Response to Salon Column: The System Makes Sense — Hillary Lost, Get Over it…

The following article, by Sean Wilentz at and dated today, is without a doubt the silliest I have seen in a long time, and I really must comment on it: | If the system made sense, Clinton would be far ahead.

The continuing contest for the Democratic presidential nomination has become a frenzy of debates and proclamations about democracy. Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign has been particularly vociferous in claiming that its candidate stands for a transformative, participatory
new politics. It has vaunted Obama’s narrow lead in the overall popular vote in the primaries to date, as well as in the count of elected delegates, as the definitive will of the party’s rank and file. If, while heeding the party’s rules, the Democratic superdelegates overturn those majorities, Obama’s supporters claim, they will have displayed a cynical contempt for democracy that would tear the party apart.

These arguments might be compelling if Obama’s leads were not so reliant on certain eccentricities in the current Democratic nominating process, as well as on some blatantly anti-democratic maneuvers by the Obama campaign. Obama’s advantage hinges on a system that, whatever the actual intentions behind it, seems custom-made to hobble Democratic chances in the fall. It depends on ignoring one of the central principles of American electoral politics, one that will be operative on a state-by-state basis this November, which is that the winner takes all. If the Democrats ran their nominating process the way we run our general elections, Sen. Hillary Clinton would have a commanding lead in the delegate count, one that will only grow more commanding after the next round of primaries, and all questions about which of the two Democratic contenders is more electable would be moot.

Good lord, where do I start?

How about with the fact that both Democratic candidates are running in a primary right now, to determine which of them will become their party’s nominee. It is a wholly separate process, of which primary voting is but a small part. To even attempt to compare the primary process with the general election is absolute, pure silliness. It’s like comparing apples to steak.

But never fear, this argument actually gets dumber, folks…

Unlike the
Republicans, the Democrats in primary states choose their nominee on
the basis of a convoluted system of proportional distribution of
delegates that varies from state to state and that obtains in neither
congressional nor presidential elections.
It is this eccentric system that has given Obama his lead in the
delegate count. If the Democrats heeded the "winner takes all"
democracy that prevails in American politics, and that determines the
president, Clinton would be comfortably in front. In a popular-vote
winner-take-all system, Clinton would now have 1,743 pledged delegates
to Obama’s 1,257. If she splits the 10 remaining contests with Obama,
as seems plausible, with Clinton taking Pennsylvania, West Virginia,
Kentucky, Indiana and Puerto Rico, and Obama winning North Carolina,
South Dakota, Montana, Oregon and Guam, she’d pick up another 364
pledged delegates. She’d have 2,107 before a single superdelegate was
wooed. You need 2,024 to be the Democratic nominee. Game over. No more
blogospheric ranting about Clinton "stealing" the nomination by
kidnapping superdelegates or cutting deals at a brokered convention.


First of all, a proportional system is not at all "convoluted." Most democratic systems are parliamentary in nature, and they use roughly this same "convoluted system" in their main elections. One can argue that the Democratic Party’s primary system is closer to pure democracy than the electoral college, a system that has given us President George W. Bush, even though Al Gore received more votes.

This guy is actually claiming that a system in which Hillary Clinton would already have the nomination wrapped up would be a GOOD THING, despite the fact that she’s received fewer votes, overall, than Barack Obama. There is a very significant reason why primaries are almost NEVER "winner-take-all." In most early primaries, there can be as many as 8-10 candidates, and I’ve seen many candidates win a state primary with 30% of the vote, statewide. How can you give 100% of the delegate slate to a candidate that 70% of the state voted against?

Suppose John Edwards had run far stronger than he had. (and for the record, i wish he had.) If this was a three-way race, it’s quite possible that he and Hillary would have split the vote, and Obama might have gotten 40% of the vote in all 22 Super Tuesday states. Under a really asinine "winner-take-all" scenario, Obama would have had the nomination wrapped up on February 5, even though he only received 35-40% of the vote overall. Boy, that would be some system, wouldn’t it? or worse, what if all three of them canceled each other out, and each got 20-23% of the Mike Gravel snuck in there with 26%? How would you feel about democracy then?

With a proportional system, candidates get what they earn, and smaller
candidates get to throw their support to bigger candidates, and they
build coalitions and such. It’s called democracy, and it works quite
well, as we’re seeing now.

