No winner in the delegate contest? Then what?
February 11, 2008 8:38 AM   Subscribe

So what happens if by the time the Democratic convention takes place, neither Obama nor Clinton has the requisite number of delegates to clinch the nomination? (I've done a search on this and can't find a definitive answer).

I will say in my defense I am a (fairly) new US citizen and I don't profess to understand the very strange electoral process here (what's so wrong with the concept of the person that wins the popular vote, wins the election?). But this point doesn't seem to be addressed in any of the political programming. Has it ever happened before, or is it just assumed that someone will get the required number of delegates regardless?
posted by worker_bee to Law & Government (29 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
What would happen is a brokered convention. The wikipedia article and its associated links can explain it far better than I ever could.
posted by Lokheed at 8:41 AM on February 11, 2008

It's kind of a mess right now. Lokheed's link on "brokered conventions" will be helpful. This This LA Times article might be of assistance.

Ostensibly, the super-delegates (the "wild card" delegates who are not required to pledge in advance to any one candidate, and are usually high-ranking Democratic elected officials like state governors) would help make the final decision with their votes at the convention. There would be loads of back-room dealing necessary.

That unfortunately goes against the "power to the people" tone of the Democratic Party, and also leads to bad blood and divisive campaigning. The distaste for a brokered convention is really starting to swell, with many prominent Dems declaring it an unacceptable option. I suspect that if there is no presumptive candidate after March 5, the DNC will engineer another solution.
posted by pineapple at 8:48 AM on February 11, 2008

A brokered convention. I hate to link to the DailyKos, but they had a pretty comprehensive FAQ on delegates yesterday; apparently, there is some concern that the nominating fight may continue until the convention in August, making the superdelegates more and more important.
posted by youarenothere at 8:49 AM on February 11, 2008

It will probably be decided by the superdelegates.
posted by sic at 8:50 AM on February 11, 2008

We haven't seen one of these in decades. It would be interesting to watch (but I fear that not having a decided candidate will put the Dems at a disadvantage in that they won't be able to campaign for the November election until the candidate is decided).

I'm more concerned about the role of the super delegates at the convention.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 8:52 AM on February 11, 2008

It hasn't happened in either party in my memory (and I've been paying attention to the conventions since 1964) but in theory if no one has a majority of votes on the first ballot, subsequent ballots will be taken at the convention until someone wins. As far as I know, committed delegates are only pledged to vote for their candidate on the first ballot.

The "superdelegates" are a relatively new thing that will probably determine who gets the nomination before the first ballot is taken. They are not required to vote for anyone since they were not elected to be pledged delegates in the caucusses or primaries.

In 1968, when I worked on the McCarthy campaign in Massachusetts when I was 16, we spent the summer writing letters to our state delegates asking them to vote for McCarthy on the second ballot - they were all committed to him on the first ballot only.
posted by thomas144 at 8:56 AM on February 11, 2008

Since "both of them" includes the eventual candidate, how can this be bad for their chances?

Although it'd be nice if the extra debate resulted in the candidates fleshing out their broad ideas and providing more detail, the history of US politics says that won't happen. Obama and Clinton will more likely go negative on each other. Several months of them sniping back and forth with quotes taken out of context and attack ads can only help the Republicans.
posted by COD at 9:05 AM on February 11, 2008

The superdelegate situation will be bad.

But the real clusterfuck, if it stays this close to the end, will be the fight over Michigan and Florida. Both were stripped of their delegates because they moved their primaries up early in the year in defiance of the DNC rules. Nobody really cared because it was assumed that when the convention was held there would be a clear winner and so a vote would be held at the convention and unanimous consent would allow MI and FL to seat their delegates. Everybody wins.

But if it is this close, those delegates could swing the nomination... and Clinton won both states handily. In Michigan, a state where Obama would do well, he wasn't even on the ballot! So he will fight tooth, nail, and claw to prevent those delegates from being seated. But keeping their delegates from being seated would be a huge slap in the face to the single most important swing state in the next election, Florida.

The democratic party does not want to see a bitter fight over seating the Michigan and Florida delegations. So what to do?

