Last week’s vote in Pennsylvania was an even worse result for the Democratic party than is widely supposed. Hillary Clinton’s impressive victory will sustsain her campaign through all the remaining presidential primaries, even if Barack Obama bounces back on May 6 in Indiana and North Carolina. At the same time, though, Mr Obama’s campaign did not collapse. Far from it: he made big inroads into the lead that Mrs Clinton once had in the state.
Therein lies the problem. The result in Pennsylvania does not license the party’s “super-delegates” to get behind Mrs Clinton and overrule Mr Obama’s unassailable lead in elected delegates. Pennsylvania was a calamity because it resuscitated Mrs Clinton without coming close to crippling Mr Obama.
Of course, prolonging the ill-tempered battle between Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton hurts the Democrats and helps John McCain, the Republican candidate. For the Democrats, this is bad enough – but it is not the half of it. When this race is over, there will be a loser with ample reason, in either case, to challenge the winner’s legitimacy. The prolonging of the campaign is not the main problem. The greater danger for the Democrats comes at the termination of an exquisitely close race – in a bitterly divisive outcome, whoever prevails, regardless of whether it happens sooner or later.
The root of the problem is not the candidates but the Democrats’ deranged electoral system. The closer the race, the more important it is that the process be beyond reproach: this one is beyond belief. Devising a system better calculated to nurture the loser’s grievances in a close fight would be difficult. And whenever the party has had an opportunity to make the system worse, it has seized it.
Mr Obama has already done enough to win the elected delegate contest, but whatever happens he will also need the votes of unelected super-delegates to secure the nomination. Suppose the super-delegates are concerned (as some are) that Pennsylvania and other results raise questions about Mr Obama’s electability. Suppose they believe that Mrs Clinton has a better chance of winning in November, because she looks stronger in crucial swing states, and has a lock on critical parts of the Democratic base (women, the white working class, the elderly, the relatively uneducated).
If Mr Obama’s campaign fails spectacularly in the coming weeks, the super-delegates can go ahead and award victory to Mrs Clinton without fear of reproach, regardless of Mr Obama’s elected delegate lead. But if his campaign does not collapse, and it shows no signs of doing so, they would have to explain why they overruled the will of ordinary party members. In this scenario, remember, Mr Obama would still lead in national polls, states won, and most or all measures of the popular vote, as well as in elected delegates. If Mr Obama were denied the nomination under these circumstances, the dismay and rage of his supporters would be fearful to contemplate.
But now look at it from the point of view of Mrs Clinton and her supporters. Mr Obama’s lead in elected delegates is an artefact of the same tainted process. If the Democratic party awarded delegates on a winner-takes-all basis, as the Republicans do, Mrs Clinton would be ahead in elected delegates. The often muddled mixture of primaries and caucuses also complicates things. The caucuses have strongly favoured Mr Obama – and that system does, as Mrs Clinton points out, make it more difficult for many party members to register their opinion.
The popular vote, you might think, would give a clear answer, even if nothing else does. Well, that would underestimate the ingenuity Democrats bring to screwing things up. Florida and Michigan were disqualified from the nominating contest for holding their primaries earlier than the party dictated. Their elections, needless to say, went ahead regardless – with neither candidate campaigning in Florida and Mr Obama not even on the ballot in Michigan. Do you include those votes or, as the rules appear to require, disenfranchise two important states? And what about the votes of caucus states, some of which do not even report vote counts, or states that had both caucuses and primaries?
The Democrats came up with a system that, allowing for just some of the permutations, yields 15 different defensible measures of “the popular vote”. On measures that include the votes cast in both Florida and Michigan, Mrs Clinton is now ahead. Unless one of the campaigns implodes, the Democratic nominee is going to be regarded by about half the party as having won the nomination illegitimately. According to recent polls, many Obama supporters would not vote for Mrs Clinton over Mr McCain if she were the nominee, and many Clinton supporters return the compliment. Tempers will cool once the nomination is settled – but there will be defections. Aside from outright vote-switching, this flawed nomination will demoralise the Democrats’ general election campaign. The Republican nominee commands respect: he will be no pushover. The fight, and Mr Obama’s candidacy in particular, have energised and enlarged the Democratic party’s base of support. All that may be for nothing once the winner is declared.
I say “may” because there is one possible way out, one way to redeem this hash of an electoral system. At the party’s urging, Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton could run on the same ticket. With anger mounting on both sides, the idea seems unthinkable. Could either agree to give way to the other? Maybe not, but it would be unwise to rule it out.
Post-Pennsylvania, the notion makes such good sense that even Democrats might get the point.
By Clive Crook, The Financial Times