I know this will be hard to believe, but this article continues to get even dumber…

Crucially, Team Obama doesn’t want to count the votes of Michigan and Florida. (And let’s note that in a winner-take-all system, Clinton would still be leading in delegates, 1,430 to 1,257, even without
Michigan and Florida.) Under the existing system, Obama’s current lead
in the popular vote would nearly vanish if the results from Michigan
and Florida were included in the total, and his lead in pledged
delegates would melt almost to nothing. The difference in the popular
vote would fall to 94,005 out of nearly 27 million cast thus far — a
difference of a mere four-tenths of 1 percentage point — and the
difference in delegates would plummet to about 30, out of the 2,024
needed to win. Add those states’ votes to the totals, and take a sober
look at Clinton’s popular-vote victories in virtually all other large
states, and the electoral dynamic changes. She begins to look like the
almost certain nominee.

Apparently, Mr. Wilentz is not aware that the rules regarding Michigan and Florida were decided a long time ago, and all candidates, including Mrs. Clinton, agreed to them. There are many reasons why you can’t include Michigan and Florida’s votes, no matter how painful it may seem to Democrats in those two states. All of the candidates agreed to not spend money or campaign in either state. It was announced that the votes in both states would not count toward choosing delegates, and no delegates have actually been chosen in either state. Now, under those circumstances, how can you argue for counting votes in an election in which many voters likely stayed away because the votes wouldn’t count, and in which no one campaigned, and voters only knew about Hillary Clinton? The answer is, you can’t.

I would also point out that, even in a race in which no one campaigned, and Hillary Clinton was the only one on both ballots and who had significant name recognition at the time, she only received 55% of the vote in Michigan, and 50% in Florida. If half the voters in those primaries decided not to vote for her, even without campaigning, what would have happened if Obama had actually campaigned in both states? Isn’t it possible that John Edwards might have made a strong showing in Florida, and actually built some momentum from there? Given the fact that no one campaigned in either state, and Clinton’s was the only name on the ballot in one of them, there is no rationale for counting those votes cannot count, and we cannot seat their delegations. We can only have a re-vote if the states agree to it, or the state party agrees to caucuses.  In other words, there is no fair solution to this for anyone, except to stick by the rules.

If this isn’t bad enough, now Mr. Wilentz then resorts to obfuscation.

The exclusion thus far of these two vital states has come about
because of an arbitrary and catastrophic decision made last year by Howard Dean
and the Democratic National Committee. Two democratic options are
available to clean up the mess: Either relent by including the existing
Michigan and Florida results or hold new primaries there.

Yet in this, as has happened more than once this primary season, the
Obama camp’s reaction has not been to clean up the mess the party has
created, but to benefit from it. Given the original primary outcomes in
Michigan and Florida, Obama has rejected the idea of certifying the
results. Although Obama’s supporters conducted a stealth "uncommitted"
campaign in Michigan after he voluntarily removed his name from the
state ballot, and even though, contrary to DNC directives, his campaign
advertised in Florida,
Clinton still won both states decisively. This leaves open the option
of holding new primaries in both states. National and state party
officials have announced that such revotes could be conducted.

Yet the Obama campaign has stoutly resisted any such revote in
either state. In Michigan, Obama’s supporters thwarted efforts to pass
the legislation necessary to conduct a new primary. In Florida,
campaign lawyers threw monkey wrenches to stop the process cold,
claiming that a revote would somehow violate the Voting Rights Act, and
charging that a proposed mail-in revote would not be "fraud proof."
(Obama himself, it’s important to note, proposed a bill in 2007 to
allow for mail-in voting in federal elections.)

Instead, Obama’s campaign has tendered the startling proposal that
he arbitrarily be allotted half of the votes already cast in Michigan
and Florida. Of course, a large number of these votes — more than a
quarter of a million in Florida alone — were not cast for Obama. He
simply proposes that the party add these votes to his total, as though
they were rightfully his. Saying that votes already cast for other
candidates should go to him is a bold power grab, worthy of the Chicago
machine organizations that claimed the votes of the recently deceased,
their names gleaned from the voting rolls. By any definition of
democracy, those votes do not belong to Obama; nor do they belong to
Hillary Clinton, nor to Howard Dean. They belong to the voters. Obama
can no more lay claim to them legitimately than his supporters can
declare he has won the nomination before the remaining primaries take

Again, where do I start?

There is a bald-faced lie in the above, so I’ll start with that. Obama did NOT advertise in Florida. He was buying national ads, because he was running in half the country at the time, and was trying to save money. The ads were seen in Florida. Big whoop.

