These are tough times to be a Democrat. After months of battling through primaries and caucuses, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are practically deadlocked in the race for their party’s presidential nomination. Even though several states are still slated to hold their primaries they aren’t going to ultimately decide who the nominee will be. That decision will be made by 796 "superdelegates" who are party officials who will ultimately select the nominee. Never before has the Democratic party had to rely on these unelected delegates to decide a nomination. This was the year the Democrats were supposed to win back the White House. Now, it looks like the party may implode before they can select a nominee.
To make matters worse, Senator John McCain has already wrapped up the Republican nomination which means he can focus on the general election and raise a boatload of campaign cash.
The question now facing Democrats in how to bring their nomination process to a peaceful end. Unfortunately for them, no one has a good solution.
The Democrats didn’t arrive in this position overnight. Rather, decisions that were made months ago have had a profound effect on the nomination process.
First, the primary schedule was compressed in the hopes that a nominee could be selected quickly. Instead of allowing the primaries to occur over a period of, say, five or six months, they were bunched up together at the front end of the election schedule. So about 75% of the elected delegates have already been chosen but neither candidate can mathematically obtain the magic number to secure the nomination.
Part of the reason the race is so close is because Barack Obama has turned out to be a much more formidable candidate than anyone had imagined. This was supposed to be the year Hillary Clinton would finally get the opportunity to run for the White House. But all through the campaign she’s been struggling to defeat Senator Obama. Her campaign has seemed perpetually off balance as if it was never ready to face such a stiff challenge. It’s also interesting to note that Senator Obama had declared her candidacy before Senator Clinton did which in effect pushed her into the campaign before she really seemed ready to jump into the fray.
Then there’s the problem of Michigan and Florida. Party rules stated that Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina would all vote first (in that order). Both Michigan and Florida wanted to have a bigger role in the nomination process so they moved up their primaries. The Democratic National Committee responded by basically saying they could not seat delegates at the convention since they broke the rules. Now the DNC has a huge problem on its hands. Because the race is so close, they can’t afford to not seat delegations from those two states. However, even the states’ delegations are not large enough to secure the nomination for Senators Clinton or Obama without the intervention of the superdelegates.
There is also the fact that all of the primaries and caucuses apportion delegates among the candidates proportionally based on the percentage of the votes each candidate receives or by congressional district or some similarly convoluted mathematical formula. As a result, a candidate can score a huge win in a primary or caucus (as Senator Obama did yesterday in Mississippi) and yet it can have a negligible effect on the overall delegate count.
So now Democrats find themselves in a thoroughly uncomfortable position. Their nominee will ultimately be selected by the party’s elite, unelected delegates rather than by the millions of voters who turned out in during the primary season. Depending on which way they go, they run the risk of alienating a huge portion of their base. They could potentially disenfranchise millions of voters (particularly if they cannot resolve the Michigan/Florida problem). It’s rather ironic that the same party that since 2000 has routine accused Republicans of disenfranchising voters may do the same to their own base. How they solve these issues in selecting their nominee could mean the difference between a huge victory in November and utter self-destruction.