One race is over

Dateline: 13 February 2008

Just a few weeks ago it looked likely that the Republican race for the White House was going all the way to the Convention. John McCain won nine states on super-Tuesday – but four of them were states where Rudy Giuliani had looked like a winner until he lost in Florida. If four credible candidates had won states this race would be a marathon. Instead John McCain now has a lead that is virtually unchallengeable. He has only one serious opponent and it is much the weakest of his original rivals – Mike Huckabee. Indeed, by the time you read this, Huckabee might well have conceded.

By contrast, the Democratic race is still alive. With only two players this was improbable, but the improbable has happened. Barack Obama won more states, but Hillary Clinton’s wins in New York and California gave her a virtual tie in terms of delegates. Both campaigns continue. With half of the elected delegates now it is hard to imagine either candidate securing the nomination soon. Almost 20% of the delegates at the Democratic Convention are unelected ‘super’ delegates who are not formally bound to any candidate. To have an insuperable lead by the end of the primary campaign in June, one of the candidates needs to do much better than either has done so far.

To be arithmetically secure, Clinton would need to win all the upcoming primaries by margins as big as she won in Arkansas, where her husband was governor. To meet the same hurdle Obama would need to win margins as big as in his best states – Idaho, Kansas and Alaska. All three are sparsely populated states with very few Democrats. It is difficult to see him doing as well in Democratic heartlands like Washington, Maryland, Hawaii or Rhode Island or even in some of the larger red states like Texas and Virginia.

In addition to the 800 votes held by the super-delegates there will be over 300 disputed delegates elected by Florida and Michigan. Both states held their primaries earlier than Party rules allowed and were stripped of their representation as a result. Clinton won both states and now wants the delegations to be seated at the Convention.

Usually, when states are stripped of their representation at conventions, the convention votes to seat the delegates and all is forgiven. But that is because, usually, one candidate has an unassailable lead. If the delegates could actually make the difference between Obama and Clinton, Obama’s supporters are hardly likely to vote to admit them.

But this is hugely problematic. If the Convention votes to exclude two of the largest and closest states it will hardly play well in the general election. How can a party that has declared it doesn’t care what Florida or Michigan think expect to win those states in the election? And how can it win without them?

But if Florida and Michigan are seated the situation is, perhaps, even worse. African Americans are among the most loyal Democratic voters. Without a high black turnout, Democrats cannot expect to win swing states like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Missouri, or, ironically, Florida and Michigan. If the first credible black candidate for President is defeated because the rules were changed at the last minute to favor a white woman, turnout is likely to be problematic.

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