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An Unconventional Convention?

Friday, February 15th, 2008

Norman J. OrnsteinOf all the wild scenarios spun out for the 2008 presidential campaign, perhaps the least likely was the one we face: a Republican contest that was effectively over the morning after Super Tuesday, and a Democratic cage match that could go on and on and on — all the way to a tumultuous and unpredictable convention in August.

I, for instance, offered an unconventional convention scenario back in July, noting that the uniquely early start (called “front loading”) of the primary process, combined with the compressed schedule, could provide a formula for an extended, pitched battle, with no candidate getting close to a majority after Super Tuesday. But I made it clear that this was more likely to happen on the Republican side, where many plausible candidates were running against one another and none seemed to be getting more than tepid support.

The Democrats, on the other hand, already had a front-running candidate, highly regarded by most Democratic partisans, and an enthusiastic electorate that wanted to pick a nominee and get on with the big battle — ending the Bush era once and for all.

Oops. Wrong again. Despite a near-collapse of his candidacy in the summer, and despite Rush Limbaugh-led opposition from a core group of right-wing nabobs of negativism, John McCain stayed standing as such highly touted candidates as Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson faltered. McCain emerged intact and strong heading into Super Tuesday, won all the big winner-take-all states and nearly swept California as well. McCain will wind up this week with about two-thirds of the delegates needed to clinch a nomination, with his major rival, Mitt Romney, gone from the race and with his new chief opponent, Mike Huckabee, saddled with a narrow, regional base. Already, the core conservative establishment of the party is closing ranks behind McCain.

The Democratic Party’s process, meanwhile, successfully winnowed its field quickly and ruthlessly to two candidates — but is now left, paradoxically, with the most evenly divided, strong and impressive duo in modern history. Their results at this point are eerily similar. When the dust has settled from Super Tuesday, Obama and Clinton will not be far apart in delegates. Despite winning very different kinds of states, their nationwide vote totals on Super Tuesday were virtually identical as well.

So how might the next few weeks and months play out? It turns out that’s a complicated question. Start by considering their bases of support. Clinton has downscale Democratic voters, older voters, women and Latinos. Obama has upscale voters, younger voters and African Americans. Overall, there are more Democrats who are downscale than upscale, more older than younger, more Latino than African American. Advantage Clinton.

Now consider the calendar. The next three weeks have states with caucuses, which favor enthusiastic volunteers and ground organization, such as Nebraska, Washington, Maine and Hawaii, as well as states with substantial African American populations, such as Louisiana, Maryland and Virginia (and the District of Columbia), and states with many colleges and students, such as Wisconsin. Advantage Obama.

But then, on March 4, Democrats choose delegates in two big states with significant working-class voting populations (Ohio) and large numbers of Latinos (Texas). Advantage Clinton.

With a long slog still ahead, money takes on enhanced importance, both to keep large staffs on the payroll while mobilizing volunteer armies and also to advertise nationally and in selected states. Obama raised a mind-boggling $32 million in January, most of it from small donors (including 170,000 new donors in one month alone). Nearly half of Obama’s money has come from donors giving $200 or less. Clinton raised less than half that amount in January, lent her campaign — a la Romney — $5 million from her own pocket and has a majority of her money coming from $1,000-plus donors, most of whom have already given the maximum $2,300 and cannot give more. That means Obama can go back to his donors but Clinton cannot. Advantage — big advantage — Obama.

Now throw in the super delegates. Of the 4,049 total delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Denver, 796 are super delegates — members of the Democratic National Committee, county and state party officials, mayors, governors, state legislators and members of Congress. Unlike the delegates now being divvied up in the primaries and caucuses, super delegates are uncommitted, free to endorse candidates (and to change their endorsement) at any time. Most of them have known the Clintons for years, giving her a natural advantage, and she has already secured endorsements from almost 200 of them, double the number Obama has secured. Advantage Clinton.

But many super delegates from red and purple states are growing increasingly nervous about what will happen if their state and local candidates have to run with Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket; they’re afraid that the deep antipathy toward her on the part of many Republicans will generate a large GOP turnout, threatening their hold on congressional and legislative seats, among others. This helps explain the unlikely endorsement of Obama by Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Govs. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas and Janet Napolitano of Arizona. Many other Democrats from competitive or Republican states are privately expressing concern as well. Opportunity (not yet advantage) Obama.

The handicapping is enough to make anyone dizzy, but it serves to underscore the flat reality: We can weave a scenario in which Obama leaves Clinton reeling by running the table on all the contests between now and March 4, with super delegates deciding to move en masse in his direction to end the division and prepare for the fall. Or we can just as easily create a scenario in which Clinton wins a couple of key states, such as Maryland and Wisconsin, in February, derailing an Obama juggernaut, and then overwhelms him with big victories in Ohio and Texas and leaves him reeling.

But more likely than either of these is that the struggle goes on to Pennsylvania on April 22 and beyond, and to June 3, with the primaries in Montana and South Dakota — and beyond.

In fact, because all the upcoming primaries and caucuses will divide their delegates proportionally by vote (so that neither candidate will walk away with all of a state’s delegates), and because some delegates will remain committed to former Sen. John Edwards or uncommitted, the odds are slim that either Obama or Clinton can win an outright majority going into the convention. There is at least a 50% chance that the battle goes all the way to a suspenseful, multiballot convention in Denver, for the first time since 1952.

Imagine a convention where Clinton’s delegates, with lots of white and Latino women, Latino men and AARP stalwarts, occupy nearly half the convention hall, and Obama’s delegates, with lots of white men, African American men and women, and a ton of youngsters, fill the rest of the seats and aisles. All are intensely focused on winning the nomination, whatever it takes.

Imagine a convention struggling with whether to seat delegations from Florida and Michigan — and if so, whether to re-seat the delegates chosen during last month’s primaries (which were held against Democratic Party rules and have been disqualified as punishment) or, perhaps, to seat delegates chosen during an alternative caucus or state convention to be held in the next few weeks. The former group is filled with would-be Clinton delegates (she won both primaries) — and the rules of the convention will be shaped by a credentials committee chaired by Clinton stalwart Alexis Herman, the former secretary of Labor.

And imagine a convention where there are no bosses, no smoke-filled rooms (or even smoke-free rooms) for party bigwigs to bring their pledges from blocs of delegates to cut a deal. This would be a convention where a spark — perhaps a stirring speech, even from an unexpected source, could ignite an emotional rally, or where a prolonged and bitter deadlock might require a new candidate to resolve things.

Unlike the 1940s or 1950s, delegates are not dominated or controlled by party leaders able to force them to vote as the leader demands; they are free agents formally bound, in most cases, only for the first ballot. But if that vote is inconclusive or deadlocked, events could turn in any of a dozen chaotic directions.

It would thrill every journalist, pundit, political scientist and C-SPAN junkie. And it could turn into an even bigger thrill for one John McCain.

Norman Ornstein is a political scientist, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a member of the Why Tuesday? Board of Directors. This op-ed was originally published in the Los Angeles Times.

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