One option is to hold new, DNC-sanctioned votes and seat those delegates. But the states won't pay for it since they already paid for the last primaries. And Michigan already certified their delegations. And a DNC-paid-for event would be a caucus not a primary, and Obama kicks ass in caucuses. He's 10-1 at caucuses. So Clinton will never agree to hold caucuses in Michigan in Florida.

Oh, did I mention that the DNC pushed the convention all the way back to August 25th-28th this election? Because you get a bump and tons of free media out of the convention and it was assumed that everybody would know who the nominee would be, so holding the actual coronation until as late as possible would be the best tactic. But instead we could go to the end of August without knowing who the democratic nominee is with Obama and Clinton spending all their cash fighting eachother while all the while John McCain is raising money and campaigning against them.

posted by Justinian at 9:06 AM on February 11, 2008 [7 favorites]

Here is a detailed NYTimes article about how both Obama and Clinton are wooing superdelegates, in the expectation that their votes will be critical.

To give a sense of how up in the air this all is:

The superdelegates include all Democratic governors and members of Congress, as well as officials and other prominent members of the party. In interviews, some said they were grappling with how to use their power if it comes into play, especially if their judgment does not match the will of a majority of voters.

Should they ratify the decision by regular delegates and vote for the candidate who is ahead in June, no matter how small the lead? Are they obligated to follow the vote of their constituents in primaries or caucuses? Or should they simply follow their conscience and vote for whoever they think is the best nominee?

Personally I find the idea that the nomination might be decided by the personal connections between superdelagates and big-name supporters of the nominees kind of repellent and undemocratic, but that's the way the system is set up, for better or worse.
posted by Forktine at 9:13 AM on February 11, 2008

Mod note: a few comments removed - please do NOT turn this into a debate on the merits of either candidate or other candidates, thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:26 AM on February 11, 2008

What's kinda wack about all this - and correct me if I'm wrong - is... none of this internal party-wrangling stuff, and delegates and what not, has really anything to do with any kind of federal electioning law, right? I mean, there's nothing to stop the Democratic party, right now, from just sitting down internally and going "ok, well, Clinton? Obama? Um, sorry, we don't want either of you running, so we're gonna go with Mr. Stay-Puft, here." I mean, no matter what any citizen, delegate, etc, voted in the primaries, isn't it all just peoples' opinions delivered to the party?

As I understand it, primary voting as it exists in the U.S. is just a service that for some reason the government provides to the major parties, but has nothing to do with law of any kind.
posted by bitterkitten at 9:32 AM on February 11, 2008

In regards to Michigan and Florida: on meet the press this past weekend someone mentioned that their delegates might be split up according to the proportion of the national totals (in effect nullifying their primaries).

And remember that it was these states who disenfranchised their own voters by having their primaries early.
posted by goethean at 9:45 AM on February 11, 2008

I'm going to guess/hope that whoever has the lead in regular delegates going into the convention will get the nomination, and the other candidate would step aside. Anything besides that could be a disaster for the party.
posted by alkupe at 9:49 AM on February 11, 2008

I saw a quote from Howard Dean (Democratic party chairman) recently saying that if it gets to April and there's still no presumptive nominee, then they would get the candidates together and work something out because they can't afford a brokered convention. But what is Howard Dean going to do? Sit Obama and Clinton down together and say "One of you has to be the nominee. Now talk amongst yourselves and decide who it's going to be."?

I predict this will not work. Right now it looks like Obama will have the lead in pledged delegates at the convention, not counting Michigan, Florida or the superdelegates. But those will not be enough to constitute a majority of all delegates. A fight will ensue over Florida, Michigan and the superdelegates. What happens next is anyone's guess.
posted by Dec One at 10:12 AM on February 11, 2008

Wikipedia actually has quick summaries of the nominating contests for many presidential elections. Look back at 1956, 1952 or earlier for nominating conventions that went multiple ballots. They weren't unusual back then.
posted by gimonca at 10:24 AM on February 11, 2008

Since, the nomination for the Democratic candidate is really just an internal party decision, it's off the mark to call the process undemocratic. This is not an election, but a nomination. There is a big difference.
posted by oddman at 10:29 AM on February 11, 2008

it's off the mark to call the process undemocratic

No it's not. The process is undemocratic. The fact that it's an internal party decision doesn't change that. It just means that you have no redress if the party fouls things up.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 10:47 AM on February 11, 2008

you have no redress if the party fouls things up.

