to go first, which is why, when Michigan and Florida moved their primaries up to January, the Democratic National Committee unseated all of their delegates to the national convention. Iowa and New Hampshire should have been similarly disenfranchised under the rules, but unsurprisingly, they have not been.

The advantage of going first is not merely that candidates (and therefore presidents) pander to the very same small audience exclusively for one or two years out of each four, though they do. These states also determine to a great extent what happens in the rest of the race. Two major figures in the national Democratic Party dropped out of the race after poor showings in Iowa this year. The last four candidates in the presidential race were the two Democrats and the two Republicans who won in Iowa and New Hampshire. Candidates with few national prospects have often broken through in Iowa, and the attention received during the campaign and because of a win have made these candidacies serious. Obama himself was far behind in national polls until his Iowa win.

If Obama wants to claim that there is some value to his skillful playing of the game, as undemocratic as it is, then he cannot complain if he loses the nomination through an undemocratic process. “These are the rules”, his people habitually say, “and everyone knew that in the beginning.” I object to the idea that the future of the United States should be determined according to some sort of honor code written by the Democratic National Committee, or that anyone is obligated to adhere to that code. But the rules Obama’s campaign is so fond of also include a provision for superdelegates, nearly eight hundred members of Congress, governors, prominent leaders, and members of the DNC, who are free to support any candidate they choose, by design. If Obama is so good at this game, he should be pleased to compete for superdelegates as intended ― by convincing them as individuals, on his merits. Neither candidate can expect to win at this point without the support of superdelegates; when Obama insists that the superdelegates must not favor Clinton, he is insisting that they must favor him.

Obama is telegraphing his next move. If the superdelegates swing the nomination to Clinton, he and his followers will claim he was robbed. In fact, his public pronouncements on the matter are clearly intended as a warning: the nation will rise up in anger and disgust if you, the superdelegates, deprive our movement of its rightful victory. This is just another example of the warm buttered messianism in the Obama campaign. It exhibits the sense of entitlement that is often charged against Hillary Clinton, which is the common misinterpretation of her frustration and desperation. In truth, Clinton was prepared to compete against normal opponents. She was not prepared to compete against a candidate whom voters and the media have refused to hold to any rational standard. Obama has broad and fervent support. But he is claiming (among others) the mantle of democratic legitimacy. That requires more than people fainting in his presence. It requires numbers.

Obama will certainly win more states. This is the nominating equivalent of the Electoral College, which is beloved of federalists, élitists, and parties dependent on underpopulated rural areas, but not of democrats or Democrats. If we are a united nation, as Obama routinely claims, then shouldn’t votes be counted at large? Also, Clinton has won more primaries, by one, including all of the big primaries except Obama’s home state of Illinois, so Obama’s lead in states is actually a lead in caucuses. Owing largely to that, he will almost certainly win more pledged delegates. But his attempt to use this as a proxy for voter support is deliberately misleading. We know the delegate selection process is convoluted. And besides, we do not need a proxy for voter support. We have the actual head count.

As of this moment, Clinton has actually won more votes than Obama. Admittedly, it is close, and the candidates have traded the lead and will probably do so again. (Interestingly, Clinton and Obama each have nearly six million votes more than John McCain needed to clinch the Republican nomination last week.) Though Obama is basing his moral claim on the lead in states and pledged delegates, he also basing it on the lead in the popular vote. How can this be? He may be estimating votes for the unreleased caucus figures, but primarily it is because he is disregarding the votes in Florida and Michigan. His campaign likes to point out that everyone agreed not to campaign in Florida and Michigan, and that his name was not even on the ballot in the latter.

My feeling about these two votes is clearly forged by my outrage at the Iowa-New Hampshire system, an outrage felt by many in Florida and Michigan, and elsewhere I am sure. Obama’s vigorous defense of the punishment of these states is not to his credit in my eyes. How is disenfranchising voters supposed to make something more democratic? Nor can it help him in the general election. Will a Democrat become president after alienating two populous states, and in particular the fourth-largest state, where five hundred votes can swing an entire election? In this, at least, it is Obama, not Clinton, who is willing to win the nomination even at the price of defeat in the fall. Clinton faithlessly and shrewdly began supporting Michigan and Florida as soon as Iowa and New Hampshire were over. Obama has faithfully and stupidly stuck with Iowa and New Hampshire. He may owe everything to the system, but the first-in-the-nation mafia are friends to no one but themselves.

Florida, with its old people and Hispanics, and Michigan, with its disaffected industrial workers and battered economy, are a demographic match to what Clinton has been winning all along. She’d have won in Florida and Michigan even with a proper campaign and a proper ballot. The size of the “uncommitted” vote in Michigan, and its demographic breakdown in exit polls, demonstrates that Obama and Edwards voters knew to vote for “uncommitted”, rather than voting for Clinton by default as the Obama campaign is implying. We hear that seating the Florida and Michigan delegations would somehow be “unfair” to Barack Obama, as though it were fair to Clinton to banish two of her big states, and as though fairness to either candidate personally outweighs fairness to the many millions of voters outside of Iowa and New Hampshire, which is what Florida and Michigan now represent. Howard Dean and the DNC claim not only that all the candidates knew the rules, but that Florida and Michigan agreed to them. But the only agreement came from the few Florida and Michigan members of the DNC itself. I fail to see how the elected governments of Florida and Michigan are morally bound by such an agreement. I supported those elected governments’ attempts to challenge the system. But sanctioning Florida Democrats is particularly indefensible. In Florida, the state government is controlled by Republicans, and it was their initiative to move the primary forward. While I believe this was intended as a challenge to a corrupt system and not as a partisan move, it would be unfortunate if Florida Republicans were again able to play such a key role in the national fortunes of Democrats.

