Friday, March 14, 2008

What to do about Florida and Michigan?

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Personally, I don't know why the U.S. needs 50 states.

Why not just let Florida and Michigan go their own way? Or why not let them go and add, say, D.C. and Puerto Rico to keep the number at 50?

Problem solved. No new flag required.

**********

But seriously.

Right now, in the Democratic presidential race, Florida and Michigan don't count. Or, rather, the results of their primaries don't count. With both states stripped of their delegates to the national convention this summer for breaking party rules and moving up their primaries, there was no campaigning in Florida and Clinton was the only major candidate on the ballot in Michigan. Yes, Clinton "won" both states, but neither vote was legitimate.

So what to do? Sit the delegates or not? And, if so, who won how many?

There are a number of different options being discussed. For example:

-- Nothing would be done. The delegates wouldn't be seated at the convention or at least wouldn't be able to vote. As it is now, the two primaries wouldn't count.

-- The illegitimate results would be made legitimate. In other words, the results would count.

-- There would be do-overs in both states. At some point, perhaps in June, each state would hold another primary.

-- Instead of primaries, the do-overs would be caucuses (see here).

-- The results of the illegitimate Florida primary would count, since all the candidates were on the ballot, but there would be do-over caucuses in Michigan, where Clinton essentially ran against "Uncommitted," not Obama and Edwards (see here).

The first option -- do nothing, don't seat the delegates -- seems unlikely at this point. Given the closeness of the race, the fact that these are two of the biggest states, and what would look like the disenfranchisement of voters in those states, it seems to me that a solution to seat their delegates will need to be worked out. In the end, Florida and Michigan will count.

Now, some sort of do-over is required for Michigan, where the results of its illegitimate primary (Clinton v. Uncommitted) could not be used to allocate delegates. Florida is another matter. The results of its illegitimate primary could be used.

What do the candidates and their campaigns want? For Clinton, primary do-overs in both states would seem to be the preferred option. Although she would likely win Florida by a narrower margin than she "won" the illegitimate primary, she needs to keep the race going as long as possible, with as many boosts as possible, if she is to have any chance of winning it. She has a good shot at winning Pennsylvania on April 22, along with a few of the remaining states (like Indiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia), and a win in Florida along with a possible win in Michigan in June would do just that. Even if Obama retained a lead in pledged delegates by the end of the primary season, Clinton would be able to make the case that she won two more big states and that the superdelegates should put her over the top. Plus, a lot could change between now and then. The longer the race goes, the more likely it is that the Obama campaign weakens or even collapses.

But what about Obama? Here's how The Plank's Josh Patashnik put it: "What's worse for Obama, taking the delegate hit that would result from seating Florida's delegation as is (in the neighborhood of a net 35 delegate loss), or going forward with a revote? The consensus -- which seems right to me -- is that he'd probably lose again, but by a narrower margin, with a delegate loss maybe half that, or less. What's more important -- the delegates or the perception of late momentum?" Tough call. Not just for the Obama campaign, for which a do-over is risky, but for Florida itself, which doesn't seem to know what it wants to do, the party divided over this as over the race generally. Josh thinks that a do-over is the better option for Obama, but fellow Planker Issac Chotiner disagrees: Obama would give up a bigger net loss of delegates if delegates were allocated according to the first (and illegitimate) primary, assuming that a do-over would be closer, but he would prevent Clinton from winning a big state late in the race, which would provide her with momentum, a persuasive argument superdelegate support, and, of course, generally enthusiastic media coverage: "[I]f I were Obama," Issac suggests, "I might rather go into the convention with a 110 delegate lead and Florida a distant memory than with a 130 delegate lead and a slew of bad headlines. Makes sense to me, as long as a fair solution could be found for Michigan.

As Time's Mark Halperin is reporting, though, there is a new plan "under discussion" that would, from Obama's perspective, and from the perspective of Obama supporters such as myself, be far more preferable:

– Michigan’s 156 delegates would be split 50-50 between Clinton and Obama.

– Florida’s existing delegates would be seated at the Denver convention -- but with half a vote each. That would give Clinton a net gain of about 19 elected delegates.

– The two states’ superdelegates would then be able to vote in Denver, likely netting Clinton a few more delegates.

This would avoid the risk involved with holding do-overs, both of which Clinton could win. Clinton's "win" in Florida would be legitimated, but the net loss of delegates for Obama would be cut in half. As for Michigan, Obama could win do-over caucuses there, but a do-over primary would be tough. A 50-50 split would be a suitable compromise. Isaac again: "Call me crazy, but isn't this a fantastic deal for Obama? He puts the Florida and Michigan results behind him, and assures that he goes into the convention with a 125 pledged delegate lead. Moreover, there is no possible Clinton momentum from re-scheduled primaries. What am I missing?"

I don't think he's missing anything. It does indeed seem like a fantastic deal for Obama. The problem is, the Clinton people must know this. Unless this is the only workable solution, the only option other than doing nothing -- and, for Clinton, this would be better than nothing -- why would they agree to it?

More to come, of course. Stay tuned.

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