Well, you could vote for the other party's nominee in the general election. Or you could vote for a third-party candidate. In fact, you could even write-in the name of the primary candidate who lost. So could everyone else, and they could elect that person. In theory.
posted by Dec One at 11:03 AM on February 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

A few things to think about regarding superdelegates:

- They can change their votes all the way up to the convention.

- Many of them haven't pledged to one candidate or the other. They are watching the delegate race and in theory will support whoever comes out on top.

- These are elected party leaders and many of them will be up for election this November as well. They are aware of the problems that could arise with their constituents if they back whoever looses the popular vote.*

So, all the doom and gloom scenarios are fun to think about, but if it takes the superdelegates to get one of the candidates over the threshold then I don't really see any reason why they wouldn't mostly go with who ever is already ahead.

*Delegates are one thing, but don't forget the question of popular support. This is a party that was stung badly by proportional representation in 2000. The Democrats, in theory, will heavily mull over their choices if one candidate has a clear majority of the popular vote.

Also, John Edwards is still out there with 26 delegates, which while a tiny number, may also help whoever he decides to endorse.
posted by wfrgms at 11:35 AM on February 11, 2008

This is a bit tangential, but worth pointing out, I think: This year the Democratic Convention is not until the end of August, just 2.5 months before the general election. This scheduling was obviously done in the expectation that there would be a nominee picked out well before the convention, especially when you consider how early the primary campaigns started this cycle. When Howard Dean says that he would attempt to work out some kind of solution to their being no presumptive nominee, he's talking, in part, about the very short time that would be left for a nominee picked at the convention to actually campaign against President-elect Senator McCain. While Dec One is right to be skeptical of Dean's power to control this situation, neither candidate wants to wait until September before campaigning for President, either.
posted by OmieWise at 11:37 AM on February 11, 2008

I was going to post this as a FPP, but will post it here. All three members of the DNC credentials committee, who determine who can be seated ( Florida, Michigan), all served in the Clinton Administration.
posted by Xurando at 11:37 AM on February 11, 2008

But what is Howard Dean going to do? Sit Obama and Clinton down together and say "One of you has to be the nominee. Now talk amongst yourselves and decide who it's going to be."?

No, I think it's more along the lines of "get the superdelegates to commit to one candidate or the other" (along with a bit of "get that Michigan/Florida mess resolved as quickly as possible"). Primaries end on June 3, IIRC. If neither candidate has enough pledged delegates to win the election once those are tallied, superdelegates committing to one candidate or the other shortly thereafter could give us a de facto nominee without having to wait for the convention to roll around.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:07 PM on February 11, 2008

what's so wrong with the concept of the person that wins the popular vote, wins the election?

It doesn't preserve the disproportionate power of certain groups who would have to agree for the system to be changed.
posted by grouse at 1:40 PM on February 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

All three members of the DNC credentials committee, who determine who can be seated ( Florida, Michigan), all served in the Clinton Administration.

Not accurate. The three chairs of the credentials committee served in the Clinton Administration.
posted by Justinian at 2:42 PM on February 11, 2008

it's off the mark to call the process undemocratic
No it's not. The process is undemocratic.

It's a private process, so is by definition undemocratic. This is why, say, the Democratic primary can exclude the input of Republicans. And that's OK. Party politics != government.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:07 PM on February 11, 2008

Justinian: superb analysis/explanation, thank you! I'd mark you Best Answer if it was my question.
posted by Camofrog at 5:51 PM on February 11, 2008

These are elected party leaders

That's not true. Many are *former* elected officials, and many others, including 8 of the top 9 officials of the Democratic National Committee, do not currently hold elected office. They're folks like top Goldman Sachs exec Philip Murphy and longtime party functionary Alice Travis Germond, whose first loyalty, I think it's fair to say, is to the party apparatus rather than any voters.
posted by mediareport at 7:03 PM on February 11, 2008

Urgh, the 2nd part of that 2nd sentence is messed up. I meant to say 6 of the top 9 appear to have not held elected office at all.
posted by mediareport at 7:04 PM on February 11, 2008

Here's a discussion of the legalities involved in possible contests with regard to seating the Florida and Michigan delegation.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 6:56 AM on February 13, 2008

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