The decision by the DNC regarding early-state voting was in no way arbitrary. The chaos that was caused by too many states wanting to be the first primary, and the frenzy over every state wanting to be the "state that decides the nominee" led to an absolutely chaotic situation regarding scheduling and logistics. And the rules were set BEFORE Florida and Michigan decided to break them. Not only that, but Michigan and Florida Democrats had more than enough time to come up with an alternative. If they had demonstrated such an "up yours" attitude regarding this, they could have easily scheduled caucuses, or even a state convention, as an alternative to the primaries. They could have set the primary election as a "beauty contest" and used that as a basis for an alternative plan for choosing delegates. Instead, the rules were set, they broke them, and certain people want them to get away with it, because it’s to their advantage.

Of course, Mr. Wilentz’s math only works if his lame "winner-take-all" idea, which is a dumb idea.

As for his slam against Barack Obama, I would really like to see a quote from anyone with the Obama campaign that has ever said anything close to, "people in Michigan and Florida do not count." Their argument is that they followed the rules, they didn’t campaign, and that the vote as is shouldn’t be valid.

Look, I know it’s sometimes inconvenient to follow the rules, when the most important thing is winning, and the rules keep you from taking shortcuts and winning, despite the results. But one of the purposes of the primary system as it’s developed over the years is to at least try to demonstrate some skills as a politician before you get elected. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama knew all of the rules going in, and they agreed to them. Either one could have actively lobbied to change any rules they thought to be unfair beforehand, and neither one did so. Not liking the result is not a sufficient rationale for asking for a do-over based on different rules.

Speaking of which, check out this whine…

Now consider the delegate count and its connection to the popular vote. In Nevada, Clinton also won a popular majority, despite pressure from union officials on the rank and file attending the caucuses to vote for Obama. Yet Obama claims, on the primary electoral map posted on his official Web site, that he actually won Nevada
— presumably because rules that gave greater weight to rural than
urban votes mean he won a marginal edge in the Byzantine allotment of
the state’s delegates. Why, in deference to the clear-cut Nevada
popular majority, doesn’t Obama cede the majority of the state’s
delegates to Clinton? Because, according to the rules, he’s entitled to
those delegates. But why are the rules suddenly sacrosanct and the
popular vote irrelevant? Might it be because the rules, and not the
popular vote, now benefit Obama? And what about Texas,
another state where Clinton won the popular vote but has not been
awarded the majority of pledged delegates? Once again, for Obama, the
rules are suddenly all-important — because the rules, and not the
popular majority, now favor him.

Obama’s totals thus far have come in great part from state caucuses
nearly as much as from actual primaries. (Eleven out of the 30 states
and other entities he has won held caucuses, not primaries. Washington
held both, as did Texas, where Obama won the caucuses and lost the
popular vote.) Of the two systems, caucuses are by far the less
democratic — which may be why there will be exactly zero caucuses in
this fall’s general election. By excluding voters who cannot attend
during the limited times available, the caucuses skew participation
toward affluent activists and students, and against working people,
mothers and caregivers, and the military. Clinton’s victories, by
contrast, have come overwhelmingly in states with primaries, not
caucuses. Obama is certainly entitled to the delegates he won in the
caucuses. But he can hardly, on that account, claim that he is clearly
the popular favorite.

Actually, yes he can.

There are so many holes in the above argument, it’s hard to comment on all of them, but let’s start with the basic difference between primaries and caucuses. There is actually very little difference, except that caucuses rely more on organizational ability, and the passion for your candidacy. There isn’t really a ton of difference between showing up at your polling place and flicking a switch or touching a screen, and going to a local caucus and raising your hand.

And once again, there’s that whole "rules" thing going in. She knew which states were caucuses, and which were primaries, and she had YEARS to organize and prepare for them, as did Obama.

I would also point out that Texas has a primary/caucus system for a very good reason. Because of Texas law, written by Republicans, primaries are open. That means Republicans can vote in them, and upset the apple cart, so to speak. If voters in one party want to make sure the least popular candidate wins Texas, they can vote in the Democratic Party and do so. So, they allocate 2/3 of the delegates to the primary, and reserve 1/3 to the caucuses, so that only Democrats will choose them. Hillary’s people were complaining about not understanding the Texas rules less than a week before the primary was held.

Texas and Ohio are Hillary Clinton’s ONLY primary wins since Super Tuesday, and they just happen to be the only two open primaries held since John McCain clinched the GOP nomination. Is that coincidence? Possibly. But even with possible Republican interference, Ohio was the only large win. The reason for that is simple; Hillary Clinton’s people blew it. They knew the rules, and they were arrogant enough to believe they had it won, so they prepared for nothing after Super Tuesday. They counted on winning it all there, and being able to sit back and rest for a while.