As to the votes Obama never received in Michigan: under no requirement from the party, Obama (like John Edwards, also in contention at the time) actually removed his name from the ballot in Michigan, in a move that can only be read cynically, as a pander for votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, and as an attempt to delegitimize a Clinton victory in Michigan that was to be expected. Clinton’s two-facedness on the issue is not to be admired, but hypocrisy is a charge that no one in this campaign can unhypocritically make. Obama, for instance, has raised the possibility of withdrawing his pledge to use public financing in the general election ― he realizes now that he can raise tremendous amounts of money, can bury John McCain in television ads, and regrets his earlier promise. In Clinton’s case, she was caught in a difficult situation. Pandering to Iowa and New Hampshire, and endorsing the punishment of Florida and Michigan, was a requirement to win the nomination, as Howard Dean could attest, having suffered in 2004 from the last-minute revelation that he had slagged the caucus system four years earlier. But Clinton alone was being asked to sacrifice highly likely victories in two of the eight largest delegations. She was snookered; but this is not a game that people play for the fun of challenge and victory. This is politics, which people engage in because it is the only way to live in a world of their choosing. To speak of rules in this context is beyond silly.

More compelling, perhaps, is the Obama campaign’s reference to electability. Obama has certain advantages over Clinton in a general election matchup with John McCain; but in all probability he would be the weaker candidate in this year. By November the US economy is expected to be clearly in recession, and it is Clinton who performs better with voters troubled by the economy. I share the analysis that this is because Obama’s strength is his ability to inspire the well-off and the young with vague rhetoric about national unity and new politics, while Clinton’s strength is her ability to reassure working people with her willingness to talk about real issues and her obvious mastery of the details. She will shine in debates against a McCain recently converted to the tax-cut gospel of the GOP, and in countless town halls where she will field questions on voters’ bread-and-butter concerns, and credibly promise to fight for ordinary folk. Obama’s campaign offers high-flown aimless nobility, not down-and-dirty scrapping.

If the superdelegates believe that Barack Obama would be the better president, they should certainly vote for him. If they believe that only he can beat John McCain, and that a Democratic victory is the more important consideration, they should vote for him. I happen to believe neither of those things. I do admit that Obama is superior to Clinton in some respects, as a potential president and a potential candidate; just not in enough respects. In any case, these are arguments for regular voters. Obama can make these arguments to the superdelegates, but only when treating them like regular voters. There is one argument that would never work with regular voters, which is that he is morally entitled to the nomination. He can only make that argument to the superdelegates, and only on the grounds that he has already been chosen by regular voters. This, however, is not true. Barack Obama has had the best fortune I can remember in a campaign, and despite it he is still second in number of votes. If he ends with an ostensible lead in the popular vote it will have been the result of a demonstrably-undemocratic process. The frame story if he is not nominated, obviously, will be that Obama won an election, and the establishment took it away from him. Rubbish. The establishment loves Barack Obama, so much so that they might well give him a presidential nomination as though justice demanded it. But if there is no justice in a system, no justice can come out of it.



Final analysis
2008 June 3

Hillary Clinton finished the primary campaign with a clear lead in the popular vote; as expected, Obama’s campaign claimed to win the popular vote nonetheless. It could not do so with real votes, though; it was forced to make assumptions. The only way for Obama to have “won” the popular vote is if we assume that he would have won all of the uncommitted votes in Michigan, an unwarranted assumption given that several other candidates participated in his cynical ploy to deligitimize Clinton’s expected win, and if we estimate popular votes in four caucus states based on the delegate assignments, also an unwarranted assumption given the proven lack of correspondence between direct votes and caucus tallies. Of course, some Obama supporters claim he won the popular vote by simply ignoring the Michigan results entirely. But the damage was done in any case; by persuading the media to discount the Florida and Michigan primaries, the Iowa-New Hampshire mafia prevented the influence that early primaries have. Had Clinton entered Super Tuesday having already won two of the largest states, and four of six contests, instead of splitting four small contests evenly with Obama, her momentum would have exceeded his. As it was, the race was portrayed as a tie, before and after, and Obama a dragonslayer merely for keeping pace.

The Democratic National Committee did decide to allow individuals from Florida and Michigan to participate in the national convention; but this is quite different from letting Florida and Michigan (and their voters) participate in the convention and the nominating process. The delegations were for show. Each delegate received half a vote. And the committee awarded Obama all of Michigan’s uncommitted (half-)delegates, and, inexplicably, four of Clinton’s. Thus, though Clinton outpolled uncommitted 55% to 40%, she split delegates with Obama 54% to 46%. This, perhaps, was consistent; Obama’s delegate count was always greater than his popular support.



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