Obama has won more states, he’s won more votes, he has built more momentum, he has fought the Clinton machine tooth and nail, and he has out-maneuvered Clinton every step of the way. If he gets this nomination, it will be because he earned it. Which makes this next argument (yes, folks; this guy’s not finished!) the silliest of all…

In 2004,
Democrats lost most of the states where Obama’s delegates come from
now. The Democrats are likely to lose most of those states again in
2008, no matter how much his supporters speak of winning crossover
votes. (Idaho and Wyoming, for example, where Obama won caucuses, are not going to vote for either Clinton or
Obama come fall.) Of the remaining states that Obama has won, only one
is a large state with a considerable number of electoral votes — his
home state of Illinois. Clinton has won the popular vote in all of the
other large states — and has done so in primaries, not caucus
decisions. The arithmetic here is simple: Because of the flawed system,
the delegates from the states that Obama has won, many of which vote
strongly Republican, represent far fewer Democratic voters than those
from the states Clinton won.

Finally, there is the disquieting question of acknowledging what
kind of democracy will determine who wins the presidency in 2008.
Strong arguments could be made that, in a thoroughgoing democracy,
voters choose presidents with a direct, plebiscitary system. The
candidate who commands a majority (or, perhaps, a plurality) of the
popular vote nationally wins the election. But, interesting as they
might be as an academic exercise, such musings are irrelevant to the
politics of 2008. We have a winner-take-all system, but it operates on
a state-by-state basis (except in Maine and Nebraska, where it’s
winner-take-all by congressional district). Like it or not, we will
choose the president under the indirect and fractured democracy of the
Electoral College.

Obama has tried to reinforce his democratic bona fides by asserting
his superior electability, and by claiming that Clinton’s supporters
are more likely to back him in November than vice versa. The polls,
however, show otherwise. And even more important, the polling data on
the electoral vote totals show an outcome very different from the one
suggested by Obama. The latest state-by-state figures (as of late March)
updated from SurveyUSA, indicate that if the election were held today,
Clinton would defeat McCain in the Electoral College because of her
lead in big, electoral-vote-rich states such as Florida, Ohio and
Pennsylvania — and McCain would beat Obama.

In the final analysis, though, the fights inside the Democratic
Party aren’t really about either an ideal American democracy or the
American democracy that actually exists. According to the Obama
campaign, democracy is defined as whatever helps Barack Obama win the
Democratic nomination. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a
candidate arguing this way. But everybody should see it for what it is
— not something new or transformative, but one of the oldest ploys in
the playbook of American politics.

Would someone please buy this guy a clue? (Sorry for the cliche, but come on; why do they allow this guy to write about politics? He doesn’t know any!)

Can we please start with the fact that this is not 2004? Any comparisons to 2004 are impossible to make, because this is not 2004. The Republican party is on the skids, the Iraq war is dragging on far longer than it had in 2004, and the economy is tanking. Democrats have a built-in advantage this year that they didn’t have in 2004. (Plus, they’re running against John McCain, which I’ll get to in a later column.)

Here’s the bottom line. Anyone who thinks they can compare the dynamic of the Democratic primary with that of the general election isn’t paying attention. You see, here’s the thing, folks; Democrats are turning out in record numbers, even in "red states" to vote for either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. In November, all of those people will be voting for the Democratic nominee, as will a lot of independents, and possibly many Republicans. They’re completely different animals, and they are not comparable. There is a distinct difference between voting in a race between Obama and Clinton, and either Clinton or Obama vs. John McCain.

You can tell this author is a DLC loyalist, because of his tendency to write off certain states as "unwinnable." That is at the heart of why Hillary Clinton is not going to get the nomination; her people are short-sighted, and they’re not able to see a path to something better. They see the status quo, and nothing else.

People are looking for change, and Hillary Clinton simply isn’t demonstrating that she offers enough. She has put winning above everything else, to the point that she’s willing to change the rules to get a different outcome.

Mark my words, folks, whoever wins the Democratic nomination will become president. But this thinking that says that Barack Obama can’t win, and Hillary can — that’s what’s "convoluted," not the proportional primary system.

By the way, he mentions two states; Idaho and Wyoming. If Obama’s the nominee, he will be within striking distance in both states, and could actually win Idaho with a fairly basic strategy. (The details are too numerous to recount here, but e-mail me if you want to know why…) The loser mentality that says Democrats can’t win certain states is what has kept the Democrats marginal for so long, and that has to go. 

Comments are closed.